2019 Preseason Top 25 Preview: No. 20 Michigan
Last Year: 33-21 (15-8 Big Ten); missed NCAA Tournament.
Final Ranking: NR.
Head Coach (record at school): Erik Bakich (209-140-1, six seasons).
Top 100 Draft Prospects: None.
The Good News: Michigan last year had to replace 15 players from its 2017 team, which made the NCAA Tournament. The Wolverines suffered some serious early-season growing pains before catching fire for a 20-game winning streak and a third-place finish in the Big Ten Conference. Now, Michigan returns the bulk of that team and last season’s ultra-talented freshmen class—the highest-ranked recruiting class in conference history—has a year’s worth of college baseball under its belt. Jesse Franklin, a Freshman All-American, was limited to first base last season as he recovered from labrum surgery but is now healthy enough to move to his natural position of center field. Catcher Joe Donovan was also limited by injuries last season and will now take over full-time duties behind the plate. With Donovan and Franklin, as well as the returning double-play combination of second baseman Ako Thomas and shortstop Jack Blomgren, Michigan will be strong up the middle and should be much-improved defensively. On the mound, Michigan returns starters Karl Kauffman and Tommy Henry, who will be counted on to lead the pitching staff.
The Bad News: Michigan didn’t lose many significant players from last year’s team, but it did lose several of its key relievers. It also will have to adjust without starter Ben Dragani, who is out for the season after undergoing Tommy John surgery. Sophomore Jeff Criswell and freshman Willie Weiss, the Oregon Gatorade Player of the Year, are both options for the rotation, and lefthander Angelo Smith and righthander Jack Weisenburger figure to anchor the bullpen. Offensively, Michigan didn’t hit for much power last year and now must replace outfielder Jonathan Engelmann, who last year tied with Franklin for the most extra-base hits on the team with 22. The Wolverines have options in the outfield and with an older, more experienced lineup, should be able to improve upon its team slugging percentage of .400.
Player To Know: Ako Thomas, 2B.
Thomas hit .354/.462/.396 to lead the Wolverines in batting as a sophomore in 2017, but he was hampered by injuries last season and his production suffered as a result. Thomas is now back to full health, which is a big boost for the Wolverines. He is a catalyst at the top of their lineup with excellent on-base skills and strike-zone awareness, and he is also a solid defender at second base. As Thomas enters his senior season, the Wolverines will be looking for him to get back to his 2017 level of production and make things happen offensively.
Path To Omaha: Once the Wolverines got on track last season, they showed just how much potential they have. They’ll need to be more consistent defensively this spring, and their sophomores will have to take a step forward. But with so many experienced hitters in their lineup and a strong one-two punch at the top of their rotation in Kauffman and Henry, Michigan should be tough to beat. If the Wolverines can put it all together, they look like the team to beat in the North.
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