Just a few years ago the Minnesota baseball team won the Big Ten regular-season title, the Big Ten tournament, earned a #1 seed, hosted a regional, advanced to the Super Regional and was 1 game away from making the College World Series. That was 2018.
In 2019 they were barely over .500. The 2020 season was cut short after an 8-10 start to the season. And then in 2021, the bottom fell out for what has traditionally been a very strong program. The Gophers went 3-31 followed by 16-36 in 2022.
This very proud program has hit some tough times and they are hoping to rebound in 2023 and get back to competing for their 25th regular-season Big Ten title.
The bad news is that 6 of their top 8 hitters from a year ago are no longer with the program and they are also missing their 3 regular starting pitchers from last season. But perhaps there is hope with a strong core of young players that will have ample opportunity to get things back on track for legendary coach John Anderson.
At the plate and in the field the team looks like it will be led by 4 primary returners. There are a couple positions where it will either be a position battle or platooning. And then a couple more positions I really have no idea who will be the likely starters or regular contributors.
I’ll go by position and give what is really my best guess at who we can expect to be playing.
C - I’ll start at Catcher where the duties will likely be split between senior Riley Swenson and redshirt freshman Sam Hunt. Swenson was the primary backup to Casey Stanke last year and he made 12 starts while hitting .319.
Hunt is transferring into the Gopher program after redshirting last year at Vanderbilt. He is a Minnesota native who attended St. Louis Park HS before transferring to IMG Academy for his senior season. After 1 year with the SEC program, he has decided to transfer back to Minnesota and looks like he has a future playing a lot of games at catcher for the Gophers.
1B - This is a position where it is hard to know who will be playing. The most likely scenario, especially early in the season is that Kyle Bjork will be starting here. He started 27 games a year ago covering 1B, 3B or DH. So you may see Bjork as more of a regular starter at different positions, but there does not seem to be a clear 1B starter outside of Bjork.
2B - This position is going to be manned by Brady Counsell. Counsel was a true freshman last year and ended up starting 24 games for the Gophers, locking down 2B and often hitting in the middle of the lineup. He is the son of former MLB player and current Brewers manager, Craig Counsell. And publications tab him as one of the best MLB prospects in the Big Ten.
SS - Shortstop for the Gophers looks to have a number of options. Joe Hauser was getting playing time early in the season, primarily at SS, before getting injured and missing the rest of the season. Hauser began his career at Arizona State (primarily as a pitcher), transferred to Minnesota and he should be back and in the mix at short this spring.
I would suspect that you will also see sophomore, Jake Larson in the mix. He started 11 games last year, playing in 21. But I would also not be surprised to see transfer Ike Mezzenga getting opportunities here. Any of these three could also be seen at DH or another infield spot from time to time.
3B - Jake Perry is your likely starter at this corner. He started 11 games as a true freshman, playing in 25 games and he had a very strong summer playing in the Appalachian League where he hit .347, had 3 HRs and was an All-Start selection for the league. Now as a true sophomore, he is likely the lock to start at 3B for the Gophers.
LF - Junior, Boston Merila was also a regular in the lineup, starting 51 games and finishing 3rd on the team in hitting with a .267 average. He began the year playing 2B but eventually moved to LF to make room for the emerging Brady Counsell. Likely will also be hitting in the middle of the lineup.
CF - Brett Bateman was the team’s regular center fielder and leadoff hitter. He started all 52 games, finishing with a .312 average and had 21 stolen bases. He started 20 games as a true freshman in 2021 and was the only Gopher to start all 52 games as a sophomore. He is a lock to be leadoff and CF for the team’s opener
RF - Finally we get to the position that appears to be the most wide open. Two potential candidates in the OF are both transfers and new to the Gopher program. Josh Fitzgerald began his collegiate career with Kirkwood CC before transferring to Dallas Baptist in 2022 and now comes to the Minnesota program. The junior gets rave reviews as a legit 5-tool player by the coaching staff.
Brady Jurgella comes to the Gophers from Madison College and is pegged as an elite defensive outfielder who may also provide gap power as a lefty.
It is entirely possible to see one of the other names listed above starting at RF and guys being shuffled around. It is really difficult to say at this point.
