Thursday, February 19, 2009

2009 Preview: Penn State

Penn State Nittany Lions
Head Coach: Robbie Wine
2008 Record: 26-29 (17-15, third in the Big Ten)

At The Plate: The 2009 edition of the Nittany Lions have number of senior leaders in the lineup. Firstbaseman Cory Wine, second baseman Landon Nakata, shortstop Wes Borden, utility man Mike Deese, outfielders Ryan Boonie and Rick Marlin all return for their final seasons in Happy Valley.

Wine (.278, 6 HR, 39 RBI) started in 58 games last year. Nakata hit .277 with three homers and 25 RBI in ‘08. Borden (.313 and 13 steals) will probably open the year at shortstop, but could find himself at a number of other spots before the season’s over. Deese missed the majority of last season with an injury, but will play a large role on this year’s squad. Marlin, like Wine, started in all 58 games and hit .278. Boonie hit .295 in only 34 starts (122 AB’s).

Freshman Jordan Steranka has been penciled in at third base. Fellow frosh Ryan Clark and sophomore Ben Heath are in a battle to assume the catching job. JUCO transfer Michael Glantz could take over at short, pushing Borden to 3B, OF or DH. Glantz is listed as one of the top five newcomers in the Big Ten by Baseball America. There are also high hopes for freshman infielder Joey DeBernardis, who was drafted by the Florida Marlins last year.

Another junior college addition, Blake Lynd, should round out the PSU outfield. Lynd hit .421 and stole 31 bases at Alvin CC last season.

On The Mound: Before the season even gets underway, Penn State has a pitching dilemma. Number one starter Mike Wanamaker (6-5, 3.41 ERA in 87 IP) is out for the year. Senior Scott Kelley appears to have the inside track to claim the Friday starter‘s role. Kelley‘s been used as both a pitcher and an outfielder during his tenure at State College. While only tossing eight innings last year, rumor has it Kelley might be elevated to the top spot in the rotation.

Others looking to take the hill for PSU on the weekend include seniors Scott Lorenston and T.J. Macy. Lorenston, a lefthander, went 4-5 with a 5.48 ERA in 2008, while Macy, a righthander, posted a 4-2 mark with a 5.35 ERA.

The remaining starting spots and the bullpen roles are going to come down to battles in practice and performances once the season begins. David Lutz, Kayle Sickler, John Karr, Calvin Grumley all saw action in ‘08 and are looking for more innings pitched this campaign. The hope was transfer Drew Palen might emerge as the Lions’ closer, but he’s still struggling a bit. The lack of clear cut answers leaves the door wide open for this year’s freshmen class to take a more prominent role.

The Schedule: Well, those four game at Texas loom large on the Lions‘ slate, don‘t they? Amongst the other non-conference high points are four games at Rutgers and a home-and-home (although over a week apart) against nationally ranked Kent State plus St. John‘s in the Big East/Big Ten Challenge. Have to give Coach Wine credit, he doesn’t duck anybody.

The ‘09 conference season begins at home versus Ohio State. Later on, Purdue, Illinois and Minnesota (to close the season) visit Happy Valley. The road schedule open at Michigan before going to Indiana, Michigan State and Iowa.

Bottom Line: Penn State looks to have enough offense to compete in ’09. Between a deep senior class that’s won their share of games and an interesting group of new faces (has anyone done a better job of getting immediate help from transfers than Coach Wine?), they should score enough runs to be in the top six teams. Unfortunately, the question at State College is the pitching.

It would be very difficult for any program to make up for losing their number one starter. It’s even more challenging at a northern school where pitching depth is often thin to begin with. One can’t expect Penn State to easily brush aside the loss of Wanamaker. Having so many pitching questions -- both in the rotation and the ‘pen -- makes it easy to dismiss PSU. Yet, Wine seems to find a way to get his team to outperform expectations. (At least, expectations outside Happy Valley.) If PSU can land in the Big Ten Tournament, this season should be considered a success regardless of the record.