The 2015 season is well in our rear view mirrors by now, of course, but can I request just one last round of applause for the Big Ten Conference?
Let’s not forget that, as recently as a few years ago, the Big Ten was a conference that usually got one or two teams into the NCAA Tournament and featured just as many teams who were only paying lip service to investing in baseball as teams who were making waves on a national, or even regional, scale.
Now, that’s not the case. It seems that the entire league has bought in, and the league’s overall success in 2015 at least hinted that the tide has turned.
One key to success for so many teams last year, though, was veteran leadership. And anytime you have veteran leadership, you are going to suffer from some attrition in the ensuing offseason. The following are the five largest voids to fill in the Big Ten Conference ahead of the 2016 season.
Tyler Jay- Illinois
Tyler Jay was more than just a shutdown closer for the Illini, although he was a fantastic closer for the team, as evidenced by his 1.08 ERA, 14 saves, 76/7 K/BB ratio, and .177 batting average against him. He was also the most durable reliever on the team, the reliever most capable of throwing three or four innings to close a game out, and he was also the “break glass in case of emergency” starting pitcher for the team, given his ability to be stretched out for longer outings.
Guys like him are nearly impossible to replace under any circumstances, but it’s even tougher at Illinois. That’s meant with no disrespect toward the Illini. On the contrary, I think the job Dan Hartleb has done in turning that program into Big Ten champions is one of the best coaching jobs that we’ve seen in recent years. But the fact of the matter is that, unless you’re a Vanderbilt, Florida, or UCLA, pitchers like that don’t just end up on your doorstep every year.
As I’ve stated before, I’m confident in Illinois having a say in how the Big Ten standings shake out once again in 2016, but how big a role they play in determining the champion will have a lot to do with their ability to reasonably replace Jay’s innings.
Jacob Cronenworth- Michigan
You could make an argument that Cronenworth was neither the best pitcher nor the best hitter on Michigan’s roster in 2015, but there’s little doubting that when you take his ability to do both so well into consideration, he was the team’s best overall player last season.
At the plate, he boasted a .338/.419/.494 slash line with a team-leading 6 home runs and 48 RBI. On the mound, he served as a swingman, going 3-7 with a 3.67 ERA and 53 strikeouts in 49 innings spread across 20 appearances (8 starts).
We’ve come here to praise Cronenworth, not to bury him, but the good news for the Wolverines is that they may already have an even better version of Cronenworth already in place in Carmen Benedetti. Last season, Benedetti hit .352/.418/.541 with 25 doubles, 5 home runs, and 71 RBI. As a pitcher, he had a 1.84 ERA and a .085 batting average against him in 18 appearances of short relief work.
Ryan Riga- Ohio State
At no point in Riga’s career in Columbus was he the headliner of the Ohio State staff. At different points of his time on campus, he was overshadowed by the likes of Trace Dempsey, Tanner Tully, and Travis Lakins, among others, but you could argue that he was the steadiest pitcher for OSU during the same time period.
As a sophomore in 2013, he was a reliable arm out of the bullpen. In 46.1 innings over 29 appearances, he had a 2.14 ERA and a .210 batting average against him. In 2014, he moved into the rotation and responded by going 4-4 with a 4.33 ERA. Last year, he put together a fantastic campaign, going 5-4 with a 3.32 ERA.
Travis Lakins, who flashed dominating stuff as a starter, is also now in pro ball. That means that the Buckeyes will likely lean heavily on Tanner Tully, who had something of an up and down sophomore season in 2015 after an outstanding freshman season in 2014.
Brandon Lowe- Maryland
First, on a side note, it still feels a bit strange to include Maryland in the Big Ten, but I suppose I’ll eventually get used to it.
Lowe was the epitome of a do-everything player on offense. Last season, he had a .331/.436/.542 slash line with 18 doubles, 4 triples, 9 home runs, 53 RBI, and 11 stolen bases. For a team that often struggled with getting consistent offensive production all the way through the lineup, his steadying influence at the top of the order was just what the doctor ordered.
The Terrapins also waved goodbye to LaMonte Wade, Jose Cuas, and Kevin Martir after last season, but Lowe is the piece that they will miss the most. As for replacements, Kevin Smith is a name to watch. He hasn’t yet proven to be as dynamic as Lowe, but he hit .273/.358/.422 with 14 doubles, 7 home runs, 35 RBI, and 11 stolen bases in 2015. Plus, he ably handles playing a premium defensive position as the team’s shortstop.
Ryan Krill- Michigan State
The Spartans had quite the imposing offense last year, and Krill was the guy who made them go. He led all regulars in batting average (.351), on-base percentage (.439), slugging percentage (.615), home runs (13), and RBI (57).
Add his departure to that of Cam Gibson, Mark Weist, and Blaise Salter, and MSU has quite a bit of rebuilding to do on offense. The Spartans just missed the NCAA Tournament last season, and their ability to get back into postseason position will hinge largely on how well they can replace those aforementioned key pieces on offense.