Ohio State baseball enjoyed its best season during head coach Greg Beals' tenure in 2016, amassing 44 victories, winning the Big Ten tournament championship in dramatic fashion, and making the program's first appearance in the NCAA tournament since 2009. At a glance, it would seem the Buckeyes are a program on the rise.
But a deeper look, as we took yesterday, shows that much of the production this season's success was based upon will not be walking through the door at Bill Davis Stadium in 2017. Beals and his Ohio State squad have some huge holes to fill moving forward, and at this point, there are many more questions than answers as to what the future may hold for the program.
Gone are standouts both on the mound and at the plate, leaders with plenty of experience in big games, and a mountain of statistical production that will not be easy to replace. There is enough uncertainty as 2016 recedes into the rearview to wonder how quickly the Buckeyes will be able to replicate this level of success.
What the Buckeyes return to the everyday lineup
When looking at a potential 2017 roster for Ohio State, there are only a few names that can be penciled into the lineup at this early juncture. Chief among them is Jalen Washington, a co-captain as a junior who started 61 of the team's 65 games behind the plate. The Twinsburg, Ohio native put together a .249/.352/.343 slash line in 2016, with 11 doubles, three home runs, 38 runs batted in, and 14 stolen bases.
Washington will be one of only two senior positional players next season, and could be the backstop again, though it is much more probable that he will take his athleticism to either shortstop or center field. Jacob Barnwell, who appeared in 14 games as a freshman and arrived in Columbus polished defensively, is likely to take over catching duties as a sophomore.
Aside from Washington, there are only three other returning players who have seen considerable time for the Buckeyes in their careers. The first is sophomore Tre Gantt, who after recovering from a shoulder injury that slowed him early in the year, took over an everyday spot in right field. Gantt slashed .255/.311/.314 in 47 games that included 38 starts, and is likely to either stick in right or move to center as a junior.
After an encouraging start to his freshman season, Brady Cherry faded a bit down the stretch and saw his playing time dwindle, but he should be an everyday player as a sophomore. The Pendleton, Indiana product hit just .218 in his first season in scarlet and gray, but with five homers and 23 RBIs, displayed the kind of pop that will be needed in the middle of the order after the losses of Ronnie Dawson, Jacob Bosiokovic, Nick Sergakis, and Troy Kuhn. Cherry will likely man third base for the Buckeyes in 2017.
The remaining returning players for Beals saw just 54 combined at-bats in 2016. Senior Zach Ratcliff accounted for 41 of those, but ultimately redshirted and should be back next year at first base and designated hitter, the elder statesman of the team.
Sophomore Jordan McDonough, who played in 22 games as a freshman, saw the field just once this season. In 39 career at-bats, he's produced six doubles and seven RBIs as a designated hitter.
Redshirt freshman outfielder Ridge Winand and freshman catcher Andrew Fishel each saw six appearances, with Winand going 1-for-3 and Fishel 0-for-8 at the plate. The trio of outfielder Jacob Vander Wal and infielders Casey Demko and Matt Carpenter did not see the field at all in their first collegiate seasons.
So who fills the gaps?
If the previous section didn't make things abundantly clear, Ohio State is going to be extremely young and currently has more questions than answers when it comes to the everyday lineup for 2017. The three freshman who did not see the field this season, along with the five positional players among an announced 12-man recruiting class, are how Beals will have to answer them.
This is a precarious position, as players get injured during summer league and fall ball, transfer to different schools, or opt for the junior college route, and projections prior to the beginning of winter practice in January can make false assumptions as to roster makeup. Still, at this time there are reasons to believe that, while insanely inexperienced, the Buckeyes' cupboard isn't entirely bare.
Among the announced recruiting class, a few incoming freshmen will join a JUCO transfer in the battle for playing time. Noah McGowan from McLennan Community College in Waco, Texas figures to find a home in the middle of the lineup after slashing .393/.511/.674 with 13 doubles, seven home runs, and 38 RBIs in 2016. McGowan saw time both on the infield and in the outfield, and could be the best replacement for Dawson in left field.
In addition to McGowan, newcomers Dominic Canzone, Noah West, and Joey Roddy could also help fill needs. Canzone, a Louisville Slugger High School All-American from Walsh Jesuit High School, can man the outfield or first base and possesses excellent bat speed and some pull power from the left side of the plate.
West, the No. 1 high school shortstop in the state of Ohio this year according to Prep Baseball Report, comes out of Westerville Central High School and brings a line drive bat and good speed. If Washington ends up in the outfield, he and Demko, a slick-fielding switch-hitter who was touted among the top shortstops in the state a year ago, could be the heirs apparent to Nennig and Kuhn up the middle.
Roddy comes out of Boston College Prep in Hingham, Massachusetts, and was an all-state selection by ESPN Boston. Able to man either of the corner infield spots, Roddy's 6’4, 220-pound frame has a power projection that the Buckeyes could use in the middle of the order.
What have we learned then?
It's nearly impossible to gauge what a team losing as much as Ohio State is will look like come the fall ball season in October, let alone when the first pitch of 2017 is thrown next February. It is apparent, though, that the Buckeyes are going to be without nearly all of their offensive production from 2016, and that a step backwards is almost inevitable.
Washington, Gantt, Cherry, Barnwell, Ratcliff, and McGowan are the best bets at this point to be on Beals' lineup card on opening day. Beyond that, fans of Buckeye baseball will have to be patient to see how things shake out.
There is very little in the way of known quantities, but the team does have a good amount of potential. Washington's leadership will be invaluable to next year's young ballclub, but the pace of player development and retention of players will ultimately determine how dramatic a fall Ohio State can expect, and how long the rebuilding effort will last.