Monday, February 16, 2009

2009 Preview: Michigan

Michigan Wolverines
Head Coach: Rich Maloney
2008 Record: 42-12 (26-5, first in the Big Ten; won conference tournament.)

At The Plate: Much of the lineup that powered Michigan to three successive Big Ten regular seasons titles is now applying their craft at the next level. While this will be a new look offense, not all of the faces are unfamiliar.

Returning to the fold are senior Kevin Cislo, juniors Chris Berset, Mike Dufek and Alan Oaks and sophomore Ryan LaMarre. Cislo (.348 with 18 steals) is moving from the outfield back to second base where he was a first-team All-Big Ten performer two years ago. Baseball America has Cislo tabbed as the preseason all-conference choice at second. (Although, don’t be surprised if Cislo ends up at short.)

Berset (.244) started 37 games in ‘08 and returns behind the plate. Dufek (.321, 3 HR, 24 RBI) started 25 games a season ago and will hold down first base. Oaks, who started 39 games and hit .250 with six dingers, is Michigan’s right fielder. LaMarre will be the everyday centerfielder in ‘09 after starting in 40 games last year. In his freshman campaign, LaMarre hit .305 with three homers and 23 RBI.

Kenny Fellows (LF) and Nick Urban (DH) both saw very limited action last year, but have been given the chance to start this season. Anthony Toth, a redshirt sophomore, will take over at shortstop after sitting out all of last year. (As implied earlier, Cislo could end up at SS, Toth would then move to 2B.) A freshman, John Lorenz, has been handed the keys at third base.

Two other freshmen, Coley Crank and Jake McLouth (redshirt), may get into the lineup, as well. Both are listed as catchers, but could get at bats elsewhere.

On The Mound: All-Big Ten hurler Chris Fetter returns and assumes the Friday starter’s role. Fetter, a senior, led the Big Ten in ERA (2.47), opponents batting average (.209), innings pitched (94.2), wins (10) and starts (14) last season. He was also second in strikeouts with 82. He’s on everyone’s preseason All-America list this year.

Sophomore Travis Smith (5-1, 4.40), junior Eric Katzman (2-1, 3.52) junior Jeff DeCarlo (2-1, 4.80) and freshman Brandon Sinnery are expected to round out Michigan’s rotation. Fellow freshmen Tyler Mills and Kevin Vangheluwe might also make an impact on the pitching staff.

Dufek (1-0, 5.84, 1 save) and sophomore Tyler Burgoon (2-0, 4.86, 5 saves) are going to be Michigan’s closers.

The Schedule: Michigan’s schedule doesn’t initially dazzle. The highlights of the non-conference portion are a three game set at Arizona and a home-and-home against Notre Dame. There are, of course, games ‘o plenty versus MAC competition dotting the landscape, as well.

In conference play, Michigan opens at Iowa and has road dates at Michigan State (Friday and Sunday), Ohio State and Northwestern. Penn State, Illinois, MSU (the Saturday game), Indiana and Minnesota visit Ann Arbor.

Bottom Line: It’s a transition year in Ann Arbor. The core of the team that won three consecutive Big Ten titles, two conference tournament crowns and a NCAA Regional has departed. The nucleus of Coach Maloney’s side in 2009 is comprised primarily of players who had limited roles in previous campaigns. As such, for the first time in years, Michigan isn’t the prohibitive favorite to capture the Big Ten.

In fact, expectations for this team should be held in check. There are simply too many new faces at too many positions to anticipate another Big Ten title. It’s difficult to imagine Maloney (or any other coach) replacing the conference’s Pitcher and Player of the Year, the entire left side of his infield, his leadoff, three, four, five and six hitters, not to mention his Friday starter and some arms out of the ‘pen and still contend in ‘09. A more realistic expectation, in light of the roster turnover, would be a top six finish and a conference tournament berth.