The Pitching Staff
The bad news is that the Gophers are replacing all three of last year’s regular weekend starters. The good news is that the staff last year was 10th in the Big Ten and had a 6.56 ERA. So there is a lot of room for growth here.
SP - George Klassen - struggled quite a bit in 2022 but that was also his first year back from Tommy John surgery. Now, nearly 2 years removed from the surgery, Klassen is poised to be one of the team’s top starters. D1Baseball.com has Klassen as the number 3 MBL prospect in the Big Ten and multiple sites have him as a top 100 player in the 2023 draft.
SP - Tucker Novotny - Possibly the Saturday starter for the Gophers will Novotny who is a 6’5” lefty and is also on the radar as a likely MLB draft pick. He made 6 appearances and 1 start last year as a true freshman.
P - Sam Malec - Was an All-Star this summer in the Northwoods league and the Gopher sophomore made 10 appearances as a freshman last year.
SP - Ritchie Holetz - An Edina native who spent his first 2 seasons with Nebraska-Omaha before transferring to Minnesota before last season. He made 3 starts a year ago and had 14 total appearances. His 34 innings is one of the most among returners and he should see quite of bit of action for his senior season.
SP - Will Semb - Originally began his career with Iowa before transferring to Minnesota before last season. Semb had a strong summer in the Northwoods league. He made 23 appearances for the Gophers last season and should be in the mix to be the team’s 3rd starter.
SP - Cam Blazek - a new transfer to the Gopher program from New Mexico State where he made 8 starts over the last 2 years. Blazek chose the Gophers for his final season over Michigan State.
P - Sam Claussen - Very possibly could be the team’s closer. Hard to know, but based on some results from the fall schedule, this is what my gut tells me.
P - Ben Shepard - A senior transfer from UMD who has primarily been a starter over his Bulldog’s career. Potentially a weekday starter, but more likely to contribute out of the bullpen for the Gophers.
P - Connor Wietegrefe - Lefty who had a really nice year last year for North Iowa CC and has now transferred to Minnesota where he will be a sophomore and likely?s lefty appeared in 16 games as a freshman last season
P - Noah DeLuga - A junior left who pitched 16 1⁄3 innings last year out of the bullpen.
P - Noah Rooney - A sophomore lefty who threw 21 1⁄3 innings as a true freshman.
So what does this all mean?
I need to be very clear that this is a lot of guesswork to try to figure out who will be playing and where. Gopher baseball previews are not prevalent around the interwebs. This was put together based on playing time from last year, a couple box scores from this fall and then reading the tea leaves a little bit. Bateman in CF and Counsell at 2B are locks, many other positions are pretty solid guesses. But there will surely be some lineup surprises.
So here would be my best guess, with the only certainty being that Bateman will bat leadoff and start at CF.
C - Swenson (SR) /Hunt (FR)
1B - Bjork (JR)
2B - Counsell (SO)
SS - Hauser (SO) / Larson (SO) / Mezzenga (JR)
3B - Perry (SO)
LF - Merila (JR)
CF - Bateman (JR)
RF - Fitzgerald (JR) / Jurgell (JR) - perhaps platooning with depending on if the opponent is a RHP or LHP.
SP - Klassen (SO)
SP - Novotny (SO)
SP - Malec (SO)
SP - Holetz (SR)
P - Claussen (SO)
P - Semb (JR)
P - Blazek (SR)
Often times I would dive deep into what is typically a challenging schedule for this program. And it is a strong schedule. But considering the .221 win percentage the last two seasons...maybe just returning to competency in the Big Ten is what is most important this season.
It all starts in Arizona on Friday as part of the College Baseball Classic.
- FRI - #14 UC Santa Barbara Gouchos
- SAT - #18 Oregon State Beavers
- SUN - #14 UCSB (again)
- MON - New Mexico State
Then they had to Fort Myers to face St. Louis and Milwaukee before coming back to Minnesota and hosting the Cambria College Classic at US Bank Stadium.
- March 3 - Hawaii
- March 4 - #4 Ole Miss
- March 5 - #10 Vanderbilt
And then their regular schedule goes into full sweeing. The only other ranked team on the schedule is #13 Maryland, who they won’t play till much later in the season.
So you can see there are a number of ranked opponents in the early season, but this Gopher squad needs to find some consistency and significant improvement from the last couple seasons.