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Michigan Baseball: Five Questions to Answer Entering 2021

Michigan started the 2020 season with a bang, going 3-1 on Opening Weekend with wins against Arizona State, Cal Poly and Vanderbilt. The Wolverines had mixed results the next few weeks and were 8-7 when the season came to a halt.

Up-and-down results early in the season are nothing unusual for Northern teams and Michigan had played difficult competition without the benefit of a home game in Ann Arbor. If the Wolverines had been able to find their stride under coach Erik Bakich, they had the talent to make another run at the College World Series after their runner-up finish in 2019.

Now, Michigan is moving forward after losing six players to professional baseball. It will have a different look in 2021 without much of the core of the 2019 team still on the roster. The Wolverines still have the talent to compete for the Big Ten championship and again be in contention for a trip to Omaha.

As Michigan looks to 2021, here are five questions it will look to answer this fall.

What’s the next step for lefthander Steve Hajjar as he takes over as ace?

Michigan produced a trio of second-round pitchers in the last two years—lefthander Tommy Henry and righthander Karl Kauffman in 2019 and righthander Jeff Criswell in 2020. Now, Hajjar will get his turn at the front of the rotation and has the potential to be the best of the group.

The third-year freshman was outstanding for Michigan in 2020, going 3-0, 2.70 with 24 strikeouts and 11 walks in 20 innings after missing the 2019 season due to a torn ACL. He’s the seventh-ranked college player in the 2021 draft class and could become the first Wolverine to be drafted in the first round since 2000, when the Yankees selected catcher Dave Parrish 28th overall.

Hajjar did not pitch this summer, instead spending his time working out at Michigan’s facilities. He put on about 20 pounds this offseason and is now 6-foot-5, 235 pounds. He’s also worked to refine his delivery to better incorporate his lower half. His breaking ball and changeup have also improved, giving him three weapons with which to attack hitters.

Hajjar could be the best pitcher in the Big Ten, which would give Michigan an advantage every Friday night in conference play.

How will the rest of Michigan’s pitching staff take shape?

Behind Hajjar, Michigan has a plethora of options on the mound. Fourth-year righthander Blake Beers last year served as the Sunday starter, going 2-2, 3.13, and should return to the rotation.

There will be heavy competition to join them. Righthander Will Proctor, a graduate transfer, won a spot in Georgia’s weekend rotation in 2019 before injuring his shoulder and will now be in the mix for the Wolverines. Lefthander Ben Dragani went 6-2, 2.76 in 75 innings as a freshman in 2018. He’s largely been sidelined by injury since but if he is back to full health, he’s a proven option. Second-year freshmen Jacob Denner and Cameron Weston are both ready to make a jump and could move into the rotation. Lefthander Walker Cleveland and righthander Isaiah Paige both started important games for the Wolverines in the 2019 postseason.

Not all those pitchers can start, which will make for a deep bullpen as well. The Wolverines also get back righthander Willie Weiss, who saved nine games as a freshman in 2019 but missed the abbreviated 2020 season due to injury. Righthander Joe Pace and lefthanders Angelo Smith and Jack White all have plenty of college innings under their belts as well. And Michigan’s recruiting class has some intriguing pitchers who have the ability to get in the mix, though with so many experienced pitchers returning, innings won’t be easy to come by.

“We have a lot of veteran guys fighting for innings,” Bakich said. “We’ve got options, we’ve got depth. Putting the pieces together as coaches will be a great challenge.”

How will Michigan’s graduate transfers fit in to the team?

Proctor is one of five grad transfers Michigan added this summer. The other four are position players—catchers Griffin Mazur (UC Irvine) and Christian Molfetta (Stanford) and infielders Matt Frey (Davidson) and Benjamin Sems (Kansas). All four are having strong falls and figure to find roles this spring.

Sems has the most clear-cut path into the lineup. With shortstop Jack Blomgren drafted in the fifth round by the Rockies, Sems, the 2020 preseason all-Big 12 shortstop, is clear to take over the position. He’s a good defender, runs well and hit .305/.414/.437 in 2019.

Frey this fall has been impressive offensively and the lefthanded hitter was batting .327/.507/.551 with three home runs in 16 games when the season was halted. He primarily was a second baseman at Davidson but could move to third base for Michigan.

Mazur and Molfetta are competing with second-year freshman Jimmy Obertop behind the plate, as Michigan must replace Joe Donovan, who signed with the Indians as a nondrafted free agent. Mazur and Molfetta are both sixth-year seniors who bring a lot of experience and are good defenders. Obertop is a powerful hitter and probably Michigan’s best prospect as a position player. All three offer defensive versatility, which will allow them to move around the field.

“Those three guys are the guys we’re trying to decipher who can catch, who can play first base, who could potentially play in the outfield, who could DH?” Bakich said. “All three are in the mix for catcher, but they’re also proven hitters and have had good falls offensively. Now, I’m thinking about how we get all their bats in the lineup at the same time.”

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After losing several everyday players to pro ball, who will emerge in the Wolverines’ lineup?

The Wolverines this summer saw four regulars from their 2019 Omaha team move on to pro ball—Blomgren, Donovan and outfielders Jesse Franklin and Jordan Nwogu. First baseman Matthew Schmidt, who started 10 games last year, also is gone.

Blomgren and Donovan’s departures (and, to some extent, Schmidt’s) were accounted for with grad transfers. Franklin and Nwogu leave a large hole in the outfield, though Franklin missed last season due to injury (he was scheduled to return by the start of Big Ten play if the season had continued).

Michigan has some options in the outfield, but after producing a trio of third-round picks over the last two years, it doesn’t have clear stars at the position. Clark Elliott last season as a true freshman broke through as a starter and hit .245/.369/.340. Christian Bullock is a good defender and has experience as a fifth-year senior, as does fourth-year sophomore Danny Zimmerman. Second-year freshman Joey Velazquez is an exciting athlete, but splits time with football. Perhaps one of the catchers will also work himself into the outfield mix.

Obertop has what it takes to be a middle-of-the-order hitter for the Wolverines and a high-round pick in 2022. Elliott was an exciting revelation last year and can take a jump. Infielders Riley Bertram and Ted Burton have shown promise and could take a step forward this spring. Adding experienced hitters like Frey and Sems to the mix is a boost.

Replacing the offensive production of Blomgren, Donovan, Franklin, Nwogu and Schmidt will take a group effort. The Wolverines have the potential to put together a deep lineup and Bakich said the data this fall is the best they’ve ever had.

“This is the highest performing group we’ve had,” he said. “How that translates into outside competition, we’ll have to see. But this is the highest performing position player group we’ve had. That’s a big statement considering some of the hitters we’ve had in the past like Franklin, Brewer, Blomgren, Nwogu, Donovan, Jimmy Kerr and many others.”

How is Michigan’s freshmen class progressing?

Because of this fall’s unusual circumstances, only a handful of Michigan’s freshmen are on campus this semester. Most, including 2020 Michigan Gatorade Player of the Year Logan Wood, will join their teammates for the spring semester.

The arrangement is unusual, but it has allowed the Wolverines to better insulate from the coronavirus.

“We only have four guys in the dorms,” Bakich said. “That’s minimized the threat of those kinds of outbreaks. Everyone else can do a good job of cohorting off campus.”

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