OMAHA, NE- A postseason run for Michigan in 2018 was always going to be unlikely, at least on paper.
They had one strike against them from the start. Because they lost a ton of talent after the 2017 season, much of it to the MLB Draft, they were going to be taking the field in 2018 with an astounding number of unproven players in important roles.
Strike two came when they began the season 4-11 after a midweek loss to NAIA program Lawrence Tech that came immediately after a series loss to Lipscomb. If they stumbled against that competition, the thinking had to go, how would they be able to rebound well enough to even sniff the postseason?
From there, they went on an impressive run, going 27-10 the rest of the way, playing their way into at-large consideration before faltering down the stretch and falling out of the race. Any season that ends without a regional appearance when it looked like a possibility at some point during the campaign is disappointing, but it’s fair to say that getting into a regional in 2018 would have been a situation where a team arrived a year early. In that way, perhaps the Wolverines overachieved in getting so close.
As his team was eliminated from the Big Ten tournament in Omaha, head coach Erik Bakich didn’t overtly admit that his team’s chances of a postseason berth were non-existent, but his tone suggested that he knew that was the case. His team was not going to be playing in a regional. Still, he wanted his team to get together to watch the selection show on Memorial Day, not only because it has become a tradition within the program, but for another reason entirely.
“We’re going to watch the selection show as a group because that’s going to be a ritual we do in our program and it has been for the last few years,” Bakich said. “We may not see our name on the screen on Monday, but I want them to feel that as well, especially for those younger guys because it’ll be the last time they ever feel that.”
Honestly, it’s hard to argue, because Bakich and his staff are building something in Ann Arbor, and quickly.
Just throw a dart at a printout of the roster and you’re likely to hit a player who is both young and has been productive in his short Michigan career.
Sophomore Dominic Clementi was a catalyst offensively in 2018. He led the team in average (.368) and on-base percentage (.485), came in second in slugging percentage (.574), and led the team in triples with five, when no one else on the roster had more than two. He started in just 33 games over the course of the season, so with a full load as a junior in 2019, it’s easy to see his totals taking a big jump from where they were in 2018.
The best power bat on the 2018 team was a freshman in Jesse Franklin. He hit .327/.379/.588 with a team-leading ten home runs. He also showed some versatility in handling first base and outfield throughout the year. Add that all together, and with another offseason under his belt, Franklin looks for all the world like a guy who could end up being named Big Ten Player of the Year before he’s done playing in the maize and blue.
Then there’s Jordan Nwogu, who was another freshman contributor this past season. He’s a guy that might not have been expected to have as big a role as some of the other young players on the roster, but he just simply forced his way into the lineup with a huge series against Bowling Green in mid-March. He went 7-for-11 in those three games, and he didn’t look back. He finished the year with a .349/.442/.571 slash line, and it’s scary to think that there might be more in the tank with the local Pioneer High School product.
He admitted to the Michigan Daily early in the season that he was still pretty raw as a baseball player because he was splitting time between baseball and football in high school and just simply didn’t have the polish that a player who played baseball 12 months out of the year might have. With a .571 slugging percentage that was good for third on the team behind Franklin and Clementi and 11 stolen bases in his 46 games (35 starts), he already provides a special power/speed combination, but with the extra layer of polish that will inevitably come as he gets more reps, he could be a monster in the years to come.
Sophomore Christan Bullock, who hit .262, and freshman Jack Blomgren, who hit .216 a year ago, may not have had eye-popping numbers at the plate in many ways, but each found ways to be a big part of the Wolverines’ success in 2018. Bullock was a menace on the bases, stealing 18 bases in 23 tries, while Blomgren ably handled the shortstop position, often something that a young college player has to grow into after a year or two in the program.
It’s the same story on the mound, where all three of the team’s weekend starters at the end of the season, rising junior Tommy Henry (7-3, 3.09 ERA), rising junior Karl Kauffman (6-3, 3.08 ERA), and rising sophomore Ben Dragani (6-2, 2.76 ERA) were all underclassmen. Add in relievers Jeff Criswell (2.23 ERA) and Angelo Smith (1.14 ERA), who will be sophomores in 2019, and Jack Weisenburger (3.58 ERA), who will be a junior, and you can see a young pitching staff that has the potential to be a real problem for the rest of the Big Ten for a few years.
With so many freshmen making an impact early in their careers, it’s easy to see why the 2017 class was ranked the number ten recruiting class in the nation by Baseball America. And the group of sophomores suggests that the 2016 recruiting class was incredibly strong as well.
“The future is really bright,” said Michigan outfielder Jonathan Engelmann, who signed recently as a 31st-round pick of the Indians. “As you guys can tell, we have a lot of younger guys contributing on a day-to-day basis and it’s inspiring to the older guys, too. This is a team where it’s good to be in a mentorship role, but at the same time, I feel like I learned as much from them as hopefully I’ve taught them. Being around the younger guys, and helping them and showing them the ropes was great, and toward the end of the year, you see them turning into dudes, and playing really well for us.”
Speaking of Engelmann, he obviously won’t be back, but there is still a healthy group of upperclassmen who will be back for next season.
That group is led by Ako Thomas, who has battled some injuries throughout his career but has been dynamic when he’s been healthy and on the field. In 2018, he hit .272 with a .371 on-base percentage, a 28/19 strikeout-to-walk ratio, and 15 stolen bases in 17 attempts. Two years ago, he hit .354 with a .462 on-base percentage. Even if his 2019 season is somewhere closer to his 2018 output then his 2017 output, he’s a nice piece to have in the order and at second base.
Outfielder Miles Lewis should be back as well. He’s another guy whose numbers were down in 2018, but could be in for a turnaround in 2019. He hit .230 with a .318 on-base percentage in 2018, but in 2017, his first season in Ann Arbor after transferring in when North Dakota shuttered their baseball program, he hit .296 with .381 on-base percentage, 14 doubles, and 19 stolen bases. Then there’s Blake Nelson, who had a solid first season at Michigan after transferring in from South Mountain Community College, hitting .248 with a .352 on-base percentage and 11 doubles.
Already, it looks like a crowded roster situation heading into 2019 given all the returning players, and some of those in that highly-ranked recruiting class from last year will undoubtedly fight their way into roles on the team. And that’s before you consider the possibility of players from the incoming recruiting class breaking out. Clearly, that’s a good problem to have to sort out in fall ball and spring practice.
In other words, if you were a team able to take advantage of the fact that Michigan was a little bit young in 2018 and wasn’t quite ready to compete for a Big Ten title, consider yourself lucky. It might not be so easy to get them in the near future.