Last year’s Gopher baseball team was arguably the most fun program to cover in the 2017-18 academic and sports calendar. The team was projected to finish anywhere between 4th and 6th in the Big Ten. They were returning a huge chunk of offensive production with quite a few questions surrounding their pitching. Those pitching questions were answered in a big way while the offense was as good (or perhaps better) than anticipated.
The result was the program’s 24th Big Ten regular season title and their first ever appearance in a Super Regional. The Gophers hosted a Regional that they won in a couple of fantastic games against UCLA. They took home a truckload of post-season individual awards and overall had a fantastic season. And they were fun to watch.
Moving on to 2019 and the Gophers are the Big Ten favorites, mostly because they won it last year (along with the fact that they win it more than any other Big Ten program). But how good will this team be?
Well, this year they have the opposite problem as a year ago. Pitching is going to be a strength while John Anderson has to replace a lot of production from his lineup. Here’s what we know.
Gone are positional stalwarts Terin Vavra, Tony Hanson, Micah Coffey, Luke Petterson and Alex Boxwell. Just those 5 guys accounted for over 50% of the team’s run production. So who is returning and who will be replacing those guys? Here is what we know.
There are 4 guys returning who were fixtures in last year’s lineup.
OF - Ben Mezzenga - Now a senior, Mezzenga started 50 games last year and was second on the team in batting average. Mezzenga hit .383 batting near the top of the lineup. There’s a good chance that he moves to CF this year and bats leadoff.
C - Eli Wilson - a prime candidate to breakout in his junior year and be one of the best players in the Big Ten. Wilson, son of former Gopher Dan Wilson, was 4th on the team in RBIs and HRs last year while hitting .289 and starting at catcher most of the time. Settled into the cleanup spot in the order last year and I suspect that’s where you’ll see him in tonight’s opener.
SS - Jordan Kozicky - 58 starts out of 59 games last year, mostly in RF. Kozicky his .271 last year after hitting .325 as a freshman. Considering how much was lost in the IF, Kozicky has been moved to SS where he started the season opener.
1B/C - Cole McDevitt - Primarily started at 1B last year but often played catcher. McDevitt also hit .271 but was 2nd on the team with 9 HRs. Also led the team with 40 walks so McDevitt carried a .395 OBP and hit in the middle of the lineup. Expect him to hit 5th or 6th in the lineup again this year.
So that’s who we know. Four guys that are going to be counted on in the lineup and then Coach Anderson needs to fill out the rest of his infield and one outfield spot. This is where the Gophers have questions to be answered. So who will fill out the rest of the lineup?
OF/DH - Max Meyer - this is going to be the secret weapon this year, closer Max Meyer is going to be moving to the plate this year. Last year he was the answer to the Gopher’s closer question and he was outstanding. Meyer was a freshman All-American and dominated out of the bullpen. But it is a little known fact that he came here as a 2-way player and has been working on the offensive and defensive parts of his game. He will in the lineup and potentially that left-handed bat in the heart of the order.
IF/OF/DH - Riley Smith - played in 29 games last year, very well could be a regular starter or at least one of the first guys Anderson turns to off the bench. Smith started game 1 at 2B but he may be seen all around the diamond this year.
3B - Jack Wassel - Seems like a likely candidate to play in the infield after playing in 19 games last year, starting 9 of them as a redshirt freshman. Wassel hit .282 in just 29 at bats, had a good summer playing in the Northwoods League and appears like he’ll be starting.
OF - Drew Hmielewski - The former wide receiver for the football team brings a ton of speed and athleticism to the lineup. Unsure how much he’ll be playing on a regular basis, but he figures to be in the mix. Hmielewski played late in the Gonzaga opener.
OF - Easton Bertrand - Started game one and lit up the box score. Bertrand is a sophomore who played in just 3 games last year.
OF/DH - Edwardo Estrada Jr - Has played off and on throughout his career, now a senior and will likely see time in the lineup.
IF - Jacob Hitz - played in 10 games last year.
Everyone else listed as possible infielders are freshmen. This was a highly ranked recruiting class and there is opportunity for someone to grab some playing time early. One name to note is Zack Raabe is the son of former Gopher All-American & current Bethel head coach, Brian.
This is the exciting part of the 2019 Gophers. Quite a few innings return for the Gopher staff but there are still a few questions. How will Max Meyer and Patrick Fredrickson respond after having a couple outstanding freshmen seasons? Who replaces Reggie Meyer in the rotation? How consistent will guys be from 2018 to 2019?
Friday Starter - Patrick Fredrickson - After dominating as the Saturday starter, I’d be shocked if anyone else were to move into the Friday starter role this year. Fredrickson was one of the best freshman pitchers in the country last year and a huge reason the Gophers were as successful as they were. He’ll need to be that good again.
Saturday Starter - Nick Lackney - I’m taking a guess that Lackney is the middle rotation starter. A 6’4” lefty, the senior started 10 games last year.
Sunday Starter - Jake Stevenson - Also a senior, Stevenson started 8 games a year ago including the regional final against UCLA.
Other starters include Sam Thoreson, a sophomore who appeared in 14 games as a freshman. Also potentially freshman Gus Radel could see action. He is a highly regarded recruit.
Closer - Max Meyer - will also be playing in the field and Meyer is one of the best closers in the Big Ten (perhaps the nation). This position is locked down.
Bullpen - Brett Schulze - Was huge out of the bullpen last year. Appeared 22 times for 51 2⁄3 innings. The junior from Maple Grove was 9-0 last year with a 2.09 ERA.
Bullpen - Jeff Fasching - 14 games played a year ago and posted a 1.90 ERA. Will be one of the primary lefties out of the bullpen.
Pitching is hard to predict, you’ll see those names above on the mound and then who knows who else will contribute. In my 2018 preview I had Fredrickson listed a possible contributor on the mound...turns out he was kind of a big deal.
Always tough and it starts with a bang. The Gophers not only face a very tough schedule but they are on the road a LOT until the Big Ten season starts. Such is the life of a northern baseball team.
Oregon State, Pepperdine, Washington, Long Beach State and a series with Oklahoma at Target Field highlight the non-conference portion of the schedule.
This team is getting a lot of preseason love, but baseball is funny. A guy hits .325 or better one year and hits .270 the next, this is not unusual. Last year there were some significant questions facing the Gophers and all of them were dramatically answered. I feel like this year there are just as many questions, just on the offensive side of things. Are they going to be answered?
This team needs their experienced guys in the lineup to be consistently productive, this team needs someone to step up to be a force in that lineup. This team needs a guy or two whom we’ve never heard of to be a regular contributor. And this team needs a second starter to step up as well.
Will they win the Big Ten again? My cautious prediction is that they won’t get those questions answered quite like they were a year ago. This team will absolutely compete for a Big Ten title, but I’m not convinced they’ll repeat.