Team 152 is in a similar situation as our favorite college football team was during the 2016 offseason. From a wide overview, it was an immensely successful season but an ultimately disappointing finish and a massive amount of talent sought out professional contracts. For the football team, 10 wins in Year Two of Harbaugh and a bad spot away from the conference championship game (#JTWasShort) and a so-close-but-no-cigar effort against Florida State in the Orange Bowl, and then 11 different players were signed to NFL contracts. For the baseball team, a hot start and a defining sweep of Oklahoma led to a 42-win season (their first 40-win season since 2008) but an early exit in the Big Ten tournament and getting swept out of the regional round left a bitter taste of unfinished business in our mouths. Then 11 players of their own were drafted in June’s first-year player draft, the most of any school in NCAA baseball (unheard of for a Big Ten school).
After the frustrating high of the 2016 football team was an even more frustrating low 2017, but the baseball team is set up to avoid that dip. Coach Bakich and a few new assistant coaches pulled in the 10th ranked recruiting class in the country according to Collegiate Baseball Newspaper; the highest by a wide margin in the Big Ten for the year and the best by any Big Ten school in history. Read the 2018 season preview from Michigan’s own Katie Gwinn Hewitt here.
As for mine:
Bakich has had immense success recruiting transfers from junior colleges. It started with Matt Ramsay from Wofford and Michael Brdar from Diablo Valley College in 2016, and North Dakota transfer Miles Lewis in 2017 continued the trend. There are two new JUCO transfers on this roster that should both contribute as well as 13 other freshmen stretching from Los Angeles to Seattle to Ann Arbor Pioneer. Read more about the newcomers from Hewitt here, there, and everywhere.
- The team will live and die by second baseman Ako Thomas, who was named first team All Conference a year ago after leading the conference in batting average. He is the baseball team’s Mo Hurst or Mike McCray; one of the few returning starters and upperclassmen, and was named 3rd Team Preseason All-American by the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association.
- Rounding out the infield is a bit of a crapshoot based on who will start. Aside from Michael Brdar (who is back with the team as an assistant), every other infield starter is playing professionally: Drew Lugbauer (third base), Harrison Wenson (catcher), and Jake Bivens (first base).
- If I were to guess, Brock Keener will catch, Hector Gutierrez (granted a medical redshirt last year and is back for 2018) will start at short, JUCO transfer Matthew Schmidt will play third, and freshman Danny Zimmerman will play first. Returning subs Joe Pace and Jimmy Kerr can fill in almost anywhere on the infield as well.
- The infield is very deep, specifically at catcher. Marcus Chavez and Harrison Salter both redshirted, and freshman Joe Donovan will likely do the same for the year. Fellow JUCO transfer Blake Nelson can help out in middle infield and freshmen Zack Semler, Logan Pollack, and Jack Blomgren will get some time, too.
- This outfield will be one of the best in the conference, with two returning starters and a third returning sub. In left, Miles Lewis started all 59 games last season and slashes .296/.381/.384 with 19 steals to boot. In center, junior Jonathan Engelmann will likely lead off with his .341 OBP and 11 steals in 12 attempts from last season, and right field is the only spot up for grabs, but it will likely go to either sophomore Dominic Clementi (9 hits in 22 at-bats across 18 appearances in 2017) or sophomore Christian Bullock.
- The reserves look equally as promising. Three other freshmen fill out the roster slots; Cameron Tomaiko, Jesse Franklin, a Mariners’ draft pick and Washington state’s Gatorade Player of the Year but enrolled at Michigan anyway (he hit nearly .600 his senior year), and Jordan Nwogu, 2016 All-State in Michigan, could be really special down the road.
- The pitching will essentially start from scratch this year, with three of last year’s four starters drafted (Jaskie, Nutof, Hendrickson). Senior RHP Alec Rennard will likely take the ball on Opening Day, with wonder sophomores Karl Kauffmann and Jack Weisenberger second and third in the rotation. I can also see senior Jayce Vancena making the jump to starting after being the most used non-starter a year ago, throwing 39 innings and posting a very solid 3.00 ERA.
- In relief, junior Will Tribucher will be the first name called (or last, see next bullet point). In 22 appearances and 37.2 innings in 2017, the lefty struck out 43 batters and only allowed 11 earned runs. Upperclassmen RHP Troy Miller and LHP Austin Batka will see an uptick and appearances, as will returners RHP Joe Bredeson, LHP Tommy Henry, and LHP Ben Keizer.
