Gopher baseball was coming off an incredibly 2018 season as the 2019 season began. Despite having to replace a large chunk of the everyday lineup, expectations were very high. Turns out that replacing guys like Terrin Vavra, Micah Coffey, Toby Hanson and Luke Petterson was going to be more of a challenge.
The 2019 Gophers hung around .500 in the Big Ten before finishing strong in the regular season and making a really nice run in the Big Ten Tournament. By the end of the season, this squad was improving and playing rather well.
Alas, the team ran out of gas in the Big Ten Tournament losers bracket, falling 8-6 to Ohio State in the semifinals.
Now looking ahead to the 2020 season, I believe there is reason for optimism. I was wary of the high expectations in 2019, but next year could be a very different story.
A quick look at the lineup and who will which spots will need to be replaced in 2020.
- C - Eli Wilson (JR) - only a junior and a key bat in the lineup, the question here is if Wilson decides to head to the minors, assuming he’s drafted next week. I would suspect that his return is unlikely, but would be a huge boost if he does.
- 1B - Cole McDevitt (SR) - will be gone and regular fixture to be replaced
- 2B - Zack Raabe (FR) - the freshman struggled early and was a key part of the team’s late season improvement. Raabe will be a fixture in the Gopher IF for the next two years.
- SS - Jordan Kozicky (JR) - moved positions this year, hit for more power and like Wilson is a key guy to watch for next week’s draft. Kozicky returning will also be a huge boost to the team’s chances in 2020.
- 3B - Jack Wassel (SO) - started 54 games, more than any other Gopher and will be slotted at 3B again next year after his first year of regular playing time.
- CF - Ben Mezzenga (SR) - a long time member of this outfield and fixture atop the lineup. Mezzenga’s position will be a tougher one to fill.
- OF - Riley Smith (SR) - started 44, played in 51 and will need to be replaced as well.
- OF - Easton Bertrand (SO) - the lone regular in the OF who returns. Expect Bertrand to be a corner OF next year.
Others played on a regular basis, but this is largely the regular starting lineup. Eduardo Estrada Jr will graduate and his bat will also be missed.
So that leaves next year’s lineup with a few holes to fill.
- C - (probably)
- SS - (maybe)
The good news is that only 4 or 5 spots need to be filled and there are names behind ready to fill in. Best case scenario, only 3 spots need to be filled. If all 5 are open, then next year looks less exciting.
C - Chase Stanke was a freshman this year who started 12 games , including a start in the Big Ten Tourney when Eli Wilson needed to get a break from catching. Stanke didn’t to much at the plate, but if Wilson goes pro, Stanke should be ready to step into the primary catching role.
1B - this spot is a little less clear. Max Meyer (the pitcher who can also play in the field) is one option to start here. But someone else will also need to step into this role on the days Meyer pitches. Most likely is that there will be some position movement, but this is a spot to be filled.
SS - Jordan Kozicky please? Him staying is best case scenario. Even if he does, he very well could move positions and end up at 1B. But I think this position will be filled.
CF - Drew Hmielewski - the former wide receiver received several starts in CF. He seems like the frontrunner to start at CF in place of Mezzenga.
OF - Andrew Wilhite - freshman who often was in the lineup as a DH and will likely be found in the field as a sophomore. Possibly in the OF or maybe even in the IF.
Then you always have the redshirt freshmen and incoming freshmen who may end up becoming regular contributors. Raabe, Wilhite and Stanke were all regular contributors this year, and don’t be surprised if a couple new names surface next year.
But what about pitching?
Well the good news is that basically all of your pitching returns. Of the five arms who threw 45 innings or more, only 1 was a senior. Nick Lackney was a very good pitcher in the bullpen this year making 20 appearances with a 2.38 ERA. He will be missed. Jake Stevenson and Jeff Fasching were also regulars, mostly out of the bullpen.
But the regular starters and the Gopher’s closer all return.
Max Meyer was an All-Big Ten starter, Patrick Fredrickson will hopefully be healthy and ready to dominate the Big Ten again. If Fredrickson returns to form and Meyer pitches as well next year as he did this year, the Gophers could easily have the best Friday/Saturday starter combo in the Big Ten. Then between Joshua Culliver or Sam Thoreson you have an experienced and talented Sunday starter.
In the bullpen you have some good, young arms to get you to the closer, Brett Schulze.
Short version of what 2020 looks like...
The Gophers have to replace a few guys on offense and some bullpen help on the mound. Every team has to replace guys. This is an annual thing. But the Gophers return a core on offense and their pitching really should be very good.
The main questions heading into next season...
1 - Will Eli Wilson and Jordan Kozicky return?
My gut tells me that Wilson turns pro, Kozicky is back.
2 - Will Patrick Fredrickson return to form?
Hard to say, the answer is probably that he’s better than he was this year but not as good as he was when he was the Big Ten pitcher of the year.
3 - What bats step up?
The Gophers did not have one guy hit over .300 this year after having five guys accomplish that in 2018. Who steps up to be a consistent bat in the lineup?
Personally, I have high expectations for 2020. Gopher baseball is one of the best teams in the metro to follow and watch. I spent far too much time indoors during this beautiful weekend because I was watching them in the Big Ten Tournament. But they are fun to watch.
Congrats to this squad on a fine 2019 season and looking forward to more success next year.