The Ohio State baseball team is coming off its most successful season in years. For the first time since 2009, the Buckeyes were in the NCAA tournament and won their first Big Ten tournament since 2007.
But repeating that success will be a challenge. The Buckeyes’ lineup will be returning just two hitters from that group against Iowa in the final tournament game — senior co-captain Jalen Washington and junior outfielder Tre’ Gantt — and both players are changing positions.
The team also will return only two of its regular starting pitchers with redshirt junior Adam Niemeyer and sophomore Ryan Feltner. Friday night starter Tanner Tully, who was drafted by the Cleveland Indians, and Saturday night starter John Havird, who graduated last season, have left the program, leaving big shoes to fill.
Replacing impact players like Nick Sergakis and Ronnie Dawson will be a combination of 17 junior college baseball players and freshmen joining the club, making for plenty of uncertainty.
“We’re a very talented ball club. I say that with a little caution because we haven’t proven it,” said OSU coach Greg Beals. “There’s a lot of guys that are going to get their first shot to be everyday players here at Ohio State.”
Arguably the biggest change for the team comes from behind the dish. Washington, who caught 62 games last season for the team, will leave the role of catcher and shift to shortstop, his natural position. Taking over at catcher will be sophomore Jacob Barnwell, a player Washington has worked with while in preparation for the new role.
“We’ve had a lot of dialogue with me and Barnwell, (sophomore catcher Andrew) Fishel a little bit,” Washington said. “Just how to get comfortable, how to handle the pitchers. Majority of the game is understanding the pitchers, making the pitchers comfortable, making their job as easy as possible.”
The remainder of the infield appears penciled in with a pair of junior college transfers likely to start on the right side of the infield, and one returning player. Beals said junior transfers Bo Coolen and Noah McGowan are favorites to start at first and second base, respectively, while sophomore Brady Cherry looks to start at the hot corner for the ball club.
The outfield, however, is much more in question. Gantt, the primary right fielder last season, will be shifting over to center field to man his natural position. But he is the only player with a potentially guaranteed spot.
One outfielder Beals has his eye on is freshman Dominic Canzone, a Louisville Slugger High School All-American praised for his promising hitting ability.
“Dom Canzone — just a knack for hitting,” Beals said. “He’s got a hit tool that’s hard to teach. He puts barrel on ball at a high rate.”
The pitching staff will see changes occurring within the rotation, but the bullpen figures to remain roughly the same as last season. Junior Seth Kinker, who led the team in appearances, returns to the club as will senior left-hander Joe Stoll, redshirt junior Kyle Michalik and redshirt junior Austin Woodby, who served as a spot starter and reliever.
An interesting case is redshirt junior Yianni Pavlopoulos, who served as closer in 2016. He might be headed towards a role as a starting pitcher in 2017.
“Yianni Pavlopoulos, we moved out of the closer’s spot into starting rotation potential,” Beals said. “The potential exists for him to be in the rotation, the potential exists for him to go back in the closer’s spot. But we’re training him with an increased pitch count so that he is ready to be a starter if need be.”
Though Pavlopoulos will be competing for a spot in the rotation, the only known weekend starters are Niemeyer and Feltner, while the Sunday night starter and weekday starter remain unknown.
“I think right now, all the positions are pretty open from a pitching standpoint,” Niemeyer said. “It’s kind of an open competition right now, so we’ll see how all the pieces fit in these next few weeks before the season starts.”
The team still has some positions left to fill, but the ball club is optimistic about its chances in 2017. The team is young and lacks experience, but Niemeyer believes this is a club that can compete now.
“We want to keep building on that culture we created last year,” Niemeyer said. “I think everyone in this locker room, the coaching staff, everyone expects us to be in the hunt for another Big Ten Championship and we all believe we can accomplish that goal.”