When Ohio State baseball steps onto the field to open its new season on Friday, it will do so with a team that bears only a scant resemblance to the one that won 44 games, claimed a Big Ten tournament title, and secured the program's first berth in an NCAA regional since 2009 last spring.
“When I walked into the locker room the first time in the fall, I felt like the stranger,” said redshirt senior Zach Ratcliff to Greg Hoard of Press Pros Magazine. “It was like, ‘What’s up? Who are these guys? Where is everybody?’”
Seventh-year head coach Greg Beals must replace his entire starting infield and two-thirds of his starting outfield, not to mention many key reserves from last season’s championship squad, which begs the question: does Buckeye baseball rebuild or reload?
In all, the offense is losing 80 percent of its hits, 80 percent of its doubles, 86 percent of its home runs, 83 percent of its total extra-base hits, and 77 percent of its runs batted in after seeing six players taken in last June’s Major League Baseball draft and losing a sizable senior class.
The 2017 Ohio State team has a large crop of new faces wearing scarlet and gray, 17 newcomers in all. The task of keeping the program on the ascent will not be a small one with a challenging schedule and a conference that continues to improve from top to bottom. Among national publications like Baseball America and Perfect Game, there is very little buzz surrounding the team, but that doesn’t seem to faze them.
“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,” redshirt junior pitcher and co-captain Adam Niemeyer told Edward Sutelan of The Lantern.
Opening Day is so close, you can almost taste it. Let's take a look at what to expect from the everyday guys of this year's Buckeye nine.
With so much to replace, the one comfort for Ohio State among its position players is the presence of solid veteran leadership. Along with Ratcliff, Beals has senior Jalen Washington, who was voted a co-captain by his teammates for the second straight year, and junior Tre Gantt, who has seen plenty of action in his first two seasons in Columbus.
Washington will be making the transition from catcher to shortstop in 2017, a move that puts him back at his natural position and should help showcase his speed and athleticism as well as keep his legs fresher as the schedule wears on. As a junior, Washington put together a .249/.352/.343 slash line, with 11 doubles, three home runs, 38 runs batted in, and 14 stolen bases, all while starting 61 of the team’s 65 games behind the plate.
Gantt will also be on the move, sliding over to center field from right to take over for Troy Montgomery, who was an eighth-round draft pick of the Los Angeles Angels. In 47 games that included 38 starts after being slowed early in the season by a shoulder injury, Gantt slashed .255/.311/.314 to go along with eight doubles, 13 RBIs, and a 7-for-9 clip in steals. The Fishers, Indiana native, who Baseball America has rated the No. 19 draft prospect for 2017 in the Big Ten, figures to be a perfect fit for the leadoff spot.
The elder statesman of the team is Ratcliff, who redshirted last season after accruing just 41 at-bats. A product of Columbus Academy, Ratcliff has never quite reached his potential as a middle-of-the-order run producer, hitting just five homers and driving in 30 runs while striking out nearly a quarter of the time in 88 career games. He will have one last crack at it in 2017, largely as the designated hitter, and the Buckeyes desperately need him to help make up for some of the firepower they have lost.
Manning third base will be sophomore Brady Cherry, who in his first collegiate season a year ago showed glimpses of power with five longballs and 23 RBIs in 40 games that included 35 starts. But Cherry’s long swing also led to a 35 percent strikeout rate, prompting a great deal of offseason work to reshape it. If that work pays off and the strikeouts fall, he should join Ratcliff in providing pop from the middle of the order.
The final returnee from last season’s club is sophomore Jacob Barnwell, who will take over for Washington behind the dish. A catcher with plus receiving skills and a powerful arm, Barnwell was just 3-for-24 in limited action as a freshman, but saw tremendous progress in summer ball for the Lima Locos of the Great Lakes League. In 27 games, the Kentucky native slashed .316/.448/.408, with five doubles and 15 RBIs, and was chosen for the league’s all-star game.
Ohio State’s known knowns should form a foundation for the 2017 campaign, particularly with Washington and Ratcliff supplying leadership and Gantt poised to break out. But the success of the team and whether or not Beals can put a contender on the field game-in, game-out will depend to a much greater degree on what we don’t yet know.
Among the unfamiliar faces on the Buckeyes’ roster are nine true freshmen, two redshirt freshmen, five junior college transfers, and a handful of others who have yet to see any meaningful action in their college careers. Plugging the holes in the lineup brings with it enormous uncertainty for Beals.
“I’m cautiously optimistic about this year, but we’re unproven,” Beals commented to Sonny Fulks of Press Pros.
Two names that have garnered buzz since the fall ball season are Noah McGowan and Dominic Canzone. McGowan, a transfer 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. He will be Washington’s double-play partner at second base, and had a 6-for-15 showing in October’s Scarlet and Gray Series.
Canzone is a true freshman who hits the field with the pedigree of a Louisville Slugger High School All-American at Walsh Jesuit. After a fall session that saw him go 6-for-15 as well, Canzone followed up by staking his claim to the starting right field spot in preseason workouts. There’s always a question of how quickly a young player will acclimate to college pitching, but he has the makings of a day one impact player.
A pair of JUCO transfers figure to round out the starting lineup, with Bo Coolen at first base and Tyler Cowles in left field. Coolen, who is from Honolulu, Hawaii and put up a .343/.396/.414 slash line in 44 games at Cypress College in California last season, was 4-for-17 in the fall games.
Cowles, a Grove City, Ohio native, attended Sinclair Community College, and had a monster 2016. He had a .364/.471/.636 slash line with 17 doubles, 13 home runs, 51 RBIs, and 21 stolen bases in 65 games for a Tartan Pride club that placed third in the NJCAA Division II World Series. Cowles, a junior, was 5-for-20 with a home run, two runs scored, and seven driven in during the fall, and looks to be a real wild card for Ohio State’s offensive fortunes.
The bench for Beals is really anyone’s guess at this point. Collectively, there are just 12 collegiate at-bats among the reserves, and some five freshmen who have never seen action at this level. Outfielder Ridge Winand, a redshirt sophomore, and catcher Andrew Fishel, a sophomore, collected all 12 of those at-bats last year, producing one hit between them. There is also fifth-year senior Shea Murray, who is converting to the outfield from the pitcher’s mound, and hasn’t swung a bat since high school.
The great unknown
2016 was a fun ride for the scarlet and gray on the diamond, and the most successful in years. In many ways, it was vindication for Beals, who has dealt with his share of criticism since taking over the program. But as is always the case in baseball, the victories of days gone by stay anchored in the past, and the future beckons with the promise of the great unknown.
“We had a great year last season, but a new year brings a new hunt,” Beals said. “There’s a lot to like about this ball club. There is some caution in the optimism with the lack of experience, but these guys are talented.”
Can the Buckeyes score enough runs to compete at a championship level once again? That remains to be seen. There is a lot of potential, though. If veterans like Washington and Gantt make the kind of jumps the coaching staff is hoping for and the more inexperienced players such as Canzone, Barnwell, and Cherry grow up quick, Ohio State could once again make its doubters look foolish.