Tuesday, February 17, 2009

2009 Preview: Minnesota

Minnesota Golden Gophers
Head Coach: John Anderson
2008 Record: 20-35 (10-21, ninth in the Big Ten)

At The Plate: The lightning in the Gophers’ offense comes from Matt Nohelty and Eric Decker. In 2008, Nohelty was third in the Big Ten in batting average (.397), second in hits (94), sixth in triples (t-4), fifth in steals (t-24) and eighth in runs (53). Nohelty was named to the first-team All-Big Ten squad and starts this year looking for All-America attention.

Decker, who made Baseball America’s preseason all-conference squad, hit .329 with three homers and 28 RBI last season. He also scored 42 runs in 42 starts. Nohelty and Decker are two-thirds of the Minnesota outfield. The last member of the trio is sophomore Mike Kvasnicka. In his freshmen season, Kvansicka showed flashes of power with ten doubles and four homeruns. Senior Jon Hummel and redshirt freshman Trip Schultz could also see playing time in the outfield or at DH.

Returning behind the plate is junior Kyle Knudson. Knudson (.238) made 35 starts last season. Junior shortstop Derek McCallum (.291, 3 HR, 32 RBI) started in all 54 games last season and is considered by Baseball America to be one of the top five, draft eligible prospects in the Big Ten in 2009. The remainder of the infield slots could end up in the hands of three redshirt freshmen.

The Gophers are excited about A.J. Pettersen (2B), Kyle Gleason (3B) and Nick O’Shea (1B). The three first-year guys might round out the Gophers infield. Sophomore middle infielder Drew Hanish saw a few AB’s last season and might contend for more this year. Regardless of who claims the open jobs, the Minnesota infield should be very young in 2009.

On The Mound: Senior Tom Buske (4-6, 4.92) would appear to be the Gophers number one starter. Dustin Klabunde is amongst a group of sophomores that might grab hold of a weekend spot in the rotation. Fellow sophs Luke Rasmussen, Scott Fern, Phil Isaksson, Seth Rosin or Cullen Sexton are potential starters, as well. Veterans Chanucy Handran, Tyler Oakes and and Allen Bechstein could also see plenty of innings, although not necessarily in the rotation.

Minnesota’s bullpen is headlined by Scott Matyas. Matyas, another sophomore, posted a 3-4 mark with two saves last year. He also fanned 33 in 32 innings pitched and garnered Baseball America’s all-conference closer spot this preseason.

The Schedule: If you trust Boyd’s World’s Strength of Schedule breakdown, Minnesota had the toughest slate of games amongst Big Ten teams. The highlight of their non-conference slate is a three-game series at veteran NCAA tournament side, TCU. Yet, there’s more than just the Horned Frogs on the horizon.

Hawaii, Washington and UC-Santa Barbara all visit the Metrodome for this year’s Dairy Queen Classic. (Not quite as appealing a slate as normal, but still a bumpy slate for the Gophers -- or anybody else in the north, for that matter.) And, as an added bonus, there are two midweek games at Missouri during Big Ten play.

In conference action, it’s Indiana, Illinois, Michigan and Penn State on the road. Ohio State, Northwestern, Purdue and Iowa land in Minneapolis.

Bottom Line: Last year was a nightmare for Minnesota. It was Coach Anderson’s first losing season in twenty-seven years. With a painfully young team and a difficult schedule, 2009 might yield another season with more L’s than W’s. While the Gophers might not be poised for a regular season championship this year, they still have the opportunity to improve on last season‘s finish.

Only five wins separated Minnesota from sixth place and a spot in the Big Ten tournament in ‘08. The question is can Coach Anderson get a lineup with up to four redshirt freshmen (and three returning all-conference caliber players -- Nohelty, McCallum and Decker) and a pitching staff with plenty of underclassmen to win another five games (or more)? History favors Minnesota.