When Ohio State entered the 2014 season, a quartet of sophomores were expected to man the infield and improve upon promising performances as freshmen. As the season unfolded, this unit had its share of both struggles and notable elevation in its level of play. A few names not being talked about early on staked their claim for playing time, as well.
What was a young group a season ago now enters 2015 with a good deal of experience. The addition of a couple of newcomers will also provide depth, and could result in an unexpected player seizing more time once again. The Buckeyes need this unit to contribute solidly both at the plate and with the glove, as the quality of the pitching staff should have the club in position to compete every game.
We continue our positional preview of the 2015 Buckeye nine by going around the horn on the infield.
Head coach Greg Beals has the luxury of bringing back a game-tested starting infield in 2015. The four juniors expected to be in the starting lineup when the season begins on Friday started a combined 158 games a season ago. There is a ton of potential among this unit, but now as upperclassmen, these four must begin to show it consistently on the field.
First Base - Zach Ratcliff
Ratcliff may be the member of Ohio State's roster most in need of a bounce-back year after struggling mightily as a sophomore. Initially penciled in as the starting first baseman, the Columbus Academy product struggled out of the gate at the plate, and eventually lost his spot in the everyday lineup.
Ratcliff finished his second collegiate season with a .232 batting average, hitting two doubles and two home runs, while driving in 15. A big chunk of that production came in just one game against Ohio University, when he went 3-4 with a double, a home run, and 5 RBIs.
At 6'5" and 210 pounds, Ratcliff has the build and the pure power to provide major punch in the middle of the order. He participated in the home run derby in Omaha as part of the 2014 College Baseball Hall of Fame festivities in July, finishing fourth. Seeing Ratcliff get off to a good start at the plate this season and turning that power potential into run production would be a boon for the Buckeyes.
Second Base - Nick Sergakis
A year ago, very few observers of Ohio State would have envisioned Sergakis becoming a major contributor. After taking a circuitous route to Columbus, the 5'8" Columbus Academy alum took full advantage of his opportunities when pressed into duty in 2014, leaving Beals no choice but to keep him in the lineup.
Though small in stature, Sergakis is a gritty player who provided a spark to the top of the order. He finished the year hitting .318 with 29 runs scored, six doubles, two triples, a home run, and 13 RBIs, while splitting time between shortstop and second base.
Sergakis needs to improve upon his discipline at the plate if he hopes to remain at or near the leadoff spot. A few more walks and a few less strikeouts would help boost the on-base percentage and allow him to set the table more effectively for the Buckeyes' run-producers. If Sergakis can do so, Ohio State should see a solid uptick in scoring.
Shortstop - Craig Nennig
While the other three starting infielders are being counted on to provide pop in the batting order, the name of the game for Nennig is defense. Smooth with the glove and possessing a strong arm, the Wisconsin native is a steadying presence defensively when he's on the field.
Being on the field was a bit of an issue last season, though, as Nennig missed twenty games due to injury. When he was out there, he made just six errors in 148 chances (.959 fielding percentage) and helped turn 16 double plays in 38 games. The bat will always be a question for Nennig, and any production he provides at the plate is a bonus. As a sophomore, he hit just .231 on the season, generating only three extra-base hits, and driving in 10 runs.
Offensive struggles beside, the Buckeyes are a better team when Nennig is on the field. With Beals expecting improvement from the team defensively, Nennig will be the anchor of the infield with the leather.
Third Base - Troy Kuhn
Of the four sophomores who started the season around the horn on the infield, Kuhn is the one who had a breakout year. Shifting to the hot corner midway through 2014, The Zionsville, Indiana native was easily one of the two most productive members of Ohio State lineup as a sophomore, garnering third-team All-Big Ten recognition at season's end.
Kuhn hit .290 and led the team with 14 doubles (9th in the Big Ten), six home runs (4th in the Big Ten), 40 runs scored (12th in the Big Ten), and 35 runs driven in (12th in the Big Ten). The righty, who was the only player on the roster to start every game all season, was second on the team in hits (65) and slugging percentage (.442), and third in on-base percentage (.379). The only negative aspect one could bring up is his team-high 15 errors.
