Impact Sports continues its preseason coverage of the 2018 Michigan State baseball season with today’s preview of the outfield. The preview for the infield can be found here.
Despite losing a starter to the professional draft last summer, there is a strong chance that the Michigan State outfield can be just as productive in 2018. Bryce Kelley and Danny Gleaves were able to make a splash in 2017 as freshmen, and despite losing center fielder Brandon Hughes to the MLB draft, coach Jake Boss Jr. now has an outfield full of players with Big Ten experience.
Hughes is a major loss, no doubt about it. The 22-year-old is now playing second base with the Cubs organization after being drafted in the 16th round back in June 2017. He had a .382 on-base percentage and the second-highest batting average (.330) on the team in 2017, and his solid bat, combined with above-average defense in center field, is a lot of production to replace for Boss Jr.’s team.
That said, there is a lot of continuity elsewhere in the outfield for the Spartans in 2018. Left field was manned by a combination of Kelley and Gleaves in 2017, but Hughes’ departure means there’s a strong chance for Gleaves to cover center field in Kobs Field this spring. With the starters seemingly firmly in place, let’s go across the outfield to see how they fit together.
Kelley seems like the surefire starter at the position in 2018 after collecting 34 starts as a freshman last year. The Rockford, Mich. native was named a Freshman All-American by Collegiate Baseball, the second player under Boss Jr. to be awarded that honor. Kelley wasted no time settling into the collegiate level, finishing the season with a .353 batting average (second-best on the team) and notching a .416 on-base average, third-best on the team.
The power isn’t quite there yet for the 6-foot-2, 200-pound outfielder, but no matter how you slice it, Kelley arrived on the scene in a big way in 2017. He’s a tough out at the top of the lineup, and will likely take over the leadoff role from Hughes after both players spent time at the top of the lineup last year. If Boss Jr. decides to slide Kelley a step lower in the batting order, he’ll look to improve on his 10 extra-base hits in 2017 and hit his first collegiate home run as well.
This looks like Gleaves’ spot to lose heading into the season. Despite notching 24 strikeouts to 22 hits in 92 plate appearances last year, injury was the only thing that prevented the Homer Glen, Ill. native from further playing time. Gleaves hit .291/.360/.405 in 23 games last year, and made 17 starts in left field. One thing that both sophomores provide the outfield with is solid defense, as the pair combined for just two errors in a combined 56 starts last year.
Gleaves made just one start in center last year, but the solid average combined with a developed eye at the plate means that Gleaves has the inside track on a starting spot. If he can get the bat on the ball just a bit more, he could be primed for another solid offensive season.
Dan Chmielewski started 48 of 52 games at the position last year, and the redshirt junior has progressed each year in the program after earning spot roles in his sophomore year. Last year did see a drop in batting average and on-base percentage, but Chmielewski’s power numbers increased as a side effect. The Shelby Twp., Mich. native picked up 12 stolen bases as well in 2017, and his speed on the basepaths carries over to the field, committing just two errors last year.
Chmielewski makes contact as well as anyone on the team, and was perhaps unlucky not to have an even better offensive season last year. He rarely strikes out, and if a few more batted balls end up in the right spot, Big Ten pitchers will be matching up with a middle-of-the-order hitter who can get on base with a little dash of power.
Options off the bench
The only other returning outfielder is junior Robbie Jones, who started twice last year and was used mainly as a defensive replacement. He has seen a handful of games in both of his years on campus so far, and could be a late defensive replacement or substitute in blowouts, if nothing else.
The incoming freshman class features multiple candidates for immediate playing time. Legacy commit Casey Mayes of Wichita, Kan. has a Spartan pedigree, as his father Craig played for MSU from 1989-1992 and spent time in the minor leagues until 1999. His mother also ran track and field at MSU, and the left-handed outfielder was rated the No. 2 prospect in Kansas by the Perfect Game scouting system. Former MSU pitching coach Skyler Meade noted that Mayes’ combination of speed and left-handed power made him a potential contributor right away.
Pitcher/outfielder Brian Martin’s bat makes him an interesting prospect that will be discussed further in the pitching preview. Odds are he ends up as a full-time pitcher, but his power is such that he may potentially see playing time down the road as an outfielder as well.
West Bloomfield, Mich.’s Reece Trahey and Homewood, Ill.’s Zaid Walker are both solid athletes who may see platoon duties or late-game pinch-running roles, if nothing else. Both Meade and assistant coach Graham Sikes especially raved about Walker’s physical tools, and Walker’s talent–if nurtured correctly–could result in early playing time in 2018.
As mentioned elsewhere in this preview, MSU starts their season on Friday, Feb. 16 in Fresno, Calif., as they take on the Fresno State Bulldogs. These early games may be must-wins for MSU, as a usually solid FSU team is not ranked in any of the major preseason polls. Their game on Friday starts at 9:05 p.m. EST.