2009 CBB Big Ten Preview: Michigan State

Michigan State Spartans

2008 overall record 24-29, Big Ten record 12-18, eighth.

With a new coaching staff in place and a newly upgrade stadium the Michigan State Spartans approach the 2009 with optimism in the air and new beginnings abound. As the youngest team in the Big Ten, the Spartans are out to prove being green isn’t a bad thing, especially when it serves as your school’s color.

Completion of the newly built McLane Baseball Stadium is expected to finish in time for the 2009 Spartan Home opener, April 3rd against Northwestern. When opened, so a new leader will be patrolling the dugout for MSU. A native of Lansing, Michigan, head coach Jake Boss Jr. returns home as he enters his first season in control of the Spartan baseball program. Boss, in his second career season as a collegiate head coach, took the short trip westward along Interstate 96 after leading Eastern Michigan to the 2008 NCAA tournament on the heels of winning the MAC Tournament Championship. Boss’ led the EMU Eagles to an overall record of 25-34 last season, but 15-8 in the MAC. Boss is no stranger to Big Ten baseball, serving three seasons as an assistant under Coach Rich Maloney at the University of Michigan from 2005 to 2007.

Coach Boss is taking over a program that has not finished in the top 6 of the Big Ten since a 4th place finish in 2004. In fact only three times in the last 15 years have the Spartans finished as one of the to 6 teams in the conference and advancing to the Big Ten’s postseason tournament. The last Michigan State baseball team to win a Big Ten Championship was in 1979, 30 seasons again, which also marks the last time the Spartans advanced to the NCAA Tournament.

If Boss is to turn the tide in East Lansing, significant strides will be needed in the teams offensive production. In 2008 MSU hit a league worst .288 overall, scored a league worst 287 runs, and finished last offensively as well in hits (492), doubles (60), RBI (253), total bases (666), slugging percentage (.389) and on-base percentage (.369). Boss will depend heavily on 6 returning starters to show more consistency at the plate if the Big Ten Tournament drought is to end at 5 seasons. With 5 everyday starters needing to be replaced due to graduation, Boss will be turning to a green team, in hope to see the Green and White advance to post-season play.

Looking to lead the way offensively for Michigan State will be the teams top offensive producer in 2008, junior outfielder Chris Roberts. Roberts a 2007 Freshman All-American by Ping! Magazine, is coming off of a 2008 season where he garnered third team All-Big Ten honors hitting .363 in 52 games to lead the Spartans. Roberts also topped the offensive categories for MSU in hits with 65, and triples with 7. Roberts 32 RBI were third most on the team and his slugging .503 and total bases 90, were only second to catcher Kyle Day who was a 12th round draft pick of the Cincinnati Reds.

Joining Roberts in the outfield for 2009 will be sophomore Brandon Eckerle. Eckerle as a freshman started 34 games and made 48 appearances hit .278 in 108 at-bats with 4 doubles and 15 RBI. Eckerle shined defensively as well, committing 0 errors in 91 chances, with 2 outfield assists. Rounding out the outfield, expect to see junior Eli Boike who started 12 games and hit .196 to compete with freshman Jared Hook as they fill the hole the departed Dennis Jones created with his graduation.

Coach Boss will be turning to a pair of brothers to provide leadership and firepower to an infield that we be lacking both. Senior co-captain Eric Roof will be taking over at catcher for the departed Day. Roof spent the majority of the 2008 season at first base starting 37 games, hit .308 on the season, joining Roberts as the only returning Spartans to hit above .300. Roof knocked in 31 runs in the 46 games he appeared in, and in those 46 games, committed 0 errors, and wish Boss expects to see repeat itself self as Roof takes his role behind the dish.

On the receiving end of Roof’s throws own to second will be Eric’s brother, sophomore shortstop Jonathon Roof. The younger Roof leads the Spartans in games started in 2008, starting in all 53, and will used that experience to anchor the infield dirt. In 2008 Roof hit .299, leading the team with 197 at-bats, finishing second with 59 hits, hit two home runs, and collect 25 RBI during his freshman season. The middle infield duo will be complete with senior second baseman A.J. Shindler. Shindler appeared in 35 games last season starting 27, batted .247 on the year, collecting 20 hits, 3 of being doubles and triples each.

Two new faces to the Spartan program are expected to fill the corner infield positions. At first JUCO transfer Ben Vrobel will be playing in his first season at Michigan State. In 2008 at Kellogg Community College Vrobel hit .523 with 40 RBI on his way to receiving first team All-League, and All-Conference honors. Not as experienced in collegiate baseball but seeing his first action in East Lansing as well will be freshman Andrew Carpenter at third base. The Dayton, Ohio native who played his high school baseball at Oakwood HS was selected as the best primary third basemen in the 2008 senior class by The Buckeye Scout. Carpenter was selected the 17th best graduation high school third basemen by PGCrosschecker.com, and is expected to produce immediate results for Coach Boss and the Spartan baseball program.

Senior utility player Johnny Lee and freshman Ryan Jones will provide depth for the infield. Freshman Michael Ferry and sophomore Andy Johnson will serve as back-ups to the catching Roof. There are only 141 combined starts amongst the Spartans infield, 114 coming from the Roof brothers.

