Louisville Baseball: Five Questions to Answer Entering 2021
The 2020 season cancellation cut short a campaign for Louisville that otherwise could have ended with the program’s first national championship.
The team the Cardinals bring back for the 2021 season is plenty talented, perhaps enough so to live up to the expectations of last season, but the makeup of the team is a little different. Last season, a weekend rotation led by Reid Detmers and Bobby Miller was the main attraction, but this time around, it’s a standout position player group that should be the biggest reason for optimism.
The following are five questions about the Louisville roster as it looks to make the most of the 2021 season.
Who earns spots in a rebuilt weekend rotation?
You can probably lock in one spot on the weekend with the return of fifth-year senior righthander Luke Smith, who started on the weekend alongside Detmers and Miller last season. He doesn’t have the electric stuff that those pitchers had or that others on the current staff do, but he’s a tenacious competitor who has proven he can handle the job.
As for the competition for the other spots, there are a whole group of returning pitchers who either held smaller roles in recent seasons or were stars in other roles on the pitching staff and are now contenders to start on the weekend. Louisville coach Dan McDonnell was pleased by how many returning arms took big jumps this fall.
“I think the theme of this fall was who are the guys that are going to emerge from being regulars, whether it’s an everyday player or an everyday pitcher in the mix is going to take the next step, and you have to look at our pitching (for that),” he said.
One pitcher who took steps forward is Glenn Albanese, a 6-foot-6 third-year sophomore righthander who has just 18.1 career innings under his belt. He pitched well in 2020, with 18 strikeouts in 8.2 innings, and his stuff has taken a big jump, with his fastball now sitting in the mid 90s and reaching the high 90s. In terms of stuff, that’s the type of arm you expect to see in a Louisville rotation.
A name that you might be surprised to see in the mix given his success in a closing role is fourth-year junior lefthander Michael Kirian. After collecting what Louisville coach Dan McDonnell described as six of the easiest saves he had seen in a long time last season, he thinks Kirian is now shaping up to compete for a starting role.
McDonnell also sees another career reliever, fifth-year senior lefthander Adam Elliott, as a potential starter, along with second-year freshman lefthander Michael Prosecky, who started three midweek games last season.
Who nails down those final two spots on the weekend is a question that will likely remain open through preseason practice, but Louisville certainly has the luxury of options.
Who closes if Kirian transitions to starting games?
Kirian moving into the rotation, if it plays out that way, leaves a hole at the back of the bullpen, where he was excellent throughout 2019 and into 2020.
One name to watch is second-year freshman righthander Jack Perkins, who was a quality swingman for the team in 2019 before missing all of the 2020 season due to Tommy John surgery.
He returned healthy this summer in the College Summer League at Grand Park and showed well, striking out 23 in 18.1 innings, featuring a fastball that was back in the mid 90s. He has the stuff to be a traditional closer, but he can also be stretched out to fill the multi-inning ace reliever role that is so popular in today’s game.
Another pitcher in this mix will be third-year sophomore righthander Jared Poland, who pitched well in a short relief role in 2019 before struggling to the tune of a 12.71 ERA last season.
This fall, he’s bounced back nicely in the eyes of McDonnell and looks poised to be that traditional shutdown closer that Louisville is so accustomed to having.
“I think Jared Poland took the lead (in the competition),” he said. “Jared pitched as a freshman, was more of a setup guy, actually struggled as a sophomore (if) you want to call it a sophomore slump, but he was also trying to win the second base job. Now, he looks like ‘okay, that’s the (pitching coach) Roger Wiliams' type of closer that we seem to have every year.’ ”
Where does Lucas Dunn play?
A fourth-year junior, Dunn is a Swiss Army knife kind of player who can do a little bit of everything.
At the plate, he’s a .306 career hitter with a .398 on-base percentage. On the base paths, he’s got enough speed to be a weapon, and he plays with a high level of effort and intensity. But it’s his defensive versatility that really stands out.
While he has extensive experience playing center field for the Cardinals, second base might be his best bet defensively at the next level and he played there during his summer on the Cape. He can certainly chip in at third base and left field if needed.
As it stands now, though, he’ll play shortstop in 2021. That’s partly in deference to fourth-year junior Luke Brown, who is a true speedster in center field, but it’s also because McDonnell has confidence that Dunn has the arm strength and athleticism to do so, and he wants to give him the chance to show that he can.
“I said (to Dunn) ‘you showed you can play second, third and every position in the outfield, so the scouts are asking if you can play short. I’m going to give you a chance to play short,’ ” McDonnell said.
That’s the beauty of a player like Dunn, though, and it’s why he will make for an intriguing pro prospect this season. Even if it doesn’t end up working out at short, you can point at nearly any other defensive position on the field and Dunn can play there.
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Is there a better position player group in the country?
Maybe there is or maybe there isn’t, but the fact that it’s a serious question tells you everything you need to know about this particular group of position players.
The Cardinals boast three players in the third-year sophomore trio of third baseman Alex Binelas, catcher Henry Davis and outfielder Levi Usher who could all conceivably be first-round picks come the 2021 draft. All three are currently ranked inside the top 25 among college prospects for the next draft.
Binelas is a power hitter with a good arm over at third base, Davis has a howitzer for an arm behind the plate and an improving offensive game, and Usher is a good runner who hit well in his one season of junior college baseball and in a small sample at Louisville in 2020.
Then there’s Dunn and Brown, with the latter a good enough center fielder that it not only helped push Dunn to the infield, but it could also push Usher, who would play center field for most any other team in college baseball, to an outfield corner.
There are tons of candidates to make big jumps and become stars in 2021, including third-year sophomore backup catcher/infielder Ben Metzinger, second-year freshman catcher/first baseman Dalton Rushing and Poland, who will once again battle for the job at second base in addition to pitching.
It feels a bit upside-down to have the position player talent at Louisville be more notable than the pitching talent heading into the season, but that’s the reality of the situation with this group.
How many bases will this team steal?
Louisville assistant coaches Eric Snider and Adam Vrable like to run aggressive offenses that steal at least 100 bases every year, and given the speed on this particular team, that number might come relatively easily.
Brown and Usher were among the national leaders in the category in 2020 and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see them in that rarified air again over a full season in 2021. Dunn is a good runner who stole 15 bases in 2019. Outfielder Trey Leonard may not carve out a starting role, but he’s a burner who will pick up steals as a late-game pinch runner. He swiped 14 bags in that role in 2019. And just about everyone in the lineup can be expected to steal a handful of bases, which will add up as the season goes on.
The record for stolen bases in a season for Louisville under Dan McDonnell is 153 in 2007, but outfielder Boomer Whiting had 73 on his own that year. Perhaps the better comparison is the 2013 team, which had 150.
Current White Sox outfielder Adam Engel had 41 that season, which is a big number, but also an achievable number for a player like Brown or Usher in 2021. Beyond Engel, four others in the 2013 lineup had at least 13, and with the speed the 2021 lineup will have from top to bottom, that seems like a reasonable template for this current team.