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Indiana Baseball preview part III: The Hoosiers

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In the third part of our preview, we take a look at the players expected to be key contributors for Indiana.

Part I - Non-conference opponents

Part II - Big Ten opponents

Part III - The Hoosiers

Part IV - Predictions and prognostications, February 16

In Part III of our Indiana Baseball preview, we take a look at the Hoosiers themselves.

Last season, the Hoosiers put a club on the field that had all the experience you could ask for in a rotation. Several spots in the lineup, though, were filled by players without any, such as freshmen Luke Miller, Scotty Bradley, Ryan Fineman, and JUCO transfer Alex Krupa.

This season, the roles will be flipped, as Manager Chris Lemonis was quick to point out on Media Day. “We kinda have two different teams in some ways. We have a very older, mature that a lot of our fans and media will know about,” Lemonis said. “And then we have a very young pitching staff, but talented pitching staff.”

The Young Pitching Staff

Lemonis also told the media on Monday how he expected the rotation to look this weekend. Jonathan Stiever, who perhaps brings the most starting experience for this staff, will get the nod on Friday. Tim Herrin will start on Saturday and then will be followed by freshman Andrew Saalfrank and Brian Hobbie on Sunday and Monday, respectively. Lemonis added that Luke Stephenson, B.J. Sabol, and Paul Milto are the names that you can expect to see at the backend of the battery.

Key Departures:

Kyle Hart, Caleb Baragar, Jake Kelzer, Thomas Belcher

The Hoosiers have a ton of innings to replace. All-everything Kyle Hart was the best Friday starter in the Big Ten last season (better even than Mike Shawaryn), Baragar provided Indiana with ace-quality on Saturdays or Sundays, and Kelzer and Belcher may have been the most experienced one-two bullpen punch in the country.

Expected Key Contributors

Jonathan Stiever. As a freshman in 2016, Stiever was 1-1 with a 2.47 ERA. He made four starts and 18 total appearances. He struck out just 30 batters in 40 innings, but that number may see a significant bump after adding a quality breaking ball to his repertoire over the summer. If you’re looking for a reason to believe that Stiever can be the ace that Indiana needs, look no further than his outing against Louisville last season, where he went 3.2 IP and gave up no runs to the Cardinals.

Brian Hobbie. Hobbie has made just three starts in his first two seasons at Indiana, all coming as a freshman. He only threw 8.2 IP last season, a 10-inning decrease from his freshman campaign, but he saw improvements in just about every area in that limited role. He’s never gone more than 4.0 IP in a contest, though, so the question will be how deep can Hobbie get the Hoosiers into the game before the bullpen has to spell him. Partly for this reason, it will be critical for Stiever to go six to seven innings on Fridays once the season is a handful of weeks old.

Luke Stephenson. Lemonis gave three names for late inning work on Monday, but you have to think that Stephenson will be the favorite to close ballgames for the Hoosiers. Perhaps the least experienced RS Senior in the nation after being redshirted and injured at Vanderbilt and then sitting out a year to recover, Stephenson went 30 innings last season, making five starts in midweek games. While it’s not quite the same, it seems that Stephenson’s move to the bullpen may be like Jake Kelzer’s where sacrificing some starter experience is worth it to potentially lock opponents down on the backend.

Tim Herrin/Andrew Saalfrank. Just based on the first weekend’s rotation, it seems that two local lefties, Terre Haute South’s Tim Herrin and Heritage’s Andrew Saalfrank will compete for the weekend role that doesn’t belong to Stiever or Hobbie. Saalfrank, a true freshman, throws a fastball that maxes out in the upper 80s and mixes in a curveball, a slider, and a changeup, according to Prep Baseball Report. Herrin, who saw limited action last season (3 IP in 4 games) was highly touted out of high school after striking out 50 batters in 42 IP as a senior. Regardless of who gets the weekend nod, both guys figured to be critical to Indiana’s success as they’ll both see starts, whether it be on the weekend or in midweek contest.

The Experienced Lineup

With the pitching staff discussed above, you might be thinking those boys better score a lot of runs. While that may not be an accurate statement, given the talent the young arms have, it wouldn’t hurt. And it certainly isn’t out of the question.

The Hoosiers return a bevy of players who contributed either on an everyday or pitch-in basis last season - Alex Krupa, Tony Butler, Austin Cangelosi, Laren Eustace, Ryan Fineman, Scotty Bradley, Luke Miller, Craig Dedelow, and Logan Sowers. It’s an amount of experience that the Hoosiers haven’t seen since the 2014 team that was fresh off a trip to Omaha and earned the school’s first National Seed in the NCAA Tournament.

Key Departures

Brian Wilhite, Isaiah Pasteur

Brian Wilhite’s power may be missed, as he hit 8 dongers for the Hoosiers last season. But there’s plenty of reason to think that the returning guys can pick up the slack. Pasteur is a surprise departure after a transfer to George Washington. But all in all, there’s not anything to fret over with these shoes to fill.

