Simmons Field: 2014 Mizzou Baseball Preview

Taylor Stadium under snow, February 2014 - Trripleplay

Ice! Snow! Bitter cold! Arctic vortex! It must be time for Mizzou Baseball!

Simmons Field is covered with a blanket of snow, and the old bucket seats have been removed from the lower level of the grandstand, with the installation of new chair-back seating awaiting some help from the sun before the February 28th home opener.

The 2014 Tiger squad has had very little opportunity for outdoor practice in preparation for their second season in the SEC. Most of their workouts and scrimmages have taken place in the confines of the Devine Pavilion.

Matt Nestor summed up the hopes and dreams of every Mizzou Baseball player and fan in his Columbia Daily Tribune article on the opening day of practice:

As the Missouri baseball team was going through its fall workouts on Simmons Field, the players and coaches kept a close eye on what was going on across the street — over on Faurot Field.

The Missouri football team — which struggled in its first season in the Southeastern Conference and was picked to finish sixth in the East Division for Year 2 — surprised everyone with a berth in the SEC Championship Game and was one win away from a berth in the BCS National Championship Game.

"We talked in the fall about how awesome it was to be able to watch what they're doing and how awesome it will be if we're doing it," Coach Tim Jamieson said. "It's inspirational what they've done, and I think it's also the realization that it can be done."

Likewise, the Missouri volleyball team was picked third in its division before going undefeated in the regular season.

"That's motivation," senior pitcher Eric Anderson said. "Football set the tone. Every sport, I'm sure, is treating it the same way."

That's a tall order for a team that struggled mightily in 2013. Back in January we took a look at the 5 Big Questions that need to be answered for the upcoming season. Now we'll take a more detailed look at what to expect from the 2014 Tigers.

Polls, Predictions & Pundits

The national College Baseball media is high on the 2014 Missouri Tigers! No wait. That was supposed to say you're probably high if you think the national College Baseball media likes the 2014 Missouri Tigers

College Baseball Daily did offer this before picking Mizzou to finish last in the SEC :

Much like their football program, year one in the SEC was an adjustment process for the Missouri Tigers. Climbing out of the basement in a powerful conference like the SEC isn’t going to be easy, but this is a program who won the Big XII Tournament less than two seasons ago and has had plenty of success in the past.

MU came in at 101st on Collegiate Baseball's Preseason Top 40 (yes, you read that right). College Baseball Today's Eric Sorenson puts MU at 115th on his ranking of all 302 D-1 schools (while noting that MU finished 10-14 in the Big 12 last year). The rest of the national ranking lists (Baseball America, Perfect Game, USA Today ) don't go that far down.

The official SEC Baseball Coaches Preseason Poll shows the confidence our conference competitors have in Mizzou, ranking the Tigers to finish 7th in the SEC East.

Baseball America's SEC Preview makes no mention of Mizzou, other than listing the Tigers as a member of the SEC. The Perfect Game SEC Preview has MU tabbed to finish last in the SEC East. PG is apparently VERY uninterested in Mizzou:

2014 Schedule

Based on the final 2013 RPI rankings on BoydsWorld.com, Mizzou's 2014 schedule had an average 2013 RPI of 0.527, which would put their average opponent ranked about 82nd. That's according to my whiz bang half-assed calculations based on adding the RPIs of all 56 opponents and averaging them. I'm sure that's a fatally flawed statistical approach, but who do I look like, Bill Connelly?

The Tigers have some truly top notch opponents on their schedule this season, including four that were in the top 25 RPI in 2013: Vanderbilt (2), Mississippi State (8), South Carolina (13), and Ole Miss (21).

Generally the top 45 ranked teams in the RPI listing have the best shot at the at-large post-season bids. Missouri's schedule includes 18 games against 8 opponents who finished above 45th.

On the other end of the scale, the Tigers' schedule includes 9 games against teams that finished with an RPI ranking below 200th (out of 298 D-1 Baseball teams). Two opponents finished in the bottom 10: Alcorn State (289) and Alabama A&M (294). MU plays two games against each of those teams, both at Taylor Stadium.

Missouri, by the way, finished 2013 ranked 149th in RPI.

The season opens on Valentine's Day, and it should warm the Mizzou players' hearts to be in Florida and then North Carolina for the first two weekends. The list of opponents for those first 9 games may look like a cupcake lineup for those not familiar with NCAA Baseball, but it includes 2 games against a 2013 CWS 3-seed (Liberty) and 6 games against teams that finished in the RPI top 100. So while it is not a juggernaut of top ranked powerhouses, it will provide a good early test of the Tigers' abilities.

