Season Preview: Maryland

Maryland appeared in three NCAA Tournaments between 2014 and 2017. In the first two regional appearances, 2014 and 2015, the Terps advanced through the opening weekend, en route to participating in the Charlottesville Super Regionals. Falling just shy of reaching the College World Series on two occasions, the run of postseason success saw Maryland tabbed as D1Baseball.com’s preseason Big Ten favorite during each of the program’s first three Big Ten seasons. The Terps were not D1Baseball.com’s favorite last year, that was Indiana, but the Terps were still predicted to be an NCAA Tournament-bound club. A season many expected to see Maryland continue its winning ways finished anything but. Under first-year head coach Rob Vaughn, Maryland not only missed the NCAA Tournament, but failed to qualify for the Big Ten Tournament, finishing ninth in the conference. Now, with lesser external expectations, the hope in College Park is that Vaughn’s first year leading the Terps was as invaluable of a learning tool as the reps gave to many underclassmen. But any postseason showing will come down to the showings of a quartet of seniors, a class looking to lead Maryland back to its winning ways and achieve the same highs they entered the program on.

Program facts

Head coach: Rob Vaughn, second season, 24-30 at Maryland

Last conference championship: 1971 (Atlantic Coast Conference)

Last NCAA Tournament: 2017 Winston-Salem Regional

2018 in review

Record: 24-30 overall, 9-14 in Big Ten; ninth place

At the plate: .243 AVG, .358 OBP, .384 SLG, 92 2B, nine 3B, 48 HR, 63-87 SB-ATT

On the mound: 5.28 ERA, 477.1 IP, 234 BB, 368 SO, .271 BAA

In the field: .972 FLD, 34 double plays, 16 passed balls, 54 SBA, 17 CS

Roster rundown

Key losses: 1B/RHP Kevin Biondic .279/.369/.463, 21 XBH, 1-1, 2.59 ERA, 24.1 IP), RHP Taylor Bloom (3-8, 4.99, 79.1 IP), 2B Nick Dunn (.330/.419/.561, 17 2B, 10 HR), OF Zach Jancarski (.279/.378/.453. 20 XBH), RHP, OF Will Watson (.254/.369/.431, 6 HR)

Key returners: Soph. OF Randy Bednar (.208/.272/.376, 6 HR), Jr. LHP Tyler Blohm (5-2, 4.10, 59.1), Sr. SS AJ Lee (.232/.375/.296 12 2B), Sr. John Murphy (1-3, 4.26, 25.1), Sr. RHP Hunter Parsons (5-2, 3.44, 89.0), Sr. 3B Taylor Wright (.230/.319/.333)

Key newcomers: INF/OF Maxwell Costes, Jr. OF Ben Irvine, 1B Kody Milton, Jr. Tuck Tucker, Jr. OF Caleb Walls

Composition by class (eligbility-wise): Freshman (11), Sophomores (11), Juniors (9), Seniors (4)

 

What to expect in 2019

Forcing their way into the national discussion on Szefc, it was supposed to be more of the same as Vaughn was promoted from his associate head coach role. On paper, there were more than enough reasons to justify any expectation of Maryland finishing among the Big Ten leaders. In Taylor Bloom and Tyler Blohm, the former a three-year starter and the latter the reigning Big Ten Freshman of the Year, a stout 1-2 punch was to lead the rotation. Between Nick Dunn at second and Marty Costes and Zach Jancarski in the outfield, a trio of proven veterans were to anchor the lineup, with Kevin Biondic, AJ Lee and Will Watson providing key contributions in supporting roles. There seemed to be enough fire power atop the pitching staff and throughout the lineup to take aim at a 40-win season. Not only did the expected not come to pass, injuries and bad luck contributed to a forgetful season. While Blohm did ok as a sophomore, though limited due to injury, and there were bright spots in Biondic’s performance as a two-way player and Hunter Parsons emerging as the staff ace, the brightest spot, Nick Dunn’s offensive performance, was the one expectation that was met, but can’t be brought into 2019. The St. Louis Cardinals picked the second baseman in the fifth round of last June’s draft.

