Head coach: John Anderson, 37th season at Minnesota
2017 record: 36-20 overall, 15-8 in Big Ten, third
Key losses: RHP Toby Anderson, LHP Lucas Gilbreath, RHP Brian Glowicki, OF Jordan Smith
Key returners: Sr. OF Alex Boxwell, Sr. 3B Micah Coffey, Sr. OF/INF Toby Hanson, Soph. INF/OF Jordan Kozicky, Jr. C Cole McDevitt, Jr. OF Ben Mezzenga, Jr. RHP Reggie Meyer, Sr. INF Luke Pettersen, Soph. RHP Brett Schulze, Jr. INF Terrin Vavra
New name to know: Fr. RHP/INF Max Meyer
In defense of their 2016 Big Ten championship, Minnesota stormed out of the gate in conference play, sweeping its opening two series, at Ohio State and Michigan State. But the Gophers dropped their next three series, falling to Indiana, Nebraska and Illinois. Minnesota rebounded with 5-0 run against Penn State and Rutgers, to be in control of its destiny entering the final weekend, but a 1-2 showing against Purdue saw Minnesota finish one and one-half game behind the champion Cornhuskers. The series defeat to the Boilermakers was the fifth home series Minnesota lost at home, finishing the season 17-14 between US Bank Stadium and Siebert Field. With the weighted-RPI formula, ironically created to help northern programs who often travel and do not play more than 30 home games, Minnesota finished with an RPI of 72, and did not garner a second consecutive bid to the NCAA Tournament.
For many programs, it was a good season, 36 wins, 13 against the RPI top 100, and a third-place finish. But for the Gophers it wasn’t good enough. Those in Minneapolis are determined to return the program to the glory days of the 1990s and early 2000s, where John Anderson had Minnesota routinely atop the Big Ten.
Once again Minnesota will have a chance to bring home the trophy.
Minnesota returns eight players who recorded at least 100 plate appearances in 2017, bringing back every starter around the horn, and losing only Jordan Smith in the outfield. As a team, the Gophers batted .297 on the season, and returns the top four hitters: Pettersen (.354 AVG, .411 OBP, .395 SLG, eight XBH), Coffey (.340, .396, .493, 21), Kozicky (.325, .421, .476, 16), Hanson (.319, .350, .477, 23). Offensively there are few questions for Minnesota this offseason.
In absence of finding who can fill voids, the coaching staff has moved players around seeing who can take on greater roles, creating versatility where lineup maximization can occur. During the team’s scout day, Hanson saw time at first and left field, Coffey played both corner spots in the infield, Pettersen can play either middle infield spot, so too can Vavra, while Kozicky showed his versatility last year, stepping into third base when Coffey went down with a sprained ankle, but also playing in the outfield, at short stop. Minnesota even has depth behind the plate with sophomore Eli Wilson has had a strong fall, giving the coaching staff confidence he can fill in in a pinch for junior Cole McDevitt, the first-team All-Big Ten selection at catcher last year.
Where known commodities litter the field, on the mound Minnesota has a pair of significant holes to fill. Friday starter Lucas Gilbreath and closer Brian Glowicki were respective seventh and tenth round draft picks after outstanding seasons. Gilbreath finished his junior season with 92 strikeouts in 81.1 innings, pitching to a 2.66 ERA. As a senior, Glowicki reset Minnesota’s singles-season saves record with 16, a Stopper of the Year finalist with 39 strikeouts against seven walks in 32.2 innings.
Sophomore right-handed pitcher Brett Schulze (4-3, 5.50 ERA, 70.1 IP) is set to return to the weekend rotation, after holding the Saturday role in his debut season, with the coaching staff excited to see him take the next step in his development, Schulze has worked 89-93 this fall, keeping his fastball velocity inline with his spring showings. It will be a boon for Minnesota have junior right-handed pitcher Reggie Meyer pick up where his 2017 season left off. In an elimination game against Iowa in the Big Ten Tournament, Meyer pitched eight innings, surrendering three runs off four hits with seven strikeouts against the eventual tournament champions. For the season, Meyer went 5-1 with a 3.18 ERA, making seven starts in 19 appearances.
Relievers Jeff Fasching, Nick Lackney, Fred Manke and Jackson Rose return, with Lackney a potential starting option to give Minnesota a left-hander in the rotation. A potential key contributor, sophomore Nolan Burchill will be lost for the year after undergoing Tommy John surgery, following an injury last May against Georgia Southern. But the aforementioned four relievers will be joined by multiple freshman pitchers, a group Anderson believes is his most talented class in a long time, to fill out the pitching staff.
Headlining the freshman haul are right-handers Joshua Culliver and Max Meyer. Culliver arrives in Minnesota from Omaha, a good athlete with a fast arm and loose delivery, albeit a bit raw, where he mechanically can get out of sync. Over his career the staff expects Culliver to blossom and be a star. Meyer has the present stuff to compete now and is expected to contribute in the back of the bullpen. Meyer shows an above-average slider with spin rates in line of the best in MLB, that is a true out-pitch. Complimenting his slider with a commandable fastball and hockey player mentality, Meyer, a two-way player, is likened to Fiedler, a player who has all conference-potential and can step up in tense moments. Left-handed freshman Danny Kapala and Ryan Duffy have also shown flashes this fall.
Minnesota missed opportunities to reach an NCAA Tournament by dropping home series to Long Beach State, Missouri State and Nebraska, all regional teams. This season, Minnesota has a series against TCU, a program with four consecutive College World Series appearances, and host a Big Ten/Pac 12 Challenge, where Arizona, UCLA and Washington come to town. Those, along with playing in a conference where another handful of teams can be expected to be in regional contention, will give Minnesota an opportunity to play itself into the NCAA Tournament. After falling shy last year, the team with 15 upperclassmen, have made it a mission this fall to advance the program to its first Super Regional and continue the process of restoring Minnesota baseball to past prominence.
One lingering question
Who steps in as the closer?
As mentioned, the two biggest voids Minnesota needs to fill are Friday starter and closer, with the latter the tougher to pencil in. Reggie Meyer did finish with a pair of saves last year, but with his feel for secondaries, command and just average fastball velocity (88-91) he is better suited to start. Manke, a senior right-hander, also recorded two saves, doing so over 15 innings in 12 outings, but issuing 12 walks, 7.2/9 innings, to counter his stellar .180 batting average against with just a double as his lone extra-base hit conceded. Max Meyer has shown flashes of possessing the stuff to close, but it is a tall task to do so as a freshman, more so if Meyer is to see time in the field as a two-way player. With Glowicki, Minnesota had a weapon at the back of the bullpen, a bulldog who could give six outs if needed, pounding the strikezone with little fear. Glowicki was everything a staff could dream of as a closer, but in being such leaves the biggest hole for the Gophers to fill.