Can you smell baseball in the air yet? No? Well, even if we’re knee-deep in windchills up here in Minnesota, I can assure you that the college baseball season is ready and rearin’ to go. Don’t believe me? The Gophers take on Oregon on Friday, Feb. 14 in their first official game of the year. The season is here.
To level set, Minnesota is coming off a disappointing season. They failed to make the NCAA Tournament last year after getting off to a rough start and failing to win the Big Ten Tournament and secure the auto-bid while falling off the bubble, despite finishing third in the conference. Perhaps they were doomed from the start. With their winter home, US Bank Stadium, undergoing renovations to host the Final Four, Minnesota was forced to play its first 21 (!) games of the season on the road. Not surprisingly, they struggled out of the gate and a better-than-usual Big Ten slate was a lot to handle. Freshman phenom starter Patrick Fredrickson couldn’t recreate the magic in his sophomore campaign, leaving the remainder of the rotation with a heavy load to shoulder.
This year? Things are looking up. Yes, defending national runner-up Michigan sits atop the conference and is the presumptive favorite to repeat as Big Ten champs, and Ohio State is as dangerous as ever. But the Gophers are loaded with pro prospects, including perhaps the conference’s best player in starting pitcher Max Meyer. Picked to finish third in the conference by Baseball America, the Gophers have a realistic path to the NCAA Tournament behind strong starting pitching and young bats that have a ton of promise.
They begin the season with a four-game series in Arizona as part of the Angels College Classic, but then return home to host their first 14 games of the season at home in US Bank Stadium, which is pretty much the opposite of what happened last year.
What to Watch for in 2020:
Power Pitching - Minnesota enters the season with a dominant weekend staff, complete with the best pitcher in the conference in Meyer. Between him, Fredrickson and Sam Thoreson the Gophers have clear Friday, Saturday and Sunday starters, each of whom are listed highly in pro prospect rankings. Baseball America has Meyer as the the top prospect in the conference, with Fredrickson and Thoreson at 12 and 15, respectively. D1Baseball has all three in the top ten.
The Gophers set a program record in strikeouts last year and will look to their starters to carry a lot of the water this season. Meyer has perhaps the best slider in all of amateur baseball, which sits at a ridiculous 89 mph and is nearly unhittable. Fredrickson will look to rebound after a down year and find the magic that gave him so many accolades in 2018. Sophomore pro prospect JP Massey is waiting in the wings and had a great summer while Arizona State transfer Drake Davis, another pro prospect, provides additional depth on the mound for an already stacked rotation.
Max Meyer - Have we said enough about Meyer yet? While he may have been the “secret weapon” last year he enters 2020 as the most important piece of the puzzle for the Gophers. A preseason first team All-American, Meyer is expected to be drafted in the first or second round of the 2020 MLB Draft, which is really exciting. Not only is he a dominant presence on the mound, he is also noted for his offensive game and will add value with his bat as well. He hit in the middle of the Gopher lineup at times last season and was selected to the Baseball America Preseason All-America Team this year as a utility player.
Offensive growth - Senior mashing catcher Eli Wilson and speedster Ben Mezzenga are gone, which leaves a pretty big hole atop the lineup for Minnesota. They’ll need to turn to senior shortstop Jordan Kozicky and junior outfielder Easton Bertrand to carry a lot of the load. Kozicky led the team in homers last season with 11, while Bertand led in slugging percentage, so the results may already be there. Still, in terms of simply getting on base the Gophers were severely lacking in 2019 and lose their top two weapons.
Zack Raabe just might be the guy to fill one of the gaps. The sophomore infielder slashed .271/.337/.316 last season and is coming off a strong, if abbreviated summer in the Northwoods League.
Pitching is king and the Gophers have a ton of it this season. Their season will hinge on Max Meyer successfully making the transition to full-time starter, Patrick Fredrickson resolving some of the issues that pushed him into a sophomore slump, and Thoreson continuing his ascent as a true power pitcher. The floor is high for a team with this much pitching depth, which should put them in a good position to make a run to the NCAA Tournament. Michigan will be difficult to topple, but if the Gophers can survive the non-conference season and escape largely unscathed while holding their own in the Big Ten a postseason bid should be theirs to lose.