On Wednesday night, the Michigan Wolverines saw their 2019 baseball season come to a close with a tough loss in the sudden death game 3 of the College World Series at the hands of the Vanderbilt Commodores. Still, it was the first 50 win season for the program since 1987, the first CWS trip since 1984, and the first time making it out of the Regionals since 2007, a surreal run that no one saw coming and redefined the idea of what Erik Bakich could achieve at Michigan. Out of the ashes of a heartbreaking finish to a miraculous season for Michigan Baseball comes the most interesting question at hand: can Michigan Baseball keep this up? And most importantly, what does the 2020 season look like?
That’s what we’re going to look at today:
Who is leaving?
Michigan is going to lose a fair number of seniors, as well as other players to the MLB. The notable seniors who are out the door are Miles Lewis, Jimmy Kerr, Blake Nelson, and Ako Thomas, three important pieces of the nine man lineup for Michigan in the postseason. To the MLB, Michigan is almost certain to lose Karl Kauffman, Tommy Henry, and Jordan Brewer, and probably reliever Jack Weisenburger as well. That’s a lot of names. In particular, it’s Michigan’s #1 and #2 starter, #3, #4, and #9 hitters, and then two complementary pieces in Lewis and Weisenburger.
Who is coming in?
Michigan is bringing a 13 recruit class for the 2019-20 school year that ranks 39th nationally but 1st in the Big Ten, according to Perfect Game. Not quite as murderous as the famed 2017 class (22nd nationally, among the best ever for the B1G) that was the backbone of this CWS run, but still a very respectable group for northern standards. The biggest get, and the only top 100 player that Michigan signed, is Damone Hale (10/10 on PG), a shortstop/outfielder from California. While I don’t have a Perfect Game account to get all the nitty gritty scouting on him, from his test scores at the camps, he appears to be hyper athletic but is also a good hitter. Jimmy Obertop (9.5/10 on PG) is the next guy to know, a catcher/first baseman whose profile appears to be a guy that is coming to Michigan with the sole purpose of hitting the baseball. There’s also Brandon Lawrence (9/10) who is a middle infielder that seems to profile more as an all-around type player, as well as Antonio “Tito” Flores (8.5/10), who was among the top in-state players, a third baseman/outfielder who doesn’t have a great athletic profile but seems like he can hit and throw.
Michigan brings in very few pitchers, just Jacob Denner (8.5/10) a lefty from New Jersey who doesn’t appear to have a great fastball but likely has strong secondary stuff, and Colin Czajkowski (good luck pronouncing that), who is not a national name but was one of the top HS players in the state of Michigan. Beyond those big names, there’s Jack Blomgren’s brother Dan, Joey Velazquez, who is also a football player, and a few other assorted dudes.
So what does the team look like?
The rotation is the most important question, given how pitching carried the team this year. Jeff Criswell will enter his junior season and is going to be the ace of the staff, likely on his way to a top 100 draft pick in the 2020 MLB Draft. Beyond him, Michigan is banking on Ben Dragani getting healthy. Dragani was a full-time starter in 2018 who posted an excellent 2.76 ERA and a 1.16 WHIP as a freshman before undergoing Tommy John surgery in the offseason and missing this entire campaign. If he can get back to that form, he and Criswell could be an excellent 1-2 punch at the top of the staff. The most obvious #3 option is also coming off of injury, in the form of Steven Hajjar. Hajjar was the crown jewel of Michigan’s recruiting class entering this season who had to miss the entire year due to injury. (Side note: it’s crazy to imagine how good this Michigan team could’ve been with both Dragani and Hajjar healthy). Hajjar, a 6’4” lefty with a 93 mph fastball, was just outside the top 100 nationally, a 10/10 rated prospect on Perfect Game. If he performs like his prospect profile, and Dragani returns to 2018 form, then this pitching staff might not miss a beat compared to 2019. But those are sizable “ifs”....
Beyond those options in the rotation, obviously freshman Jacob Denner could be an option, or stretching out a bullpen arm like Isaiah Paige could work too. Speaking of the bullpen, Michigan returns just about everyone from that unit which was verrrry shaky this season. The good news is that it was young, and an offseason to work with pitching coach extraordinaire Chris Fetter should do some of the young arms good, like Willie Weiss, Paige, and Angelo Smith in particular. If the starting pitching takes a step back, then the relief staff may be asked to pick up some slack for Michigan.
As for the hitters, there are a lot of moving parts. The most obvious substitution is that Riley Bertram will take over at second base for Ako Thomas. Bertram, a freshman this year, was excellent in limited work when Blomgren went down in the Corvallis Regional of the NCAA Tournament. Plugging Bertram in may honestly be an upgrade from Thomas, but at the very least, it’s a logical move that Michigan fans will feel good about. After that, you have to think Dominic Clementi is an option to replace Jordan Brewer in RF if he can re-find his 2018 form. Clementi was an everyday starter and First Team All-B1G in 2018 with excellent stats who suffered a tough offseason injury and was never able to return to form in 2019, also being Wally Pipp’d by Jordan Brewer in the process. Clementi 2018 is not much of a downgrade from Brewer other than speed and power and would be a welcome addition to the 2020 squad. Clementi 2019 is not playable, plain and simple.
Another option for RF is obviously Damone Hale if the highly touted freshman is ready to make an impact on day 1. While he’s not marketed at the position, it’s also possible that Hale could play 3B or 2B (with Bertram then moving to 3B), because if Hale’s performance in the Maize and Blue can live up to his recruiting profile, he will be the type of player who can’t be taken out of the lineup for any reason. Obviously some of the other freshmen are options too: Obertop could play first base if he’s ready to perform, Flores could fill in at 3B, as could Breden Lawrence. Many of the questions surrounding the Michigan lineup simply come down to one overarching question: how many of the incoming freshmen hitters are ready to play at an acceptable level and how soon? It’s also not out of the question that Jordan Nwogu learns a position and a hole at DH opens, or that someone could jump out of nowhere, maybe Harrison Salter seizes a spot somewhere other than catcher?
There are obviously a lot of questions, but bringing Blomgren/Nwogu/Criswell/entire bullpen back gives Michigan a nice floor, and with a good recruiting class + a few studs back from injury joining the team for 2020, there are legitimate reasons for optimism. Overall, it is a team that will look different in a number of ways from the 2019 squad, but it should still be among the top teams in the Big Ten for another year in a row.