Michigan had a year to remember.
The Wolverines entered the 2019 campaign with high hopes. And they certainly surpassed anyone’s expectations by not only reaching the NCAA tournament, but also flying through the first two rounds, reaching the College World Series and playing Vanderbilt for the national title. Michigan won the series opener against the Commodores. And though it fell just short of a national title, it was still a magical campaign.
That CWS run was memorable, and head coach Erik Bakich and his coaching staff won’t forget it. But as always, it’s also important to turn the page, and they did that this fall, while also remembering what got them where they finished the ’19 season.
“The consistency that we had in the fall, not just in baseball, but off the field as well, was impressive,” Bakich said. “We need to remember the little things that allowed us to be successful last season, and I think our players did a good job of that.
“As great of a season as it was, we didn’t win the national title. We came in second place,” he continued. “That was the theme of the fall. Let’s remember all the little things we did to get better last season, and let’s get re-invested in having another great year.”
Every team this time of year has some question marks for its 2020 campaign, but Bakich really likes the position this squad is in right now.
“I feel pretty much the same way about this team as I did our club last year,” he said. “We weren’t perfect last fall, but we were consistent. And on the enjoyment meter, it’s been off the charts with the players and coaching staff. I thought Ben Keizer did a terrific job of leading and policing the team, and the upperclassmen complemented him well. The guys just know the expectations and behaviors that are expected around here.”
The Wolverines are again primed to have a big-time season, but they’re not without some holes to fill. Stellar starting pitchers Karl Kauffmann and Tommy Henry are gone, and the offense has some key cogs to replace with the departures of hard-nosed Jimmy Kerr and electric Ako Thomas, among others.
Michigan has plenty of terrific options both on the mound and at the plate. And with Bakich knowing exactly what they have in terms of upperclassmen on the mound, several arms sat out this fall, including Angelo Smith, Jeff Criswell, Willie Weiss, Ben Keizer, Isaiah Page, Walker Cleveland and Blake Beers.
From an offensive standpoint, hard-nosed backstop Joe Donovan is back, along with steady shortstop Jack Blomgren and the outfield trio of Jordan Nwogu, Jesse Franklin and Christian Bullock. Michigan also returns Dominic Clementi at the plate, while talented pitcher Ben Dragani returns after missing last season with an injury.
“All the guys that we shut down this fall, we had them focus on gaining more strength and power,” he said. “If you look at our success last year, it really hinged on the strength of our pitching staff, along with a balanced and dynamic offense. That’s what we want our strength to continue to be — we need to remember what we did last season.”
ALL-DECADE TEAM: Which Michigan star(s) made the Big Ten's All-Decade team?
On paper, Michigan looks like a club that will again compete for a trip to the College World Series. But it will ultimately be contingent on how it puts all the pieces together, and how the program manages being one of the hunted.
All that and more set the stage for an exciting fall.
Let’s dive into Michigan’s fall workouts.
Replacing Henry and Kauffmann won’t be easy, especially when you consider their contributions in Omaha this past June. However, the Wolverines have several mound weapons back from last year’s club.
Junior right-hander Jeff Criswell has a big-time arm with a fastball up to 93-95 mph, along with a quality slider. He didn’t pitch this fall but should be the headliner for Michigan’s pitching staff. Weiss, Page and Cleveland are all guys expected to take steps forward, while getting a veteran such as Ben Keizer back in the fold is huge for the Wolverines in terms of production and leadership. Beers, who also missed the fall, is expected to have a significant role, as is left-hander Angelo Smith. Smith, a 5-9, 160-pound sophomore, has refined his stuff, and should have a larger role than he did last season too.
Three returning arms expected to make strides include right-hander Keaton Carattini and lefties Ben Dragani and Steven Hajjar. Carattini had a solid fall and is expected to provide some high-quality depth, while Dragani is back and getting healthier after missing the 2019 campaign because of Tommy John surgery. Dragani made changes to his delivery two summers ago that led to arm issues, so he missed last season because of the injury. He threw an inning against Vanderbilt this fall, and Bakich loves the direction he’s going.