Expected Key Contributors

Craig Dedelow. It all starts with Indiana’s centerfielder and best hitter. Dedelow has hit over .300 in each of the last two seasons and, luckily for Hoosier fans, decided to give three in a row a shot after turning down a contract with the Pittsburgh Pirates, who drafted him over the summer in the 24th round. But Dedelow’s bat isn’t all he’s got. He’s proven himself to be an outstanding centerfielder. If the Hoosiers are playing well, there’s a good chance that Dedelow is playing well. Don’t be surprised if he’s in the hunt for Big Ten Player of the Year.

Logan Sowers. The former Mr. Baseball avoided the sophomore slump last season and improved his batting average to .273 and hit 8 home runs in the process. Assuming that Krupa and Dedelow (and perhaps Miller) are in front of him, Sowers will have ample opportunity to knock in some runs and knock out some pitchers with one big swing of the bat. With him in the middle, the top part of Indiana’s lineup might just be the toughest three-to-four hitter portion of any Big Ten lineup, and will cause headaches for any pitcher that has to face it.

Tony Butler. After spending his freshman year at Virginia and his sophomore year in JUCO, Tony Butler found a home in Bloomington. And his senior year has already started off on a high note as he was named team captain. Last season, he became the first Indiana player to ever be named to Rawlings’ Gold Glove team. In 203 chances, he recorded 76 putouts and had 126 assists for a 1.000% fielding percentage. He only hit .229 on the season, but Butler isn’t on the field for his bat. However, if the bat comes along, it’ll be a nice bonus for the club and the kind of thing that could earn Butler national recognition.

Jeremy Houston. It’s hard to recall a freshman in the Indiana baseball program that will have as much on his shoulders as Jeremy Houston will. Sources tell Crimson Quarry that Lemonis has raved about Houston since the minute he stepped on campus. Out of Mt. Carmel High School (IL), Houston is expected to be the starting shortstop from day one. How good does everyone expect him to be? D1Baseball has named him their preseason Big Ten Freshman of the Year.

The Big Questions

What will Indiana get out of Austin Cangelosi? The Scatman struggled tremendously at the plate in 2016, hitting just .219 (40 hits) and striking out 49 times in 183 at-bats. His value at first base has been enough to keep him in the lineup, but to make the leap from good to great, Indiana needs Cangelosi to provide some pop at the plate. If he doesn’t, Lemonis may eventually be forced to tinker with the lineup and see who else can play first base.

Who will be the odd men out? With a ton of guys coming back and a couple of newcomers who would be expected to contribute, one of the questions that might get answered sooner rather than later is who will be left out? It’s easiest to start behind the dish, where newcomer Jake Matheny, son of Cardinals manager Mike Matheny, will have a hard time overcoming Fineman, unless Fineman is moved to the Designated Hitter role. But then that leaves a crowded outfield where Sowers, Krupa, Dedelow, and Eustace are all worthy of starting. Dedelow might have the chops to play first base, but then you’re taking one of the best defensive outfielders in the conference away from his normal and natural position and pulls a senior who has started 101 games in the last two years in Cangelosi. Cangy could play third base, but Luke Miller may have as strong of a hold on that position as Houston and Butler seem to have the middle of the infield. And I haven’t even gotten to Scotty Bradley (who started 29 games last season, mostly as the DH), Chris Lowe, and Colby Stratten, all of whom have shown they have the ability to contribute if given the opportunity.

The bottom line is that more than one someone is going to be left out of the mix, not just one day at a time, but probably for most of the season. Here’s a look at potential placements by position that demonstrates how crowded it is:

C - Fineman, Matheny

1B - Cangelosi, Miller, Bradley (and maybe Dedelow?)

2B - Butler, Stratten

SS - Houston

3B - Miller, Cangelosi, Bradley (and maybe Stratten?)

OF - Krupa, Sowers, Dedelow, Eustace, Lowe, Miller,

DH - Bradley, Fineman, Miller, Dedelow, Sowers (each have bats worthy of the position)

How Lemonis navigates personnel and feelings may be as crucial to keeping the locker room happy and focused as winning.

How high is the ceiling? As high as the pitching staff can make it. Indiana has a lineup that can compete with anyone in the country. It’s a lineup that, if paired with last year’s rotation and bullpen, would make preseason Top-25 rankings and would be projected to be the Big Ten Champions. But it’s an unknown pitching staff, with young, inexperienced arms that no one could possibly know what to expect out of. The ceiling could be as high as rolling through the Big Ten, hosting a regional, and then being one hot streak from making noise and causing damage in the big dance. Or the ceiling could be a middle-of-the-pack Big Ten finish, requiring the utilization of home-field advantage in the conference tournament just to sniff out a bid.

Media Day