- The closer role is up for grabs with both Jackson Lamb and Bryan Pall graduated. Tribucher and Henry were the only other players on staff that recorded a save last season, so one of them very well could come on late as well.
It feels easier than last year, and last year’s team still plowed their way to 42 wins. The beginning of the season brings some tricky tournaments as always, primarily highlighted by University of San Diego, San Diego State, and Stanford early on. After that, Michigan visits Lipscomb again before opening Big Ten play.
In conference play, Michigan got a pretty solid draw. They do not have Ohio State (down year in 2017 but always a tough win given the rivalry), Minnesota (36-21 a year ago and led the conference in just about every offensive category), Indiana (34-24-2 last year), or Nebraska (35-22 last year; the odds-on favorite to win the conference) on the schedule this year. They do have Michigan State four times (two home, two away), against whom they went 3-1 last year, Maryland (38-23 last year, always tough), Iowa (39-22 in 2017, and loses All-Conference slugger Jake Adams), and then Penn State, Illinois, Purdue, Northwestern, and Rutgers. Of that final group, only Purdue finished above .500 overall at 29-27. Michigan went 16-8 in conference play last season; I expect them to win closer to 18 or 19 games between the opponents and road trip schedule.
What’s missing from the schedule is that mid-season defining series, like Oklahoma last year and Oklahoma State a year before that. They do host Delaware for a four game series at the end of March but that isn’t the same level of competition nor marquee branding among NCAA baseball as last year. Similarly, Michigan does not see Notre Dame this year, which is always an entertaining matchup, even though Team 151 dropped last year’s mid-week game. There are plenty of MAC schools; Michigan went 9-2 against MAC teams a year ago and should post a similar, if not better record this year. Those wins are crucial for confidence, development, resting starting pitchers, and simply putting up better numbers in the win column.
I predicted Michigan to top out at 40 wins last season; I did not think they were going to sweep Oklahoma nor take games away from USC and UCLA (very impressive). Given the nature of the schedule this year, I think they can rip off 45 wins with ease, but there are a lot of question marks, specifically at the infield positions. Losing 11 players is never easy, especially in baseball when a collegiate team can only carry 35 players, but Michigan lost gobs of production.
- The team hit 36 home runs last year. They return 4 players who combined for 5.
- The team collected 802 total bases last year. They return 274 of those (212 between Engelmann, Thomas, and Lewis).
- The team stole 125 bases last year. They return 58 of steals (53 between Engelmann, Thomas, and Lewis).
- The pitching staff struck out 562 batters last year. They return 215 of those strikeouts.
- The pitching staff threw 533.1 innings last season. They return 220 of those innings.
I think the attrition will be greater than the football team’s, but the team can ease into the season with a 3-game series against Army in Florida, who finished 28-28 a year ago (and without getting too complex, the impact of a freshman on the baseball field is very different from the impact of a freshman on the football field). Bakich and company absolutely recruited their tails off this offseason, and they have another strong class (arguably better class) coming in the fall.
There will inevitably be some growing pains, specifically at shortstop at catcher, but the top of the lineup is just so good. Just stupid good. Either Thomas or Engelmann will lead off and Miles Lewis will be the RBI man. Last year, Michigan had the luxury of having Drew Lugbauer (12 dingers, 60 RBI, and a .518 slugging percentage) and Harrison Wenson (9 taters, 72 ducks) hitting 3-4. Lewis will likely slide to the 3-spot and someone will have assume the role of power hitter or more traditional clean-up hitter. Who that will be remains to be seen, but I would guess either Jimmy Kerr or Danny Zimmerman (I’m real big on Zim, guys). Don’t sleep on Jordan Nwogu as a pinch hitter or weekend DH either.
Before you stop reading and continue to your next link, let me tell you that you should take every chance you get to appreciate Ako Thomas. He is an incredible hitter, defender, and base stealer, and his future is extremely bright. This is likely his final season at Michigan and he has the chance to be a program legend. Get out and see a game in person any chance you get.
This is just so exciting. There is a lot riding on the youth of the team, but the coaching staff has proven that they can get the most out of both youngsters (even though they are often brought along slowly) and transfers. There will be lots of new faces to learn, but man oh man is this team talented. Don’t be surprised if they can make a run past the regional tournament.
Team 152, the floor is yours. Let’s make some history.
Photo credit: Bill Getschman aka me