February 20, 2008

Gopher Baseball - 2008

Gopher baseball does not get the recognition it deserves in this market. They are a classic example of how U of M programs can get left in the shadow of the four major pro teams in this market. But what coach John Anderson has quietly done is maintain what has been consistently a Big Ten power for decades. The fact that the Gophers have been a participant in the Big Ten Championship game for seven consecutive seasons is incredible. Even after seasons finishing 6th or 4th, they still manage to make their way into the championship game every year.

After a 41 win season the Gophers are looking to continue to keep pace in the Big Ten. Michigan is the unanimous favorite to win the conference. After that Minnesota will be one of the teams battling for second.

The Gophers return the bulk of their infield and much of their starting pitching. What they lost was most of their OF, 1B, C and their bullpen. Here is an educated guess at the lineup.

Position Players - the line up consists of 3 rock solid players who will vie for All Big Ten awards (SS, 3B, CF), 2 experienced seniors (C, 2B) and then a handful of position battles with question marks.

C - Jeff DeSmidt (Sr) - made 27 starts last season while backing up senior Kevin Carlson. DeSmidt will be a solid back stop, Kyle Knudson should get plenty of time as well spelling DeSmidt.

1B - Tom Steidl (Sr) - this position will be a battle between Steidl and Joe Maciej (Sr). Both players played sparingly last season. As last season ended this position looked to be in good hands with junior Bryan Jost expected back, but he was drafted by the Cubs and is no longer a Golden Gopher. Maciej was a successful hitter in his first couple seasons, but was given only 11 at bats as a junior. Neither player should get Gopher Nation too excited but it will be manned by experience.

2B - Jeremy Chlan (Sr) - very good fielder who adds speed when he gets on base. Chlan had a game winning RBI in the Big Ten tournament last season sending the Gophers to the championship game.

SS - Derek McCallum (So) - played 2B primarily as a freshman but moves to SS with the departure of Dan Lyons. McCallum batted .340 as a freshman and will be one of the key players for this year's Gophers.

3B - Nate Hanson (Jr) - Hanson (pictured right) is probably the Gopher's best player and a returning All Big Ten player. As a sophomore Hanson hit .330, 10 HRs, 50 RBIs. The 10 HRs was the most by a Gopher since 2004, he will be a starter in nearly every game batting cleanup.

CF - Matt Nohelty (Jr) - leadoff hitter, very good fielder and is an anchor on this team (along with Hanson and McCallum). Nohelty batted .367 as leadoff and led the team with 24 stolen bases.

LF - Jeff Engle (Sr) - this will be another position battle, but Engle is the likely candidate. Engle transfered from Iowa and took a redshirt year last season because of the glut of talented outfielders we had. Started 24 games as a junior at Iowa and batted .352 in Big Ten games. Engle could be a difference maker who moves the Gophers from 3rd or 4th best in the Big Ten to the clear #2. If anyone takes at bats from Engle it will be Eric Decker (yes the WR) who is giving baseball a shot this year. Decker could end up playing in the field while Engle gets at bats as DH.

RF - Michael Kvasnicka (Fr) - Player of the Year in Minnesota last year and is listed as physically capable of playing right away. Kvasnicka could get at bats as catcher or DH as well.

DH - Jon Hummel (Jr) - Hummell has not seen a lot of at bats in his first two season but gophersports.com says he has good power and is capable of playing 1B or 3B. In my opinion Hummel is another key player who could make or break this season.

Pitchers - Minnesota will give the ball to a group of experienced and talented starters, but will have to rely on youth to replace nearly all of their relief pitching staff.

Starter #1 - Dustin Brabender (Sr) - got better as his junior season wore on and gives the Gophers a solid starter to lead the rotation. 5-2 last year, 1st in innings pitched and 2nd in strikeouts. Brabender's junior season was highlighted by out dueling San Diego's All-American Brian Matusz in the NCAA Regoinal. That outing saw Brabender walk 1, strike out 5 in 8 shutout innings.

