Sunday, February 17, 2008

2008 BTH Preview: Michigan

Head Coach: Rich Maloney
2007 record: 42-19; 21-7 in Big Ten (lost in NCAA Super Regionals)
2007 RPI: 35
2008 Projected Big Ten Finish:
Collegiate Baseball - 1st
Rivals - 1st

At The Plate: The Wolverines return five hitters that earned all-conference nods in 2007. DH Zach Putnam (.330/8 HR/59 RBI/.518 slugging %) and Kevin Cislo (.364/40 runs/23 RBI), who moves from second base to centerfield, were both first team All-Big Ten. The second team All-Big Ten performers were 1B Nate Recknagel (.352/12/61/.612 slugging %) and SS Jason Christian (.328/7/44/.520 slugging %) 3B Adam Abraham (.320/5/45) grabbed a third team selection.

Outfielder Derek VanBuskirk didn’t manage a regular season all-conference selection, but did garner an All-Big Ten Tournament Team selection and is Michigan’s leading returning hitter with a .328 average. He also enters 2008 on the Wallace Award watch list along with Putnam. The third outfield spot is a battle between Alan Oaks, whose homerun off of Vanderbilt’s David Price propelled Michigan to the Super-Regionals, and freshman Ryan LaMarre. Sophomore Oaks would appear to be front-runner. LaMarre is a natural centerfielder who some believe was the best high school player in Michigan last season. Both might even get into the lineup at the same time throughout the season.

Leif Mahler returns to the lineup after missing 2007 with an injury. Mahler, formerly a shortstop, will take over at second base. The senior hit .325 in 2006. Behind the plate, Chris Berset will get the first chance to hold down the job. In his freshman campaign, Berset hit .301 with two homers and eighteen RBI in a part-time role. It’s also possible that Recknagel will spend time at catcher.

On The Mound: In addition to being a first-team All-Big Ten pick at DH, Putnam grabbed the same honor as a pitcher. (He’s the first player in Big Ten history to be a first team all-conference selection at two positions in the same season.) The Wolverines Friday starter, Putnam (8-5, 3.87) is the preseason conference player of the year.

On Saturdays, the Wolverines will most likely trot out Mike Wilson (7-1, 3.52), a first team All-Big Ten selection, and Chris Fetter (6-3, 4.71), a third team All-Big Ten pick last year. The fourth spot remains up for grabs. The battle for starting on Sunday is between Eric Katzman (3-2. 5.92) and Matt Gerbe.

The bullpen is a bit of a question for Michigan. Abraham (5-1, 2.97, 2 saves) will probably open the season as the closer, but dependable Mike Powers (3-3, 4.76, 4 saves) and veteran Ben Jensen (2-1, 4.39, 5 saves), both of whom have occupied that role before, are in the mix.

The Schedule: I’m not sure I’d classify it as daunting, but Michigan’s path is not an easy one. Two against Arizona State, a team many, myself included, believe is the top squad in the land. There’s also contests against East Carolina (1) and Coastal Carolina (2). On the Big Ten portion of the slate, Michigan opens the renovated Ray Fisher Stadium against Iowa. Also appearing in Ann Arbor are Ohio State, Northwestern and Michigan State (2 games). The road includes trips to Penn State, Indiana, Michigan State (2 games) and Minnesota.

Overall: Michigan enters the 2008 season with a veteran, talented team coming off a super-regional appearance, ranked in the preseason polls, the prohibitive favorite in the Big Ten, opening a renovated ballpark and with more than just whispers of Omaha in the air. It’s probably the most anticipated and hyped season in Michigan baseball history.

While this is the atmosphere Coach Maloney probably dreamed of when he first arrived in Ann Arbor, this new environment comes with a new burden -- expectation. How the Wolverines handle this pressure will be the question throughout the season.