BRINGING THE HEAT: 22 college baseball flamethrowers who topped 96 this fall
Finally, Hajjar has a chance to shine in the spring. The talented lefty was a highly touted prospect out of high school with a fastball in the low-to-mid 90s last fall. However, he tore his ACL during a pickup basketball game and missed the season with the injury. Hajjar is returning to normal as he prepares for the 2020 campaign.
“Losing Hajjar at the time we did last season was big, so to have him back and pitching now – that’s really exciting,” Bakich said. “Dragani, statistically, was our best pitcher in 2018, so getting him back is huge, too. He pitched an inning against Vanderbilt and a couple more innings in simulated scrimmages. He looked good. His velocity is coming back and the changeup and command were good. But he’s still progressing.”
Michigan also has several freshmen to watch come spring, and the list includes right-hander Cam Weston and left-handers Jacob Denner and Colin Czajkowski.
Weston is a 6-3, 185-pounder, who reminds Bakich of former hurler Kauffmann, and who has good two-seam action on his fastball. The fastball will sit in the upper 80s. His slider continues to develop and is unique with his use of a forkball. It has late sink and drop to it, and Bakich said it was an effective offering throughout the fall.
“He's very similar to Karl to me,” he said. “He’s got a developing slider, and he’s got this forkball we really hadn’t seen much of before he showed up. It’s a swing and miss offering, that’s for sure.”
Denner is a 6-1, 210-pounder, who’s a strike-throwing left hander and has command of three pitches. Czajkowski is a projectable 6-4, 195-pounder, who was shutdown halfway through the fall because of arm tenderness but will be ready to roll in the spring. Czajkowski will sit in the upper 80s and can get up to 90-92 mph with his fastball at times. He also has feel for a slider and changeup.
“Everyone values having good command and feel for your pitches and that’s what Denner has,” he said. “Czajkowski was looking good when he threw. He’s a former two-sport guy that we’re really excited about.”
It’s safe to say the Wolverines have a ton of options on the mound, but who joins Criswell in the weekend rotation is the most intriguing question mark as the 2020 campaign nears.
The Wolverines have some holes to fill with the departures of Kerr and Thomas, but the offense and positional setup should again be solid.
The outfield is strong entering 2020 with the return of Christian Bullock, heralded prospect Jordan Nwogu and outstanding athlete Jesse Franklin. Bullock is the fastest player on the team and has game-changing speed. He’s expected to take another step forward from an offensive standpoint. Franklin has a chance to scale the prospect lists in the spring. The 6-1, 215-pounder was terrific in Omaha last June and has big-time upside.
Then, there’s Nwogu. Nwogu is a physical slugger who has made serious strides from a defensive standpoint. The 6-3, 235-pounder spent a lot of time during the offseason becoming a better defender, and that’s good news considering he’s already a quality hitter with strength and power.
“We weren’t really relying on Jordan to do much defensively last year,” Bakich said. “He’s just taken it upon himself to become a better defender. That’s been an area of importance for him — to be a much better defender. His arm is more accurate and stronger than I’ve ever seen it, and that’s obviously good news.”
Another outfielder option the Wolverines are excited about is the veteran Clementi, a former All-Big Ten Player who was plagued by injuries last season. Bakich said he’s back healthy and ready to have a strong 2020 with his polished left-handed swing.
In terms of the infield, Blomgren returns to anchor the shortstop position, while Riley Bertram, who hit .385 in limited at bats last season, will occupy second base. Donovan, one of the nation’s premier backstops, is back and ready to have a big-time season behind the plate.
At the corners, look for Logan Pollack, junior college transfer Cam Hart and freshman Teddy Burton to be in the mix at third base. Burton is a shortstop by trade who could play third, and he’s a good athlete who could make an instant impact. Hart and Pollack, Bakich said, also made strides this fall.
Over at first, keep an eye on freshman Jimmy Obertop, Danny Zimmerman and veteran Matt Schmidt. Obertop is a 6-2, 215-pounder, who caught in high school and will add power to the lineup. Bakich said he struggled offensively against Vanderbilt as the four-hole hitter, but said he had an impressive fall for the most part. Zimmerman and Schmidt both are guys with experience who also made strides this fall.
Michigan will need to stay healthy from a positional standpoint to reach its goals in 2020, but the foundation is steady.