Starter #2 - Tom Buske (Jr) - If Brabender is starter #1 then Buske is #1-a. Buske gives the Gophers another talented and experienced starter at the top of the rotation. 5-2 as a sophomore and led all starters in ERA.

Starter #3 - Kyle Carr (Jr) - the only LHP in the starter group was a closer and one of two reliable relief pitchers as a sophomore and is expected to move to the #3 starter role this year. Last season he picked up his first win against #16 Ole Miss and pitched 2.2 shutout innings to get his second win against #9 Pepperdine. I don't think that moving from RP to SP in college is a huge deal and I expect Carr will be a reliable and viable third starter.

Starter #4 - Tyler Oakes (Jr) - made only 2 starts as a sophomore but finished the season with a 3-2 record. Oakes (the son of pitching coach Todd Oakes) will do his best to hold onto the fourth starting spot.

RP - Chauncey Handran (Jr) - JUCO transfer who should help bring some stability and reliability to the RP staff. Handran was 5-1 last season with a 1.37 ERA and held opponents to a .106 batting average as he helped lead his team to the Junior College World Series. Handran also hit 6 home runs last year in a wood bat league.

RP - Allen Bechstein (So) - 2-0 as a freshman with 26 innings pitched, including four starts. Should Carr or Oakes struggle as a starter Bechstein is the likely next starter.

RP - Phil Isaksson (Fr) - LHP - one of the Gophers top pitching recruits this season and should get a chance to pitch this year. May get a spot start in the non-conference season but will probably see most of his innings out of the bullpen.

RP - Scott Matyas (rFr) - was a dominant high school pitcher earning All State honors for three seasons, after his junior season Matyas had Tommy-John surgery. The hope is that he has regained his arm strength by now and is ready to help the Gophers this season. Matyas could end up seeing time as the closer.

RP - Tim Ryan (rFr) - son of former Twins GM Terry Ryan. Will see innings but not likely to be counted on in most key situations.

Closer - Seth Rosin (Fr) - power pitcher who hits 90 mph and was drafted by the Twins out of high school. Rosin was fortunate to play in the Little League World Series as a 14 year old. But he is my pick to land the closer role as a freshman.

Schedule - as usual the baseball team faces an incredibly tough non-conference schedule (football and basketball should take note). They begin the season on Friday with a three game series against #4 Mississippi. Then next weekend they host the Dairy Queen Classic which brings in #29 Pepperdine, Tulane and TCU all of which were NCAA Tournament teams a year ago. Those are your first 6 games to start the season!

This should be a fun season and one where the Gophers should steadily improve heading into the Big Ten Tournament. Ultimately 2008 might be setting the table for 2009 as we will bring back all major pitchers except 1 and we bring back our 3 best position players along with a year of experience for some talented young position players.

GopherSports.com season preview
Big Ten Hardball season preview
Rivals.com preseason NCAA Tourney projections - Gophers in as 3 seed in UCLA regional
Rivals.com season preview
TNABACG season preview - also gives a good rundown of the key NCAA rule changes



T-Mill said...

How much of an advantage is it for the Gophers to have a place like the Metrodome where they can play home games before anyone else in the conference or the north in general?

GopherNation said...

It is a big advantage, but not as huge as you might think. I heard coach Jon Anderson on the local sports radio saying this has been a great year because for the first time in a long time they have been able to be in the dome every day of practice. In the past they usually have to clear out for monster truck rallies or NCAA tournaments and stuff like that.

I think many of the updated facilities around the Big Ten have adequate indoor facilities, but being able to practice/scrimmage on a full size diamond is significant.

T-Mill said...

That's what I thought. My wife is a Miami grad and big follower of their baseball program. She's not happy about this uniform start date because of how it hurts guys who get drafted. If they go deep in the tournament now they miss out on things like Short season A ball and stuff.