There is a considerable amount of buzz surrounding Team 153 this season, and for good reason. They are the only Big Ten team to be ranked in the preseason polls by 5 major polls:
- Perfect Game #19
- Baseball America #20
- NCBWA #23
- USA Today #25
- Collegiate Baseball Newspaper #39 (they don’t stick to the traditional 40)
Before continuing, please read Kurt Svoboda’s team preview here.
The name of the game for this season is new production, specifically on the pitching staff. Michigan returns all three primary starters, but Ben Dragani will miss his sophomore season due to injury, so a new arm will need to take those innings, but the weekend 1-2 punch remains. Hard-throwing righty Karl Kauffmann threw 79 innings last year, posting a 3.08 ERA and 1.24 WHIP while collecting a roughly 2:1 strikeout to walk ratio. Lefty Tommy Henry posted very similar numbers, throwing 81.2 innings with a 3.09 ERA and 1.19 WHIP while striking out 77 to walking only 26. I would imagine sophomore Jeff Criswell would take that third starting spot; he led the 2018 squad with 24 appearances out of the bullpen, allowing an insane 2.23 ERA and 1.19 WHIP and a .168 batting average against.
There are loads of promising young arms that will pitch in (pun intended) throughout the long season, specifically during the mid-week games. Sophomore lefty Angelo Smith posted a 1.14 ERA in 23 innings last season, and junior righty Jack Weisenberger has shown promise as a power pitcher, but still needs to refine his command a bit (27 strikeouts in 27.2 innings, but also 22 walks and 3 wild pitches). Freshmen to watch out of the pen: righties Dillon Nowicki and Willie Weiss and lefties Steven Hajjar and Walker Cleveland. Up for grabs are two major bullpen roles; last year’s long reliever/spot starter Jayce Vancena was drafted by the Tigers and closer William Tribucher was drafted by the Rockies. I’m curious who Bakich goes to throughout the season and when those roles are defined (if at all, given the youth of the staff).
The outfield is unbelievably talented, giving Bakich a wealth of options for starters and pinch hitters off the bench. I would imagine the starters would be a combination of Jesse Franklin, Dominic Clementi, and Jordon Nwogu, but with this talented off a group, being a starter doesn’t necessarily equal ‘better’ than anyone else.
- Clementi led the Big Ten in batting average (.368), and led Michigan in OPS (1.059) and on-base percentage (.485). He will likely be the table setter and the motor of the offense like Jonathan Engelmann was last year (he was drafted by the Twins in June).
- Franklin was a unanimous All-Big Ten Freshman selection as well as a second-team Freshman All American selection by Perfect Game, D1 Baseball, Baseball America, and NCBWA. He led the team in home runs and RBI.
- Nwogu was also an All-Big Ten Freshman selection and Second Team All Conference in 2018. He was named First Team Freshman All America by Collegiate Baseball News. He was top five on the team in almost every offensive category, slashing .349/.442/.571 (wow).
- Junior Christian Bullock slashed .266/.326/.351 and stole 18 bases in 23 attempts in 44 starts last year. In the rare event he doesn’t start, he will often be the first off the bench.
Senior Miles Lewis fought some injuries last season and saw a dip in production, but he will be another valuable bat in the lineup.
On the infield, we get the last go around of program legend Ako Thomas, who slashed .272/.371/.328 and stole 15 bases in 17 tries. The undeniable leader and heart of the team, Thomas’s average fell a bit last season, but if your on-base is .371 (and still a hundred points above the batting average), I’ll take that seven days a week and twice on Sunday. Fellow seniors Jimmy Kerr, Blake Nelson, and Matthew Schmidt will bring many veteran at-bats to the lineup, bringing along sophomore Jack Blomgren, who started all 52 games last season and posted a .352 on-base percentage. Freshmen Jack Van Remortel and Riley Bertram have bright futures but might not necessarily start day 1.
Photo: Daryl Marschke
Behind the plate, Harrison Salter will pick up most of the work after Brock Keener graduated. Marcus Chavez started 12 games last year but is not listed on the roster this season and unfortunately any research that I did proved fruitless. Salter brings a little more pop with the bat but a little less consistency than Keener; a higher slugging percentage but a much lower on-base percentage. As always, a catcher’s true job is handling the pitching staff, but finding a catcher to match Harrison Wenson’s output a few years ago has proven extremely difficult.
Michigan’s schedule is not extremely challenging to open the season, with 3-game series against Binghamton, The Citadel, and Cal State Northridge. Single games against Long Beach State and UC Irvine will be an excellent barometer of where this young team is and what they are capable of. In the Dodgertown Classic, Michigan plays UCLA, USC, and Oklahoma State and then comes home to Ann Arbor for their home opener against Manhattan and Western Michigan. Michigan then takes a national tour, facing Texas Tech and Stetson in Lubbock and then hosting San Jose State before the conference slate begins.
In conference, Michigan misses Illinois and Iowa, who gave them fits last season. Also absent is punching bag Penn State, which would have been a useful three game series considering Michigan has to travel to Maryland, Nebraska, and Ohio State for 3-game sets. The road schedule is brutal, and the home schedule isn’t much better; reigning conference champ Minnesota comes to town shortly after a home-and-home with MSU, as do Rutgers and Northwestern, and then the final home series against Indiana. Michigan catches some of the best programs this season, but the non-conference schedule should make for some safe wins that will boost the record.
It will be an uphill climb for Michigan this season given the difficulty of the conference schedule, and what compounds that difficulty is the youth of the squad. Aside from the weekend starters and the outfield, there are a lot of question marks around some very important roles (like closer and catcher), but Bakich has proven that he knows how to work a pitching staff to get the most out of them. This feels like the year before The Year, which is too bad for one of my all-time favorites Ako Thomas; he deserves at least another trip to the regional round, but it’s just too hard to say at this point. There are so many solid pieces at the top of the order, but the production after that last year wasn’t all that promising and the alternative is relying on freshmen (I mean, it worked fine last year). I can talk myself into 30 wins as easily as I can into 45 wins. One thing I do know for sure: the season can’t get here soon enough, because this team will be fun to watch.
Photo Credit: Natsume Ono, Michigan Daily