New Look Spartans Ready for 2016 Season
2016 MSU Baseball Preview
EAST LANSING, Mich. - The Michigan State baseball team is set to start the 2016 season this weekend when it heads to Greenville, S.C., as part of the First Pitch Invitational. The Spartans will take on Presbyterian in the season-opener at noon on Friday before playing Furman Saturday (12 p.m.) and closing out the trip against Fordham on Sunday (11 a.m.). All games take place at Fluor Field, home of the Greenville Drive.
MSU is coming off of a 34-23 record during the 2015 campaign in which it finished tied for third in the Big Ten with a 14-10 mark in conference play. The 2016 Spartans return a core group of young talent and pitching and will look for contributions from some new faces after the team lost six every-day starters from last year's lineup. Spartan returners account for just 27% of the team's RBI total and 24% of the team's hit total in 2015.
"We had some thumpers in the lineup last year, but I think we're a little more athletic right now where we have some more interchangeable parts," said head coach Jake Boss Jr. "We feel good about moving guys around to different positions if we have to and that could lend itself to playing more matchups, or depending on how the game plays out and what situation dictates what substitution we need to make. I think we're deeper. We're a little bit more athletic, but we're unproven right now."
The Michigan State roster consists of three seniors, eight juniors, 14 sophomores and nine freshmen. Highlighting the sophomore-heavy roster is 2015 All-Big Ten Freshmen OF Brandon Hughes, C Chad Roskelly and RHP Andrew Gonzalez.
"I think it's a very talented group," said Boss. "We're going to have to rely on some young guys and some new guys, but that's why they came to Michigan State. They're talented guys and that's why we recruited them. Hopefully they can settle into it quickly."
Arguably the biggest strength for the Spartans heading into the season is the depth and quality of the pitching staff. LHP Cam Vieaux returns to Michigan State for his junior season after electing not to sign a contract with the Detroit Tigers. Vieaux went 4-7 with a 3.49 ERA in a team-high 15 starts in 2015. He led the team in innings pitched (90.1) and strikeouts (71). His 71 Ks were tied for eighth most in the Big Ten.
RHP Walter Borkovich is another returner slated into a starting role right now. The junior went 3-0 with a 2.73 ERA in a team-high 30 appearances out of the bullpen last season, holding opposing hitters to a .185 average.
Vieaux and Borkovich were both named as Players to Watch in the Big Ten.
Redshirt sophomore Ethan Landon joins the Spartan staff after having to sit out a year following a transfer from Kansas State. The righty gave up just 11 earned runs in 24 appearances out of the pen as a freshman at Kansas State.
"They've all been in big situations," said Boss of the starters. "They're all strike-throwers. They all do an outstanding job with the little things they need to do to be successful on the mound. There's a lot of velocity there with all of them. They all have some type of strikeout pitch, a swing and miss pitch. So, if they stay ahead in the count, they're going to be very successful."
Junior Joe Mockbee will fill the role as the Spartans' closer to start the year. He looks to step in for Jeff Kinley, who graduated this past spring as the all-time saves leader at Michigan State with 20. Mockbee was the first arm out of the bullpen last year and was named the team's Most Valuable Pitcher. The lefty posted a team-best 1.78 ERA, which was the lowest by a Spartan since Duane Bickel's 1.71 ERA in 1974. He also led the team in wins with a 6-2 record. His 25 appearances totaling 50.2 innings were tied for the second most on the team and he struck out 50 batters while walking just 17.
Sophomores Keegan Baar, Alex Troop and Dakota Mekkes join Andrew Gonzalez as experienced arms on the staff. The group combined for 109 innings of work, including 15 starts and an 8-2 record as freshman in 2015.
After graduating All-Big Ten corner infielders Mark Weist and Ryan Krill along with shortstop Ryan Richardson, who started 164 games during his MSU career, the infield will take on a new look for the 2016 season. With early competitions at infield spots along with a number of guys that can play multiple positions, Boss will have several options when it comes to filling out his lineup card.
At first base, sophomores Zack McGuire and Alex Troop will both see action. McGuire appeared in 20 games and started 10 as a DH last season, while Troop was utilized not only for his arm on the mound, but also for his abilities as a position player in both the outfield and at first. Troop is listed as the fifth best B1G draft prospect for 2017 by D-1 Baseball.
Transfer Jordan Zimmerman will play second base in his first year in the Green and White and also has the ability to move to first. Zimmerman adds an offensive threat to the Spartan lineup, as he hit .378 with 15 doubles, five home runs and had 49 RBIs while leading Mesa Community College to the NJCAA World Series title in 2014. Zimmerman was listed as a Player to Watch in the Big Ten.
On the left side, freshman Royce Ando and Kory Young will both hold down the shortstop position to begin the year. Young started in 27 games last season at second base and had 16 hits and 14 runs. In another position battle at the hot corner, senior Justin Hovis and freshman Marty Bechina are penciled in at third base.
"A lot of new faces on the infield. A lot of competitive positions right now," said Boss. "You just go up and down the roster and there's a lot of interchangeable parts."
Behind the plate, catcher Chad Roskelly had a breakout season in 2015. Roskelly, then a redshirt freshman, made 47 starts behind the plate and was named to the All-Big Ten Freshman Team. In 51 games, he posted a .276 batting average and 30 RBIs, the fifth most on the team. Defensively, Roskelly posted a .995 fielding percentage with four pickoffs and 12 runners caught stealing.
"Matt Byars is a kid who's a junior college transfer who is outstanding defensively and the bat keeps coming and getting better and better. Will Salter has made some tremendous improvements after last year and has done an outstanding job getting himself ready."
After starting 55 games in right field and earning Freshman All-Big Ten honors, Brandon Hughes will move over to center field. Hughes hit .280 with 27 RBI and six homers.
"Brandon is probably our best defensive outfielder and we're probably going to put him in center field and let him run around out there," said Boss. "He's an outstanding leader so I feel very confident about him commanding that position out there."
Starting the season in left field will be junior Dan Durkin. Durkin mostly saw time at third base and as a pinch hitter in 2015, appearing in 16 games and starting eight and will now make the jump to outfield.
"Dan brings a competiveness that's unlike anybody else that we have and a guy that offensively gets better and better. He's making the transition from infield to outfield and he's done a great job with that."
Right field is wide open and four different players have the opportunity to take control of the position. Kris Simonton is a senior with a lot of experience as a transfer from Akron who hit .310 in two seasons as a Zip. Freshman Robbie Jones and walk-on sophomore Jake Kruk are both in the mix and bring an athletic dynamic to the outfield along with redshirt freshman Dan Chmielewski.
The Spartans' 55-game slate will include 20 games against teams that played in last year's NCAA Tournament. Following its 17 games on the road to start the season, Michigan State will begin a nine-game homestand on March 23 against Central Michigan. Two days later, MSU will host Rutgers in its first Big Ten series of the season, March 25-27.