The highlight of the season-opening 13-game March homestand will be Southern Miss,ranked 106th in 2013 and predicted to be an NCAA Regional team in '14. Tennessee, 2013's worst SEC team (124th) wraps up that home stand, with rest of the games populated by teams that finished ranked lower than 200th.

There are three neutral site games that will be attractive to those in KC and St. Louis. April 1st vs.vs. Southern Illinois at TR Hughes Ballpark in O'Fallon, followed the next day, April 2nd, vs. Illinois at Busch Stadium; and then April 22nd vs. Wichita State at Kauffman Stadium in KC.

MU's 3-game set at Auburn will feature two TV games, including the first ESPN SEC Thursday night Game of the Week on 3/27. The Tigers are slated to be on TV four times this season.

The series you will want to mark on your calendar as the best bets for your ticket-buying budget are 2013 College World Series runner-ups Mississippi State (April 18-20), #2 RPI Vanderbilt (May 2-4), and Arkansas (May 15-17). Also a good bet is the home game (April 8) of the annual home-and-away series with Missouri State, which is always a hard-fought rivalry game.

All of those best matchups happen to be in April and May, which is great. The diehard baseball fans like me will head to the ballpark in March despite the weather and the weak competition. And the rest of you bandwagonners can come out when the weather is more pleasant and the opponents are more interesting.

2014 Roster

The official 2014 roster lists 35 players, which is the NCAA limit for the active roster. It's too early to know much about the newcomers, and I frankly haven't paid quite as much attention or done as much research as I used to do when SimmonsField.com was sucking the soul out of me year 'round. But we can take a sneak peek at the possibilities at the various positions.

Catcher: Dylan Kelly (.287/.353/.348, HR, 27 RBI) ably handled the "tools of ignorance" in 2013, establishing himself as a field general for both the pitching staff and the defense. He'll likely be the #1 starter for 2014. The impact newcomer at this position will likely be a freshman, Jack Klages, from Vianney HS. Klages looked good in the fall and may be the heir apparent, although there are a couple of others who will be competing for playing time as well. GONE: Justin Byrd, Patrick Quintanilla

Infield: Returning players include seniors Dillon Everett (.248/.311/.320, HR, 10 RBI), Kendall Keeton (.230/.387/.273, 13 RBI) and Shane Segovia (.223/.347/.314, 14 RBI), RS Junior Keaton Steele (.276/.397/.425, 5 HR, 24 RBI), Junior Nick Moore (.125/.125/.300/ 0 RBI), and Sophomore Josh Lester (.260/.314/.357, 2 HR, 25 RBI). Everett has been working on his switch-hitting since last season, and he's likely to get the opportunity to earn the 2B starting job. Kendall Keeton and Freshman Ryan Howard will be his chief competition for that slot.

Tim Jamieson told Will Palaszczuk on KTGR that Josh Lester is slated to be the starting Shortstop this season. Shane Segovia was the starting SS most of last season, in spite of being nagged by injuries and hitting well below the Mendoza line for most of the year. It will be interesting to see whether he's able to prove to Tim Jamieson that he should be the starter at 3B.

Senior Eric Anderson is expected to get some starts at 1B between pitching starts. According to the Columbia Missourian, this is a new thing for MU Baseball:

The 6-foot-5, 226-pound senior’s success at the plate in the fall put him in strong contention to get at-bats when the Tigers’ season starts on Feb. 14.

Add that to the potential contributions from Anderson, who will also serve as a front-line starter for the Tigers. It's a rare balancing act for a Missouri player. In fact, Jamieson, who's entering his 20th-year as the Tigers coach, said he cannot remember another instance of a starting pitcher also playing a position in the field when not on the mound.

Coach J has mentioned Keaton Steele as another 2-way player, possibly becoming a regular DH.

The impact newcomer is likely to be Sophomore Zach Levy, a JuCo transfer (originally from North Callaway HS) who showed a hot glove in the fall at 3B, and could take the hot corner away from Segovia if his bat is as productive. Another JuCo transfer, Junior Brett Peel, could earn a regular role at 2B. GONE: Mike McGraw, Gavin Stark

Outfield: Three frequent starters return for 2014: senior Case Munson (.240/.365/.302, 1 HR, 6 RBI) junior Logan Pearson (.254/.369/.313, HR, 16 RBI), and Sophomore Jake Ivory (.243/.314/.369, 0 HR, 9 RBI) all of whom showed promise last season and will be counted on to lead a revamped outfield. They are joined by RS freshman Sean Ullrich, and true freshmen Jordan Getzelman and Jake Ring. Senior Dillon Everett, a veteran infielder, has also been prepping for some starts in the outfield.

