Ohio State head coach Greg Beals has some holes to fill in his everyday lineup in 2016. While some of those holes are larger in terms of statistical production, none is bigger from a leadership standpoint than the one that is found behind the plate.
In 2015, seniors Aaron Gretz and Connor Sabanosh served as co-captains while splitting the catching duties. The pair provided vocal leadership and managed a pitching staff that walked the fewest batters in the Big Ten. Offensive production was secondary, and the leadership void Gretz and Sabanosh left is one of the questions the Buckeyes must answer this season.
Stepping into that void is a player who has never been a regular in his first two seasons in Columbus, and has played more middle infield than signal caller. But Beals is confident that junior Jalen Washington is up to the task.
"Jalen Washington had an incredible summer and fall," Beals said. "To give him credit, here is a guy that hasn't been a regular player yet, he is not a senior, but was voted team captain."
The catching position is perhaps the most inexperienced on this year's team. Whether Washington and his cohorts can develop will be something to watch as the spring unfolds.
We continue our preview series on the 2016 baseball Buckeyes behind the plate.
Washington has appeared in just 22 games during the first two years of his career at Ohio State, including six starts. In 2015, he showed glimpses of his potential in limited time, hitting .280 in 25 at-bats, scoring five runs, driving in six, and stealing four bases in five attempts. But the fact remains, he has seen little time at catcher.
The summer and fall ball seasons were encouraging, though, as the Twinsburg, Ohio native performed well in the Prospect League and was then named Most Improved Player after hitting .455 during the Scarlet and Gray series. Washington also showed increased pop in his bat during the fall, hitting a pair of home runs in the five game series.
A very good athlete, Washington has the potential to play solid defense behind the plate, and has already proven that he is an effective leader. The Buckeyes will need both from him if they are to be competitive in the conference.
"He's an athlete and has great baseball IQ," Beals said. "He's transitioned to our No. 1 catcher very well."
Backing up Washington will be Barnwell, a true freshman who arrives in Columbus with a reputation as a solid catch-and-throw guy. The Kentucky native has very good arm strength, with a pop time that has been clocked under two seconds. The question with Barnwell will be how quickly he acclimates to calling a game at the college level, and whether or not he can hit. In high school and prospect showcases, he did show some pop with the bat, using a strong lower body to generate power.
Barnwell is in a good position to learn the college game with a head coach who was a catcher in his playing days. Teamed with Washington, the newcomer gives Ohio State a ton of potential behind the plate this season and in the future.
McDonough is listed as a catcher, but the odds are he won't see much time there. Where the former Cincinnati St. Xavier standout figures to make the biggest contribution is in the designated hitter role.
As a freshman last season, McDonough showed plenty of power in limited opportunities. Six of his nine hits went for extra bases, as he batted just .243 but slugged .405. Despite the small sample size, that slugging percentage placed sixth on the team. He also drove in five runs in his 37 at-bats.
While the DH spot looks as though it will be crowded with players looking for playing time, McDonough gives Beals a true power option to go to.
Of all of the everyday positions on the field, catcher is the biggest question mark on this Buckeye team. But Beals wore the shin guards in his playing days at Kent State and in the New York Mets' farm system, so coaching up this group is in good hands.
Washington already has the respect of his teammates, being voted a captain, and has shown a developing game over the past year. If he can seize his opportunity behind the plate and provide the kind of production that left with Gretz and Sabanosh, Ohio State and its pitching staff looks to be in good hands for the foreseeable future.