One would believe a second time through for Vaughn will be easier and more navigable. And on a team with 22 underclassmen, players who were thrown to the fire early and often should take a step forward. But, and perhaps this is a positive in light of last season, there is little that can be counted on to create any external expectations. The Terps feature just four seniors, a number less than the seven juniors transferring into the program. With key departures, plenty of newcomers, some upperclassmen with a track record of success and others still waiting for the breakout season, a wide range of outcomes are in front of the Terps in 2019.

At the plate and in the field

Only one player, Dunn, batted above .300 for the Terps last year. With the second baseman leaving a year of eligibility on the table to pursue professional baseball, a new offensive threat would need to emerge. But it wasn’t only Dunn’s departure that will force the need for someone to step up at the plate for Maryland. Last year’s top five hitters are no longer with team either due to graduation, Biondic, Jancarski and Watson, or to the draft, Costes and Dunn. The leading returning hitter from last year is Lee, who bated .232 over 203 at-bats. Right behind him is Wright, who recorded 38 hits in 165 at-bats for a .230 average.

With what Maryland returns, or the lack of, there may not be a duo in the conference that mean more to their team’s success than Lee and Wright, as they return to lock down Maryland’s respective shortstop and third base positions. To Vaughn and staff, and to anyone who’s sene Maryland over the last two years, there is more to Lee than what he showed last year. Just in 2017, when he was at third base while Kevin Smith, on of Baseball America’s top 100 pro prospects, manned shortstop. As a sophomore, Lee batted .307 with eight doubles and eight home runs, producing a .474 slugging percentage. While Lee did hit another eight doubles in 2018, he managed just one home run, as his slugging percentage dipped to .296. Even Lee’s stolen bases, which led the team, went in reverse from 2017, down to 12 from 15, when he was an All-Big Ten Third Team selection. While Wright doesn’t have the DI history that Lee has, Wright did hit .333 with an 1.007 OPS for Colorado Northwestern Community College in 2017, and arrived at Maryland to rave reviews from the staff. Though he didn’t match the numbers he put up as a sophomore, Wright can’t be wrote off. It’s not uncommon for a highly touted Juco transfer to have a lukewarm first year in the Big Ten only to explode as a senior. Iowa’s Joe Booker and Ohio State’s Noah McGowan are two examples of transfers who finished as all-conference selections following a tepid first Division I season.

The only other returning Terrapin who made at least 35 starts in the field is sophomore Randy Bednar. Picked by Baseball America to be the Big Ten Freshman of the Year, Bednar scuffled as a freshman, too often going down on strikes, striking out 46 times in 149 at-bats, but did show a little pop, recording seven doubles and six triples. Be it Chris Alleyne, who recorded 25 at-bats last year as a freshman, or transfers like Ben Irvine and Caleb Walls, new faces will join Bednar in the outfield, and he will be called upon to play up to the potential that saw him drafted in the 27th round of the 2017 MLB Draft by the Atlanta Braves.

Taking his turn as the ballyhooed freshman is Kody Milton. Son of former Terp and 11-year MLB veteran Eric Milton, Kody participated in the Under Armour All-America Game, an exhibition played at Wrigely Field bringing together the best prep players in the country, and joins Big Ten baseball with the physical stature and ability to be an impact player from the start. At 6’3, 205, Milton already looks the part of Division I first baseman, and will be asked to step into the role of a standout one. Around the game his whole life, lofty expectations are nothing new to Milton, which may ease his ability to be the force Maryland needs to support the returning starters.

Behind the plate, Justin Vought returns after appearing in 22 games. Though he batted .174 in limited action, half of Vought’s 12 hits went for extra bases, with three doubles and three homes. Vought can put on the most impressive batting practice show, but it’s his ability behind the plate which has Vaughn and staff believing he’s a future star. Of the catchers Maryland has had during Vaughn’s time as an assistant and now head coach, the catch-and-throw ability of Vought trumps them all. The numbers support that. Although a small sample size, Vought threw out six of 16 runners on the bases.

Marty Costes’ younger brother, Maxwell, is a player to keep an eye on. Wright at third base may move Costes to the outfield in 2019, but he has the ability and agility to be a long-term option at the hot corner. After redshirting last year, Michael Pineiro will have an opportunity to force his way into the lineup and is a player Vaughn foresees contributing to the offense.