The 5'10" junior carried over the success he experienced at the plate during the spring to fall practice, as well, going 7-for-13 (.538), with an RBI and five runs scored in the four games of the Scarlet and Gray Series this past October.
In his third year in the program, Kuhn will be counted on to be one of the anchors of the middle of the order for Beals' squad. As the leading returning home run hitter in the conference, expectations are very high. If Kuhn can take his game to yet another level, more accolades will be sure to follow.
As Sergakis proved last season, depth on the infield is a necessity if a team wants to compete throughout a long season. That depth should be greatly improved in 2015, and could even provide another Sergakis-like situation if players get a chance to step up.
Leffel is another player who showed versatility for Ohio State last season, seeing time at multiple positions on the infield and getting at-bats at the designated hitter spot. Coming back after a redshirt year due to a wrist injury, the former Dublin Coffman star made a strong case for an increased role in 2015.
While the emergence of Sergakis and hot late season hitting from the now-departed Josh Desze limited Leffel's opportunities to just 31 games, he made the most of his time. Finding his groove at the plate in Big Ten play and establishing himself as a reliable right-handed bat, Leffel finished out the year hitting .303 with four doubles and 12 RBIs.
First base and DH are the likeliest spots for Leffel to see time this spring for the Buckeyes. If he can build off the success he found in the batter's box in his significant playing time a year ago, Beals will be hard-pressed to keep him out of the lineup.
Much like Ratcliff, Bosiokovic entered last season with high expectations but failed to produce at the plate, resulting in diminished playing time. Coming off Tommy John surgery this past July, the Delaware, Ohio native will likely be limited to mainly DHing duties in 2015. Also similarly to Ratcliff, he has the prototypical power frame (6'6", 220 pounds) that Ohio State would like to see translate into more production.
Bosiokovic finished up his sophomore season with a .268 batting average, 10 doubles, a home run, and 26 RBIs, starting 43 games. The numbers were disappointing, but largely due to his early season struggles, as ended the 2014 season on a tear, going 10-for-17 with five doubles down the stretch of the season.
With Desze gone, the need for some right-handed pop in the lineup has increased significantly, and the at-bats will be there for Bosiokovic to try to provide it. If he can bounce-back from from last season and prove himself healthy from the offseason surgery, Beals would like nothing more than get Bosi's talent out there.
L Grant Davis
Davis is a newcomer to Columbus, after having attended Arizona State University and Orange Coast College. After not appearing in a game as a freshman in 2012 for the Sun Devils, the Newport Beach, California native posted a modest .241 batting average, with 15 RBIs and 27 runs scored in 42 games for the team that won the California Community College Baseball State Championship.
Scouting reports call Davis a confident, capable defender with good athleticism and a left-handed bat with an aggressive approach. Second base is his best position, and where he started for Orange Coast last season. If given the opportunity, Davis could push Sergakis and Nennig for playing time, and gives Beals some solid leather off the bench.
Washington saw very limited duty as a freshman in 2014, appearing as a defensive replacement in seven games. The Twinsburg, Ohio product got just 8 at-bats, and did not collect a hit, striking out three times. Washington's defense was also a bit spotty in his first collegiate season, making two errors in his nine chances.
Judgment on Washington should be reserved until he gets more playing time. During fall ball, he started at shortstop in all four games for the Scarlet side, going for 4-for-11 (.363) and scoring two runs, and should provide depth for the middle infield as a sophomore.
A part of the incoming freshman class, Romans committed to Ohio State back in December 2012, and was a key cog on a Walsh Jesuit High School team that was one of the best in Ohio a season ago. Another left-handed hitting middle infielder, the scouting report on Romans is that he has surprising power for his size (5'9", 175 pounds), is a competent defender, and possess good speed on the bases.
The Canton, Ohio native made a solid showing in the Scarlet and Gray series at the conclusion of fall practice, going 4-for-13 at the plate (.308), with a double, a home run, and a series-high 5 RBIs. If Romans can provide that kind of pop off the bench when Beals calls his number, he could see much more action as a freshman than Washington did last season.