Mizzou Baseball's Fall practice season is already half done, with the Fall World Series getting under way last night. Let's take a look at what's old, what's new, and what's going on at Taylor Stadium.
He's Baaaaack! Despite considerable speculation about whether or not Tim Jamieson would be back at the helm this season, MU AD Mack Rhoades rolled the dice and decided to give the 21-year coach the benefit of the doubt about the considerable uphill climb to competing in SEC Baseball. So Coach J is back at the helm and, for the second year in a row, is also assuming the role of Pitching Coach. D1Baseball.com had a Fall update a couple of weeks ago, quoting Jamieson:
"I do think there’s a greater sense of urgency in terms of knowing what we need to do to take care of business [in the SEC]," Jamieson said. "Last year still stings because we had a regional team, and we were built very well for a regional. But we left our fate up to the conference tournaments, and we can’t do that again next year [in 2016].
Hunter Mense is also back as the Hitting Coach, hoping to finally solve the mystery of the Tigers' missing offense, with Graduate Assistant Trevor Coleman as his Dr. Watson.
New to the coaching staff is Jerry Zulli, hired to replace the departed Kerrick Jackson as the Chief Recruiter and field coach/bench coach. Also new, but not new, is former Mizzou catcher J.C. Field, as a Volunteer Assistant Coach. He left a job as Associate Head Coach at North Dakota, where he had been for seven years, to be a part of an SEC coaching staff at his alma mater.
The Fall 2016 Roster was updated on mutigers.com sometime in the past few days, showing plenty of old names and a lot of new ones.
Returning starters among the position players include Catcher Brett Bond (who was playing 1B in game 1 of the Fall World Series), as well as his number one 2015 backup, Jack Klages. There are a couple of additional catchers on the roster: returning sophomore Alex Del Rio and freshman Brian Sharp (listed as INF/C). Sharp is wearing the coveted jersey #44, possibly as a nod to fellow Liberty, MO, native Hunter Mense, who also wore number 44.
Ryan Howard and Zach Lavy are the two regular Infield starters who are back this season. Howard had a great summer with Team USA, garnering him some national attention. Shane Benes, who mostly was the DH in his shortened 2015 season, will likely have the lead in vying for either 3B or 2B. Returning starters Trey Harris and Brett Bond are also listed as possible infielders, although they played outfield and catcher, respectively, last season. The newcomers vying for playing time in the infield are Kaelan Crisosto, a JuCo transfer and the possessor of a Samson-like flow), freshman Ian Nelson, and Brian Sharp, the IF/C from Liberty. Obviously, with one of the infield spots unspoken for, one or more of those newcomers has a real shot at seeing plenty of playing time.
In the Outfield, Jake Ring and Trey Harris both return, leaving plenty of room for several candidates: returning seniors Matt Feldt and Chris Akmon, JuCo transfer Johnny Balsamo, and two freshmen, Columbia-Rock Bridge homeboy Conner Brumfield, and Marquis Doherty, the WinnetonkaHS running back who wants to play both football and baseball at MU. Like the infield, the outfield is in need of someone to step up and claim the open spot.
Mizzou is counting heavily on returning RHPs sophomore Tanner Houck and senior Reggie McClain to anchor the starting rotation. Houck is coming off a great summer with Team USA and is being touted by many in the national college baseball media as one to watch in 2016.
The biggest news about pitchers NOT returning is Alec Rash, who spurned a second round draft pick by the Phillies to come to Mizzou three years ago. He never quite put it together, with injuries dogging him the whole way. He's no longer with the Tigers, having transferred to another school, but not to play baseball, according to D1Baseball.com:
What was a huge story at the time is now a story yet again for different reasons, as Rash has left the University of Missouri to pursue a collegiate basketball career at Park (Mo.) University, an NAIA institution in Parkville, Mo.
After Houck and McClain, someone will need to step up and fill the shoes of Pete Fairbanks as a weekend starter. Among the returning pitchers, last year's set-up man, senior LHP Austin Tribby is perhaps the most likely candidate, offering the Tigers not only a veteran but a left-hander to balance out the weekend.
