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Missouri Baseball: Five Questions to Answer Entering 2022

Torin Montgomery Courtesymissouri
Missouri 3B Torin Montgomery (Photo courtesy of Missouri)

Missouri endured a tough season in 2021, going 15-36 overall with an 8-22 record in SEC play that placed it last in the conference. Its pitching staff issued more walks than any team in the country and its offense hit just .243/.334/.355 as a unit.

Save for last season, there’s no doubt that Missouri is better equipped to compete in the SEC now than when it first entered the conference ahead of the 2013 season. The 2017, 2018 and 2019 teams were all a handful of wins away from being postseason teams. The 2020 team was ineligible for the postseason but was off to an excellent start before the season was canceled. Getting over the hump, however, is the hardest part, as the Tigers have learned.

To find out whether the 2022 Tigers are the team to get over that hump or are at least closer to those near-miss teams than they are to the 2021 team that struggled so badly, these five questions loom large.

Is this a reset season for Missouri?

It’s very much a reset season for Missouri, as a number of regulars from last season’s team have moved on to various places. 

In the lineup, top hitter Andrew Keefer exhausted his eligibility, outfielder Brandt Belk transferred to South Carolina, shortstop Mark Vierling transferred to Saint Louis and catcher Chad McDaniel didn’t return after announcing midway through last season that he was entering the transfer portal.

On the mound, Konnor Ash, who missed significant time with injury last season after being projected as the next ace of the staff, signed as a free agent with the Phillies after the draft. Former closer Trey Dillard, who missed all of last season, transferred to Texas A&M. Hard-throwing righthander Seth Halvorsen, who led the Tigers in innings in 2021, transferred to Tennessee.

Those are all, or were at one time, very productive players at Missouri, and many of them were key pieces of those teams that came within an eyelash of regionals. But given how last season went, it’s hard to argue against it being a good time for Missouri to have a hard reset.

“That’s exactly what it is. It’s a reset button,” Missouri coach Steve Bieser said. “We had a very disappointing year last year and I knew that there needed to be some adjustments to the roster, adjustments to what type of baseball is going to play really well at Mizzou.”

It might be tougher to swallow losing some of those players if it weren’t for the fact that the Tigers have a lot to be excited about with the players they brought into the program. In addition to a top-35 recruiting class, Missouri also welcomed in the 14th-ranked transfer class in the country.

Sometimes a fresh start is just needed in a program, and it doesn’t hurt when that fresh start comes with an infusion of talent.

Who’s in the mix for the weekend rotation?

This is a big question for Missouri, as it struggled to get SEC-level starting pitching last season with a weekend rotation that most often featured Halvorsen (4-3, 6.00), Spencer Miles (2-6, 7.01) and Zach Hise (0-7, 6.98).

Miles and Hise simply weren’t ready for the roles they ended up being thrown into last season and they took their lumps as a result. They’re back in the competition for weekend starts in 2022, with the hope that they will be better equipped to handle it this time around.

Miles, now a third-year sophomore, shows promise. The righthander’s fastball reached as high as 95 mph last season and was in the high 90s in shorter outings over the summer in the Cape Cod League, and he has four distinct pitches in his arsenal. More importantly, after getting beaten up during the spring, he had some success on the Cape, which could help springboard him into a much more successful 2022 season.

“Spencer Miles was able to go to the Cape Cod and kind of establish himself and (he) threw really well,” Bieser said. “He’s bringing back a lot of confidence and he’s bringing back experience throwing as the Friday night guy. So I think he’s learned a lot from that and he can step in and be that guy that can lead by example on a pitching staff.”

Redshirt freshman righthander Parker Wright is another returner who could find himself back in the competition for a rotation spot. At this time last year, he was Missouri’s most impressive pitcher and was perhaps on track to be the team’s Sunday starter, but an injury ended up costing him the season.

A slew of transfers will also be in the mix, including third-year sophomore righthander Carter Rustad from San Diego, third-year sophomore righthander Austin Marozas from Charlotte and sixth-year senior lefthander Chris Wall from NAIA Columbia College.

Rustad has pedigree, having been a top-200 draft prospect coming out of high school in 2019, and he has good stuff, with a fastball that reaches the mid 90s and a slider that’s a swing-and-miss pitch when it’s on. Bieser describes Marozas, who was a swingman for Charlotte last season, as the biggest surprise of the fall so far in terms of how good his stuff has looked. Wall absolutely dominated at the NAIA level, most recently striking out 138 batters in 79.2 innings in 2021, and with a fastball that sits in the low 90s, he has the stuff to compete in Division I.

Health is always a factor in figuring out how the pieces fit together on a pitching staff, as Missouri knows all too well after dealing with bad injury luck last season, but if this group makes it to 2022 strong, there’s enough quality depth here that the Tigers should be much more solid in the rotation.

Are there obvious closer candidates after closing games by committee last season?

Because of the injuries and inconsistency Missouri dealt with on the mound last season, it was forced to use a closer-by-committee approach at the back of the bullpen.

Bieser hopes next season is a little bit different.

“If you can find that (pitcher) where everybody knows who the closer is and who’s the go-to guy in late-game situations and have that consistency, it’s a lot better than trying to mix and match constantly throughout the year,” Bieser said. “That’s something we really want to be able to establish by the time we get out of fall. Start identifying what that’s going to look like and then get that person prepared for that type of role.”