Ring is my pick for the impact newcomer in the OF. He's made a career out of being a speedster, stealing bases and being fleet of foot in the OF. In the fall I watched him win a homerun derby the coaches staged in practice one day, so he's not just a runner. If Ring turns out to be a productive hitter at the D-1 level, he could be a huge impact player for the team over the next three years. Word is the coaches are alrady seeing him as the starter in CF.

GONE: Sal Belfonte, Brannon Champagne, Dane Opel, Scott Sommerfeld

Pitching: The good news is that senior RHP Eric Anderson (0-3, 3.90 ERA, 10 APP, 4 GS, 1 SV, 27.2 IP, 17 SO) appears to be healthy and ready to show what he can do with a full season of starts. Sophomore RHP Alec Rash (2-1, 4.55 ERA, 12 APP, 7 GS, 27.2 IP, 23 SO) has a year of experience under his belt and will hopefully see as big an uptick in performance and consistency as another Mizzou pitching phenom, Max Scherzer, did between his freshman and sophomore years. Junior RHP Brett Graves (2-5, 3.80 ERA, 14 APP, 13 GS, 71 IP, 32 SO) is also a year older and wiser, and will hopefully be even better than he was a year ago. And don't forget RS junior RHP Keaton Steele (5-3, 2.83 ERA, 2 SV, 63.2 IP, 58 SO) , who was picked in the lower rounds of this past summer's draft but returned to Mizzou. If those four can live up to their potential, they will lead a very strong staff.

They will be supported by a half dozen returning pitchers who did well or showed promise in 2013, plus a crop of newcomers.

Senior RHP Jace James (3-2, 2.79 ERA, 17 APP, 7 GS, 42 IP, 29 SO) was the Tigers' go-to guy last season for mid-week starts, and he will certainly be a big contributor in 2014. Sophomore RHP Griff Goodrich (2-0, 3.92 ERA, 9 APP, 3 GS, 20.2 IP, 12 SO) got a few starts and will be competing for a spot in the rotation. Tim Jamieson has also mentioned Junior RHP John Miles (0-3, 2.35 ERA, 18 APP, 2 SV, 23 IP, 23 SO) and RS Sophomore Tyler House (0 IP) as being the mix for possible starting positions. According to the Columbia Missourian, Miles had a great summer in the NECBL:

He [Miles] set a league record by holding opposing hitters to a .135 batting average, had a 1.20 ERA and started on the hill during the all-star game for the high-level summer league, which features prospects from colleges across the country.

According to the opening weekend media notes at mutigers.com, the starting pitchers are listed as John Miles, Brett Graves and Jace James. This would not have been the average fan's first guess of a weekend rotation based on last season. But with so many options available, Jamieson appears to be going with whoever has the hot hand. If they don't step up to the challenge, there's a long line of hurlers eager for their chance to shine.

During a KTGR interview, TJ talked about the SEC approach of emphasizing quality relief pitching over starters, which could mean that pitchers we'd normally be expecting to be in the rotation will actually be in the bullpen. Someone's got to step up and fill the shoes of the departed Jake Walsh, who made 30 appearances in 34-1/3 innings. Sophomore RHP Breckin Williams (0-3, 6.75 ERA, 20 APP, 0 GS, 1 SV, 18.2 IP, 21 SO), Sophomore RHP Ryan Phillips (0-0, 8.44 ERA, 10 APP, 0 GS, 0 SV, 10.2 IP, 10 SO), and Sophomore RHP Peter Fairbanks (0-0, 5.68 ERA, 6 APP, 0 GS, 0 SV, 6.1 IP, 2 SO) are the leading candidates to eat up innings from the pen. Someone's going to have to step up and claim the role of closer. The smart money is on Keaton Steele, with Breckin Williams also a possibility.

The observant baseball fan will notice that the entire staff of returning veterans pitchers are all right handers. There are 5 LHP on the roster, but they have a total of 1/3rd D-1 inning pitched in between them. Hopefully at least a couple of those southpaws will provide the Tigers with some variety from the mound.

The two top ranked recruits were lost in the draft, so it's difficult at this point to make much of a prediction as to which of the new pitchers will have the greatest impact on the team. There are few things in this world less predictable than the ability of a prep or JuCo pitcher to make the adjustment to D-1 hitters, let alone SEC hitters.

GONE: Jake Walsh, Ryan Yuengel, Rob Zastryzny

So forget the snow and the cold. Go ahead. Get excited about Mizzou Baseball!

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