With Marty Costes, Dunn and Jancarski moving on, there is an obvious void in power that needs to be fill. According to Vaughn, one of the problems that plagued Maryland last year was the inability to generate offense in a variety of manners. Overall, there figures to be more speed in this Maryland outfit, an aspect the Terps rely more heavily on as newcomers get up to the speed of the college game and returning players take the next step or revert to their previous levels of success.

On the mound

More certainty resides on the mound for Maryland, with the Terps set to have an ace, star-power and stopper.

With injuries and ineffectiveness derailing the plan of Blohm and Bloom to carry the day, Maryland’s #3 starter, Hunter Parsons, ended the season as the team’s top arm. One of three players with a sub-4.00 ERA, the only to do so pitching more than 25 innings, Parsons pitched to a 5-2 record thanks to a 3.44 ERA. Not overpowering, Parsons struck out 62 batters, only eight more than Blohm did in 29.2 more innings, but with an ability to avoid hard contact, Parsons held the opposition to a .225 average and surrendered only four home runs in 324 at-bats. Able to give Maryland a solid six innings or more, he did log two complete games, Parsons will step into the Friday role for Vaughn.

That leaves the Saturday role to Blohm. The numbers might not have been quite as strong as 2017 when he held a 3.48 ERA over 75 innings, with 71 strikeouts and a .227 batting average, but a year after being the Big Ten’s top freshman, Blohm was more than solid in the Terps’ rotation. Just as he did the year before, Blohm struck out nearly a batter per inning pitched, 54 in 59.1, while doubling up on the numbers of walks issued: 27. Blohm did yield seven home runs in 11 starts, and saw the opposition bat increase there average against him by .021, but there aren’t many coaches who wouldn’t take Blohm as one of their first two weekend starters.

It may not be until conference play that Maryland’s third starter solidifies his role, but more important than rounding out the weekend staff after Parsons and Blohm is finding relievers to take the ball after they exit their respective starts.

Last year, eight pitchers saw action as relievers in 10 games. All but Biondic and senior right-handed pitcher John Murphy carried an ERA over 6. The good is that Biondic shows a prior year’s success, or lack of, means little. He emerged as a two-way player for his senior season and notched two saves next two a 2.59 ERA in 24.1 innings. The bad is that Biondic is now in the Red Sox system, leaving only Murphy as a reliever with a history of getting outs when needed. Fortunately for Vaughn, Murphy has the ability to be a lights out closer. In 25.1 innings, Murphy struck out 37 batters. The control needs tightened, Murphy’s 13.14 K/9 was paired with a 7.46 BB/9, but there is stuff and a tenacious bulldog mentality to enter the game in high-leverage situations.

After that, Vaughn inherited a team thin on the mound and in year two appears to be more of the same. Many underclassmen saw significant time on the mound last year. That can be good in getting a crop of arms a taste of what’s needed to succeed at this level. But Maryland would certainly like a little more proven track record in support of Blohm, Murphy and Parsons who have the ability to band together and help guide the club towards a winning record. The key for Maryland’s relief corp: throw more strikes. Grant Burleson, Sean Fisher, Billy Phillips, Mike Vasturia and Elliott Zoellner all return after combining to pitch 108 innings. But 66 strikeouts among the five were countered by 74 walks.

Five things to watch

  • Who emerges as a reliable arm to bridge the gap to Murphy
  • Is there a next-in-line after Lowe-Smith-Dunn
  • How quick does Milton adapt to the college game
  • If Vought become’s the Big Ten’s premier catcher
  • Consistency in midweek games

One weekend to circle

April 19-21 vs. Ohio State. It probably doesn’t jump out on the calendar. It isn’t the non-conference home series against East Carolina, a team entering the season with a top 20 ranking, nor is it a series against the media’s Big Ten favorite, Michigan. And it’s not the May roadtrip to Minnesota. But here’s what the series against Ohio State is:

-The lone home series in April’s four Big Ten series.

-Three games in a span of 11 games in 14 days.

-A weekend against a team with an entire new weekend rotation, uncertain of their own pitching depth.

The series against the Buckeyes will test Maryland’s two areas of greatest concern: pitching depth and youth. If Maryland can have success on the mound in the midst of a busy April, it will be a good sign, especially so with a young team. And it’s always important to take care of conference games at home. But this would be the time of year where fatigue can creep in, where players who are going to make that jump as freshman make it, and a series where Maryland’s postseason fate can swing from one end to another.

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