The lack of experience and the opportunity for fresh faces to seize the moment isn’t limited to the Spartans line-up an defense. After losing its top 4 pitchers to graduation, the Spartans will rely heavily on a trio of sophomores to lead the pitching staff with hopes of the freshmen class to provide depth. Overall in 2008 MSU pitched well, finishing 4th in pitching with a 5.84 team ERA but only managed 5 saves last in the conference, its 270 strike outs finished 8th in the league. With the turnover the Spartans experienced, using prior team numbers might not be the best way to summarize the 2009 team.

Sophomores A.J. Atcher, and Kurt Wunderlich, lead the returning pitchers in Spartans who saw the most time on the mound in 2008. Making 8 starts in 11 appearances, Atcher had a 1-3 record and 5.88 ERA in 33.2 innings pitched. The RHP from Oregon, Ohio, struck out 17 batters and limited opposing hitters to a team low .224 batting average against, giving up just 28 hits in 125 at-bats. Atcher’s BAA was slightly nullified as he issued a team high 27 base on balls and put another 9 batters on by hitting them. Wunderlich went 3-2 on the year, pitching in 21 games out of the pen. Wunderlich also a righty struck out 22 batters in 27 innings, picked up 1 save, and fared well against opposing batters himself allowing only 9 extra-base hits in 106 at-bats.

Though Wunderlich and Atcher are the Spartans with the most experience on the mound, four upperclassmen; LHP junior Kyle Corcoran, and senior righties Nolan Moody, A.J. Dunn along with Max Miller are looking to establish themselves as vital cogs in the Spartan pitching machine.

Dunn will be the most likely retuning pitcher to land a spot in the starting rotation with Atcher and Wunderlich. Dunn in 2008 started 3 games, appearing in 17 total, struck out 21 batters in 21.1 innings, but 19 free passes issued .356 batting average for opposing hitters in 96 at-bats saw his ERA balloon to 9.55 over the year.

Expected to be used as the team primary set-up man, Corcoran is coming off of a sophomore season of his own in which he threw 24.1 innings in 14 appearances including 1 start. Corcoran finished 2008 with a 1-2 record and a 6.29 ERA, while striking out 15 batters. Throwing from the other side of the mind red-shirt senior RHP Peter Wolff will also see action late in games. Wolff in 2008 pitched admirably posting a 5.87 ERA in 15 innings over 12 appearances. Wolff went 1-0 and held the opposition to a minute .214 batting average against.

When Corcoran is done limiting the opposition, closing out games for MSU will be Moody. Moody in ’08 posted a 2-4 record while being the most used Spartan appearing in 25 games, all in relief. With 21 batters striking out over 26 innings, Moody led the team in saves with 4 and saw the year end with a 5.88 ERA. With spots in the rotation and pen to be filled, Miller is looking to see an increase in playing time, in 2008 Miller threw 2.2 innings striking out 3 batter, having a 10.12 ERA with no decisions in 3 games.

Plenty of unfamiliar faces to the Spartan program are looking to become regulars. The group is led by JUCO transfer Kurtis Frymier of Daytona Beach Community College. Frymier comes in expected to push Atcher for the teams #1 and Friday night starting pitcher role. Underclassmen on the team include five freshman Tony Bucciferro, Clay Vanderleen, Cody Hoge and Taylor Robson all righties, the lone freshman southpaw is Ryan Martin. Sophomores Stephen Doty who pitched 6 innings in 8 appearances last season and classmate Andrew Webb.

In 2009 the Michigan State Spartans hope the green in their uniform will reflect the envy opposing teams will have throughout the see. With a program full of neophytes including its head coach, stadium and a roster of 10 freshman and two JUCO transfers, Coach Boss is in a perfect setting to change the culture of MSU baseball and rebuild a program.

It will take a few games for the offense to find consistency and Boss to put together a line-up that can put runs on the board. With few returnees, and a last place offense last season, improvement might take time. Roberts will provide a solid bat and speed atop the line-up. The Roof brothers and their middle of the line-up production will be key and if they have breakout seasons the offense might step up a bit. Carpenter and Vrobel will need to provide production from the corner infield spots in a conference full of great talent at the corners.

The pitching staff has potential led the large sophomore class, but so far the results haven’t been solid and consistent to overcome the lack of explosion the offense has. There are quality arms, and plenty of them, Boss might install a staff by committee approach in the non-conference until a few separate themselves. With Moody being a reliable arm closing, its key that quality pitchers step up and limit the opposition in relief situations. Atcher, Wunderlich, and Frymier can be a solid weekend rotation.

Its hard to expect much out of such a young team, and any program with a coaching change will take time to establish itself. There is talent on the team but it comes from the two lower classes. Between the lack of bats and an inexperienced pitching staff the Spartans will be fighting an uphill battle. With the amounts of holes to fill, if the talent in the sophomore and freshman class produce they might surprise a few teams. The team is two years away from really being good and a team to watch out for. As for now Michigan State will not finish in the top 6th and fail to qualify for Big Ten post season play.