After those three, the Tigers' experience as starters for Mizzou drops off considerably. Jamieson will not only be looking to round out the starting rotation, but he's got to find a closer to replace Breckin Williams and a good set-up man if Tribby becomes a starter.
Junior RHPs Griffin Goodrich and Cole Bartlett and sophomores LHP Lake Dabney and RHP Nolan Gromacki (an internet celebrity for a video of Mizzou's dugout warming their hands over his flaming red hair) are the returning members of the pitching staff who will be trying to take that next step up into earning more innings on the mound.
Also returning is RHP Bryce Montes de Oca, he of the "effectively wild" 95-97 mph fastball, who spent the summer in the Cape Cod League. Baseball America quoted his Cape Cod coach said "he's taken a huge step forward this summer", although his raw statistics still tell a story of less than perfect control. D1Baseball, in a mid-summer piece, provided a good description of his various pitches and his control issues.
When it’s all clicking, Montes de Oca’s breaking ball does flash swing and miss, above average potential. But, besides having an issue getting to it, he also needs to be careful of getting around the pitch. It’s a slurve in terms of characteristics, throwing at 77-81 mph but showing slider shape at times. But, his best ones at 80-81 mph show two plane action and can be a devastating weapon against righty batters.
Tim Jamieson admitted to D1Baseball's Kendall Rogers that he's not sure yet where Montes de Oca will fit into the Tigers' plans for 2016:
"He could be our Sunday starter, or he could end up as our back-end guy, we’ll have to see," Jamieson said. "There’s no bigger arm in college baseball, I don’t think, but we just have to figure out how to utilize him the best. We need to figure out his role."
Beyond the returning pitchers, there are, as usual, several new pitchers on the roster. And, as usual, it's a total crap-shoot to try guess which of these highly successful high school pitchers will be able to successfully make the transition to SEC-level baseball.
Red-shirt freshman RHP Liam Carter, redshirt sophomore RHP Ryan Lee, and freshman RHPs Grant Macciocchi (from Cincinnati area powerhouse Moeller HS), Graham Ruopp, and Bryant Jordan round out Coach J's stable of pitching prospects.
Prep Baseball Report called Bryant Jordan "clearly the best Wisconsin arm. . ."
Jordan came prepared as the righty sat at 90 mph with every fastball topping out at 91 mph.. . . Jordan looked effortless on the mound with an easy arm action and clean directional delivery. We’ve seen Jordan a lot over the last several years and this was the most polished we’ve seen the Missouri commit look.
The Future Ain't What It Used To Be
The head coach is the same, but his staff is somewhat different. Tim Jamieson has three years to prove he can continue the upward momentum the team began last year. Hunter Mense will continue to try transforming a traditionally lackluster offense into an SEC-caliber run-producing machine. Coach Zulli has been busy restocking the team. Will all there efforts be enough to make Mizzou a mover and shaker in the SEC?
Several of 2015's productive hitters and pitchers are back, which gives fans and followers reason to hope. But there are also several holes to fill, with no guarantees about which of these hot prospects will turn into productive contributors. Shane Benes will be watched to see if he really is the star player everyone hopes he is. Ryan Howard will be feeling the pressure in his draft year to live up to the hype that came along with his summer with Team USA. His Team USA teammate, Tanner Houck, has been touted as perhaps the best pitcher ever to play for Tim Jamieson, which is might praise considering Coach J's staff has included Max Scherzer. Houck most definitely was a better freshman pitcher than Scherzer, but he'll be under pressure to do even better this season. And Bryce Montes de Oca: will he be the incredible prospect who puts it all together in his sophomore season and goes on to greatness (like Sherzer)? Or will he continue to fall short of expectations and become the next Alec Rash?
Only time will tell.
NOTE: The Fall World Series started last night at Taylor Stadium, with better weather than you'll find at most home games during the season. The weather forecast looks great for the next week or so, offering a great opportunity to catch some intra-squad baseball action. There's a schedule of the FWS games at mutigers.com, but I'd advise you to keep tabs on the @mizoubaseball Twitter feed, because Fall World Series game times are notoriously flexible.