Over the past few weeks we have lived through a quintessential Indiana winter. Some days in the 50s and creeping into the 60s. Some days where we might as well live in Canada. But those warm days have been refreshing in Bloomington, and have allowed spring sports to get some outdoor work in.
On a few occasions, the Indiana baseball team took full advantage of the warmth, sneaking out to Bart Kaufman Field for intrasquad scrimmages and to prepare for their push for a fourth consecutive NCAA appearance. Manager Chris Lemonis took the opportunity to get back on the game field and out of the Mellencamp Pavillion to provide his first take on the 2016 club.
Lemonis told Big Ten Network that with the maturity of his pitching and the progress of Indiana's offense, if the defense comes around, the Hoosiers can beat anyone and everyone. "We gotta be a better defensive team," Lemonis stated after noting that the intrasquad games showed that the team isn't quite ready to play. "We've got a mature pitching staff, so we feel like if we can defend at a high level behind them, we'll have a chance to win every game"
The second-year skipper also noted that his team is eager to get the season rolling. "We have a hungry group," Lemonis said. "They're ready to compete, they're ready to play." He added that, "It's a mature group [and] they've got a lot to prove."
But that video was from 15 days before media day on Monday, where Lemonis made an announcement, the result of which dramatically reduces the amount of experience in the lineup. Senior Nick Ramos, who seemingly had a vice grip on the starting shortstop job, is no longer with the team, according to Lemonis. He did not elaborate on the Ramos departure other than to say that he is still enrolled as a student at the University.
What that means for the lineup and defensive positioning is that there is probably now room for Brian Wilhite, Isaiah Pasteur, and JUCO transfer Tony Butler to all find themselves in the starting lineup. Wilhite and Pasteur started side-by-side on the left side of the infield for most of last season when Ramos was injured, and though there were some defensive woes, the two held their own for being inexperienced. And Butler was a Virginia Cavalier his Freshman year before spending last season with Madison College (JUCO) where he hit .356.
Pitchers to watch
1. P Evan Bell, Sr.
In a somewhat surprising move, Lemonis announced on Monday that senior Evan Bell will be the Saturday starter, sandwiched between ace Kyle Hart and senior Caleb Baragar. Bell has made just five starts in his career at Indiana, and will need to be much improved in the area of keeping batters from reaching base. Last season, he recorded a WHIP of 1.26, which helped contribute to a 3.62 ERA.
But Bell's inexperience as a starter doesn't mean he isn't qualified. He's recorded over 100 innings pitched in 47 career appearances, and has provided a steady hand at some incredibly important moments, including in a start against Notre Dame last season, and in 6.1 long innings against Michigan in the midst of the Big Ten swoon.
Hart, who started eight games and went 5-0 with a 1.21 ERA after returning from Tommy John surgery last season, will undoubtedly be the ace of the Hoosier staff in 2016. But for a starting rotation that was in flux near the end of last season when Christian Morris (not returning), Baragar, and Jake Kelzer all struggled, and Scott Effross (not returning) found incredible amounts of success in the bullpen, it will be critical to find some consistency and a trio of winning arms before Big Ten play starts.
And Bell, being the new starter in the group, is the key to the whole thing.
2. P Jake Kelzer, Sr.
I must admit that I was unprepared to be writing this. I thought for sure that Jake Kelzer would find himself being the Saturday starter for Indiana, but instead he will be closing out ballgames for Lemonis, trying to fill the monstrous shoes of Ryan Halstead. Kelzer was in and out of the rotation last season as a sophomore, and was good enough to be the highest Hoosier drafted, taken by the Chicago Cubs in the 14th round.
But taking a look at his numbers, the decision makes since, as they show that even in being good enough for the Cubs, he was a shell of himself compared to his freshman season when he made zero starts. Look at the change in numbers from 2014 to 2015 for Kelzer:
The WHIP and ERA were so much better for Kelzer out of the pen, and a couple years of maturity ought to bring those numbers down even further when he's tucked into the closer role for this team. And having the stamina of a starter, there's no reason to think Kelzer can't end up being what Scott Effross was last season -- a guy who can give you six or seven innings out of the bullpen every weekend, no matter how you use him in each game -- if Lemonis wants to play with the bullpen.
But more than likely, we'll just see Belcher, Foote, and others getting Kelzer the ball in the 8th and 9th.
3. P Thomas Belcher, RS Jr.
The Hoosiers didn't just lose pitchers who can eat up innings (Morris and Effross) or a solid closer (Halstead), but lost one of the best setup men in the Big Ten in Luke Harrison. Replacing Harrison may fall on the shoulders of Thomas Belcher.
Youngsters Austin Foote and Brian Hobbie will certainly be called upon to eat some innings in middle relief and in some setup scenarios, but Belcher, the most consistent and dominant guy in the bullpen should be mostly responsible for getting the ball to Kelzer. Last season Belcher threw 48.0 innings in 27 appearances, didn't give up a walk until his 13th appearance and 28th inning pitched, and held opponents scoreless in 18 of his 27 appearances.
But what adds a little more intrigue to Belcher as a candidate for the setup role is his sidearm delivery, which often seems to fool hitters. Putting him in a role where a team has just one innings, or even one or two batters, to figure it out might give him even that more of an advantage.
Bonus. P Will Coursen-Carr, Sr.