There are a handful of names to watch as Missouri looks for that guy. Fourth-year junior righthander Drew Garrett is perhaps chief among them. He had an 8.71 ERA last season in 10.1 innings and struggled with control to the tune of 15 walks in those innings, but he has a lot going for him, including a high-spin fastball that averaged over 93 mph and touched 97. Although this is his fourth year pitching in college baseball (including two seasons in junior college), Garrett is still fairly new to pitching, having not done very much of it in high school.

Fifth-year senior Austin Cheeley, a transfer from Middle Tennessee State, is another obvious contender for the role. The 6-foot-8 righthander has plenty of velocity, with a fastball up to 95 mph last season, but he also boasts a splitter that shows the potential to be the kind of swing-and-miss pitch a closer needs.

Two other returners who have closer-type stuff are sophomore righthanders Holden Phelps and Austin Troesser. Both have mid-90s fastballs, with Troesser having the ability to throw as high as 97-98 mph. Troesser was also dominant this summer in the Appalachian League, where he struck out 39 batters in 22.2 innings.

Whoever ends up being the guy chosen to close games, Missouri certainly hopes the roster upgrades from this offseason will put that person in many more save situations than they encountered as a group a season ago.

Jared Mckenzie Courtesybaylor

Baylor Baseball: Five Questions to Answer Entering 2022

Baylor narrowly missed the NCAA Tournament last season. In 2022, it has a roster that should prevent it from being left out again.

How does the middle infield shake out?

From a position player standpoint, the biggest area of talent surplus for Mizzou is in the middle infield, where it’s matching a productive returning player with a pair of talented newcomers.

The returner is fourth-year junior shortstop Joshua Day, who hit .250/.374/.316 last season in 44 games. Those numbers might not stand out, but context is important. Day got off to a hot start and was hitting .300 as late as April 10, but a broken hamate bone suffered around the midseason mark slowed him as he played through the injury.

“My opinion still was Day was going into putting up some of the best shortstop numbers in our league if he wouldn’t have broken his hamate and was playing through a broken hamate through the last half of conference play,” Bieser said.

Day is the incumbent, but he’s being pushed in the fall by true freshman Justin Colon, the top recruit in Missouri’s most recent class. In fact, to this point of the fall, Bieser says that Colon has actually outplayed Day at shortstop. With good hands and plus arm strength, Colon is ready for the SEC from a defensive standpoint right now, even if there are more questions about what to expect from him offensively right away.

Fourth-year junior Florida State transfer Nander De Sedas is also new on the scene in Columbia. A shortstop at FSU, De Sedas is working more at second base this fall, and regardless of who wins the job at shortstop, pairing that person with De Sedas at second base will give Mizzou quite the athletic middle infield duo.

De Sedas’ offensive struggles at FSU are well documented, but he did show occasional power with the Seminoles, and that could be a real plus for a Tigers’ lineup that was short on extra-base power in 2021.

Who leads the lineup?

Day projects to be a catalyst in the lineup, and if De Sedas can be a bit more consistent at the plate, he can provide value there as well, but unquestionably the best returning hitter in the Missouri lineup is third-year sophomore third baseman Torin Montgomery, who hit .278/.373/.430 with five home runs in 2021 after transferring from Boise State.

A physically imposing 6-foot-3, 230 pounds, Montgomery impacts the baseball like few others do on the Missouri roster, and it’s not out of the question that he could hit 12-15 home runs in 2022.

Fourth-year junior first baseman Luke Mann, who led the team in home runs last season with eight, could also provide that level of production, given his plus raw power. With 98 strikeouts in 218 career at-bats, the trick for Mann is making more contact so that he can get to more of that power in games.

“I think the Cape Cod helped him out a lot,” Bieser said of Mann. “He got out there and he got abused for the first few weeks there, and I think just understanding that (against) the biggest high-level pitching, when you already have the power, the next thing you’ve got to do is just learn to shorten up and just get the barrel to the ball and kind of be smooth. And down the backside of the Cape Cod (schedule), he started to really do that, and he’s kind of carried that on here in the fall. He’s been really short with his swing and has made a lot of loud contact, but I think he’s understanding when you have power, you don’t have to overswing.”

Speaking of power, it’s worth keeping an eye on sixth-year senior Coastal Carolina transfer Fox Leum, a starting DH candidate. He has light-tower power, but thanks to the pandemic and injuries, he didn’t get many chances to show it in two seasons at Coastal. Bieser says that he, Montgomery and Mann are the three players who have consistently put up the gaudiest exit velocity numbers throughout the fall.

A couple of freshmen outfielders in JuJu Stevens and Carlos Pena could also play big roles in the lineup.

Stevens, the No. 310 prospect on the BA 500 ahead of the 2021 draft, has a high offensive ceiling thanks in large part to his bat speed and athleticism, and although he could handle center field if pressed into duty, he’s more likely ticketed for left field for the Tigers. Pena, who was No. 426 on the BA 500 in the same class, has a classic right field profile thanks to his plus arm and plus raw power coming from a strong lefthanded swing.

Missouri doesn’t typically have one of the more explosive offenses in the SEC, but its best teams in the SEC have offenses that run fairly deep and can beat you in a variety of ways. With some steps forward from key players, the 2022 Missouri lineup can fit that mold.

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