Monday, February 13, 2017

Rebuilding a Strip Mall

"Rebuilding", as commonly thrown around in sports discussions, is an interesting term. It inherently implies that something had been built on the same spot previously. It does not, however, give an indication whether what was built there was a blanket fort or the Taj Mahal, a strip mall or the Sears Tower. If one rebuilds on the site of a strip mall, does "re-" imply they are building another strip mall, or might they be building something else?

The baseball program that Greg Beals has presided over for six seasons at The Ohio State University has been much more of a strip mall than a Sears Tower. After his most successful season, which saw OSU tie for third in the Big Ten regular season, win the Big Ten Tournament, and qualify for their first NCAA regional since 2009, Beals is now faced with a rebuilding project in the classic sports sense. Of the nine players with the most PA in 2016, OSU must replace seven, so it would be fair to say that there will be seven new regulars. OSU must also replace two of its three weekend starters; the bullpen is the only area of the roster not decimated by graduation and the draft.

Note: The discussion of potential player roles that follows is my own opinion, informed by my own knowledge of the players and close watching of the program and information released by the SID, particularly the season preview posted here.

Sophomore Jacob Barnwell will almost certainly be the primary catcher; he played sparingly last season (just 29 PA). This is one of the few open positions not due to loss, but rather to a position switch which will be discussed in a moment. Classmate Andrew Fishel (8 PA) will serve as his backup.

First base/DH will be shared by senior Zach Ratcliff, who has flashed power at times during his career but has never earned consistent playing time, and Boo Coolen, a junior Hawaii native who played at Cypress CC in California. Junior Noah McGowan, a transfer from McLennan CC in Texas, would appear to have the inside track at the keystone; his JUCO numbers are impressive but come with obvious caveats. Sophomore Brady Cherry, who got off to a torrid start in 2016 but then cooled precipitously (final line .218/.307/.411 in 143 PA) is likely to play third and bat in the middle of the order. At shortstop, senior captain Jalen Washington moves out from behind the plate to captain the infield; he spent his first two years as a Buckeye as a utility infielder, so it was the move to catcher, not to shortstop that really stands out. Unfortunately, Washington didn’t offer much with the bat as a junior (.249/.331/.343 in 261 PA). Other infield contenders include true freshman shortstop Noah West, redshirt freshman middle infielder Casey Demko, true freshman Conor Pohl at the corners, and redshirt sophomore Nate Romans and redshirt freshman Matt Carpenter in utility roles.

The one thing that appears clear in the outfielder is that junior Tre’ Gantt will take over as center fielder; he struggled offensively last season (.255/.311/.314 in 158 PA). True freshman Dominic Canzone may step in right away in right field, while left field/DH might be split between a pair of transfers. Tyler Cowles, a junior Columbus native who hit well at Sinclair CC in Georgia will attempt to join Coolen and satisfy the Beals’ desperate need for bats with experience and power. Other outfielders include senior former pitcher Shea Murray and little-used redshirt sophomore Ridge Winand.

The pitching staff is slightly more intact, but not much so. Redshirt junior captain Adam Niemeyer will likely be the #1 starter as the only returning weekend starter; his 2016 campaign can be fairly described as average. Sophomore Ryan Feltner was the #4 starter last year and so is a safe bet to pitch on the weekend; his 5.67 eRA was not encouraging but 8 K/3.9 W suggest some raw, harness-able ability. The third spot will apparently go to an erstwhile reliever. Junior Yianni Pavlopoulos was a surprising choice as closer last year, but pitched very well (10.3 K/3.3 W, 3.72 eRA), while senior Jake Post returns from a season wiped out by injury. Neither pitcher has been the picture of health throughout their careers, but Pavlopoulos seems the more likely choice to start. Junior Austin Woodby (7.75 eRA in 39 innings) and sophomore lefty Connor Curlis (six relief innings) will jockey for weekday assignments along with junior JUCO transfer Reece Calvert (a teammate of McGowan) and three true freshmen: lefty Michael McDonough and righties Collin Lollar and Gavin Lyon.

The bullpen will be well-stocked, even assuming Pavlopoulos takes a spot in the rotation. Junior sidearmer Seth Kinker was a workhorse (team-high 38 appearances) and behind departed ace Tanner Tully was arguably Ohio’s most valuable pitcher in 2016. Senior Jake Post will return from a season lost to injury looking to return to a setup role, and junior sidearmer Kyle Michalik pitched well in middle relief last season. These four form a formidable bullpen that will almost certainly be augmented by a lefty specialist, a favorite of Beals. He’ll choose from senior Joe Stoll (twelve unsuccessful appearances), true freshman Andrew Magno, and the favorite in my book is Curlis should be not best Woodby for a starting spot. It appears that sophomore JUCO transfer Thomas Waning (also a sidearmer; one of the few positives about Beals as a coach is his affinity for sidearmers). Other right-handed options for the pen will include junior Dustin Jourdan (a third JUCO transfer from McLennan), sophomore Kent Axcell (making the jump from the club team), and true freshman Jake Vance.

The non-conference schedule is again rather unambitious. The season opens the weekend of February 17 in central Florida with neutral site games against Kansas State (two), Delaware, and Pitt. Two games each against Utah and Oregon State in Arizona will follow as part of the Big Ten/Pac 12 challenge. The Bucks will then play true road series in successive weekends against Campbell and Florida Gulf Coast, then play midweek neutral site games in Port Charlotte, FL against Lehigh and Bucknell. The home schedule opens March 17 with a weekend series against Xavier (the Sunday finale being played in at XU), and the next two weekends see the Buckeyes open Big Ten play by hosting Minnesota and Purdue.

Subsequent weekend series are at Penn State, at Michigan State, home against UNC-Greensboro, home against Nebraska, at the forces of evil, at Iowa, and home against Indiana. Midweek opponents are Youngstown State, OU, Kent State, Cincinnati, Eastern Michigan, Northern Kentucky, Texas Tech (two), Bowling Green, Ball State, and Toledo, all at home, giving OSU 28 scheduled home dates.

Should OSU finish in the top eight in the Big Ten, the Big Ten Tournament is shifting from the recent minor league/MLB/CWS venues (including Huntington Park in Columbus, Target Field, and TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha) to campus sites, although scheduled in advance instead of at the home park of the regular season champ as was the case for many years in the past. This year’s tournament will be in Bloomington, and it speaks to both the volume of players lost and Beals’ uninspiring record that participation in this event should not be taken for granted.

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