Disclaimer: I am the official water carrier for Will Coursen-Carr. But I shouldn't be the only one. As I've written before on this website, we're talking about a guy who threw 127 pitches in a complete game to win the Big Ten Championship, earned the win in the regional-clinching game, and then got the save in the first Super Regional game at Florida State before coming back the next day to pitch 4.0 innings in relief and earn the win to send Indiana to Omaha. ALL AS A FRESHMAN.
Then, in almost 30 less innings his sophomore year, he walked nearly the same amount of batters he did as a freshman.
But even in a 15-inning junior season (50 innings less than he threw as a freshman), Coursen-Carr showed flashes of excellence, and with Morris, Effross, Harrison, and Halstead all gone, you have to think that there's room for Coursen-Carr, whether it be as a weekday starter, a long- or middle-reliever, and potentially as a spot starter on the weekends.
I could be wrong. But I hope I'm not. And I bet Lemonis hopes I'm not too.
Position players to watch
1. IF Brian Wilhite, Sr.
Brian Wilhite's emergence last season as a real threat at the plate (hits in nine of his final 11 games, including some big hits in the Nashville regional) should have Hoosier fans excited to see what he can do in his senior campaign.
Even with the Ramos departure which seems to clear room for Wilhite and Pasteur to work one side of the infield together, there are still an array of guys -- Alex Krupa, Luke Miller, Tony Butler, Austin Cangelosi, Colby Stratten, Laren Eustace -- to fight for a handful of positions that aren't locked down by the likes of Craig Dedelow and Logan Sowers.
What that could mean for the Hoosiers, at least in the early going, is a number of different lineups with a lot of different guys getting shots. And if that's the case, the four guys who expect to be everyday players will need to produce big results for Indiana. And it means that Brian Wilhite will have to continue to be a catalyst for the club at the plate and shortstop or the hot corner.
2. Alex Krupa, Jr.
Drafted twice the Cincinnati Reds, Alex Krupa has twice said "no thanks," and now, after originally being part of the same recruiting class as Webb, Cangelosi, and Foote, he will finally make his mark in Bloomington. The loss of Scott Donley, Will Nolden, and Casey Rodrigue leaves holes in the lineup, and perhaps no incoming player is better suited to fill one of those holes than Krupa. In 60 games for Iowa Western Community College last season, he hit .428 and recorded a .492 OBP. He also had 10 triples.
He might be the DH, he might be an OF, but wherever it is, you have to think that Lemonis is going to get this kid on the field. His numbers in JUCO won't translate perfectly to the Big Ten, but there's nothing here to not be excited about.
3. C Demetrius Webb, So.
They call him Big Meech, Larry Hoover.
Indiana has had a great run the past few season behind the dish. All-world Kyle Schwarber was a just freak and Brad Hartong was a well qualified replacement who did better than holding his own in filling Schwarber's shoes. But now, there are real questions at catcher for Indiana.
Demetrius Webb played in just 13 games as a freshman and the results left a little something to be desired. Hopefully it was just a young guy who didn't get a ton of reps, but in those 13 games, Webb allowed two passed balls and was 0-for-2 in catching runners stealing. And offensively, Webb was just 2-for-14 with four strikeouts. Indiana will need Webb to be a monster behind the plate and serviceable at the plate.
If he isn't able to do those things, freshman Ryan Fineman may get a shot earlier than most college catchers.
How you'll know things are going well (other than winning)
1. If Lemonis isn't tinkering with his lineup and rotation come April. The schedule includes just one series (Cal State Fullerton) and one weekday contest (Louisville) against ranked opponents, and the series with Fullerton falls on just the second weekend of the season. That leaves a large chuck of time and a lot of subpar opponents for Lemonis to "mess around" against. And even if play isn't perfect, the Hoosiers ought to rack up a bunch of wins and should be able to find out exactly what work for them in March. And if so, that will let Lemonis settle into a regular lineup and rotation by the time Big Ten play begins.
2. If we're not talking about pitching woes. For all the production lost, there is no reason to believe that the offense won't be just fine. At the very least, it should be better off at the outset than last year's club, which lost Schwarber, Travis, and DeMuth from the previous season. What that should mean for Indiana is that the pitching doesn't have to be stellar. It just has to be better than serviceable.
Hart will give them a chance every Friday night. Beyond that, though, it's hard to know exactly what to expect from the staff. But if the pitching is just good, Indiana will have a chance to be anybody, anytime, anywhere.
How you'll know things are going poorly (other than losing)
1. If there's a revolving door in the rotation. This was the problem that led to Indiana's dreadful 2-5 and 6-10 start in Big Ten play last season. They couldn't find an ace, let alone a steady two or three man. Hart's return from injury solved part of the problem, and should prevent similar levels of inconsistency this season, but the Hoosiers will need to find a regular two and three as well. If they can't, the soft schedule will make it difficult for them to make up for any bad losses that result.
2. If the Hoosiers are filling up the last column on the box score. The early season woes last season, which were soon forgotten after they rattled off a dozen or so straight wins, including a sweep of Fullerton at BKF, were driven by errors all over the field. As poor as the pitching was during the first part of the Big Ten season, the defense was that bad to start the year. Lemonis has already noted, as mentioned above, that this team has to get better defensively.
Even though the pitching and hitting should be experienced enough to carry most of the weight, the Hoosiers won't be so good that they have room for a comity of mistakes. They'll have to reduce the defensive blunders early in the year, especially if they want to pad the resume before Big Ten play by winning the series at Fullerton.
Check back tomorrow for Part II of our baseball preview, which includes Big Ten power rankings and predictions.