Impact Sports continues its preseason coverage of the 2018 Michigan State baseball season with today’s chat between Impact baseball beat reporters Tino Abarca and Noah Goad and sports editor Kyle Turk. A preview of MSU’s non-conference schedule can be found here.
Kyle Turk: Alright gentlemen, I’ll kick us off with the question that I think drives this season for Michigan State. Is this team talented enough to not only make the Big Ten tournament — which it failed to do in 2017 — but to play well enough to make the NCAA tournament?
Tino Abarca: This team can do so, yes. Looking at seasons past, it’s essential that the Spartans take care of Big Ten teams – a conference that isn’t necessarily elite in any stretch of the imagination. This conference isn’t highly thought of around the country. There’s no reason that they should struggle year after year within a mediocre conference. Quite frankly, not making the conference tournament a season ago should be unacceptable. If they turn around their average performances against an average conference, they’ll look poised for an at-large bid.
Noah Goad: Considering the team doesn’t have much turnover, they should definitely have the talent to at least make the Big Ten tournament. With the Big Ten in its current state, there aren’t too many elite teams, so there is no one to truly bury Michigan State. As far as a run at the NCAA tournament, I believe they are a ways away from being selected by the committee considering they finished ninth in the Big Ten last season. A major improvement would be needed for them to be selected.
Kyle: Looking at two senior pitchers that put up impressive numbers as sophomores in 2016 in Ethan Landon and Andrew Gonzalez, which one of them does Jake Boss Jr. need more in your eyes? Both of them struggled last year at least from a numbers standpoint but Gonzalez saw his strikeout rate drop, Landon saw his walk rate increase slightly, and if you include Keegan Baar as well, all three seniors have the potential to have much better years in 2018.
Tino: Baar wasn’t used too much last season, so I don’t see him getting a heavy workload this year. He was mostly used in blowout games as an inning-eater. Landon has one goal: return to his 2016 self. Landon is determined to prove to everyone that he “can still do it,” as he told Spartan Sports Network during the week. He finished the 2016 season with an 8-3 record, posting a 2.75 ERA with 85 innings pitched. Landon will be the game three starter on opening weekend, so right away he’ll contribute on a larger scale than Gonzalez and Baar.
Boss Jr. mentioned he wants to find ways to utilize the versatility his pitchers have. He stated he wants experience at the beginning and end of games. Landon has the experience, so expect to see him on both ends of a game before season’s end.
Noah: If Landon can return back to his 2016 form, he will be the most dominant pitcher on the Spartans’ roster. He started 15 games in 2016 and pitched to a 2.75 ERA over 85 innings. Landon won six of his eight Big Ten starts two years ago. If he can replicate his 2016 success, it will be huge for the Spartans in the Big Ten standings. Having a go-to southpaw is critical for a team’s success in minimizing the damage from opposing left-handed hitters.
With the Spartans not having lefty Alex Troop in 2018, who owned a 2.47 ERA over 83.2 innings pitched in 2017 along with Mitchell Tyranski being the only other lefty pitcher on the Spartans’ roster to have pitched last season, Baar should get an increased role in 2018. His success is going to be crucial for the Spartans’ success.
Kyle: Losing Troop as a two-way guy hurts, especially as a designated hitter. MSU returns a couple of guys who can both get on base and hit for power in Chad Roskelly and Marty Bechina. Are there enough power threats in the lineup, or can someone like a Bryce Kelley add a power element to his game in 2018?
Noah: Senior Zack McGuire hit seven home runs last season, tied with Bechina for the second-most on the team. If both progressed this offseason, that number should go up from last season and potentially exceed last seasons’ home run leader, Dan Durkin, who hit nine home runs.
However, it would be extremely helpful to the Spartans if Kelley were to hit one out of the park every now and then. He didn’t go yard at all last season, so he only has room to get better. However, with his .353 average last season, he did more than enough at the plate to help the Spartans.
Tino: Echoing Noah, headlining the power component of the lineup will be McGuire and Bechina. Freshman catcher Adam Proctor’s presence will be felt in the lineup early on, as he’ll spend a lot of time in the line up because of his high ceiling. Proctor won the Home Run Derby hosted by the Lansing Lugnuts prior to the Crosstown Showdown in early September. There’s a perfect balance of speed and power in the line up and on the roster.
Kyle: With junior college transfer Bailey Peterson sliding into the starting role at second base, are there any other players new to the roster this year that can make a sizable impact? Local players Jesse Heikkinen (a left-handed pitcher from Holt, Mich.) and Proctor (of St. John’s, Mich.) were both honored by the Lansing State Journal, and Proctor was even named a first-team all-state player.
Noah: Freshman Ryan King, who led Brother Rice High School to a Chicago Catholic Blue Baseball conference title in 2017. Scouts have spoken very highly of King, saying he the complete package. But with catcher Chad Roskelly making all 29 of his starts at the designated hitter spot last season, the catcher spot is wide open. Proctor should get plenty of playing time behind the plate to show what he is capable of.
Tino: Proctor is one of the most highly regarded freshmen entering this season. He’s listed on nearly every Big Ten preview as a player/freshman to watch. He’ll have the opportunity to make an impact right away. His power and ability to swing the bat will force Boss Jr. to put him in the lineup. Heikkinen, a former Holt Ram, is a player a lot of local Spartan fans are excited to see.
He was drafted in the 36th round by the Tigers, but decided to pass up professional ball (for now) to put on the Green and White. Boss Jr. is raving about this year’s pitching depth, so it won’t surprise to see the lefty Heikkinen get his named called sooner than later.
Kyle: Lastly, give me a best-case and worst-case scenario for this season. Personally, I think this team can at least make the conference tournament, but if a couple of pitchers regress this is still a team that could end up stuck in the middle of the conference standings.
Noah: If key pitchers like Gonzalez and Landon struggle again, it is very possible the Spartans will miss the Big Ten tournament yet again. However, if they can revert back to their 2016 form and become leaders on a relatively young pitching staff, they could lead them to an at-large bid in the NCAA tournament. They definitely have a dynamic enough offense that is capable of putting up runs on some of the better pitchers in the conference.
Tino: Realistically, this ballclub has enough depth, power and talent to finish as one of the top teams in the conference. They can make a run in the conference tournament, but unless they have a great non-conference showing, they won’t receive the at-large bid they’ll be looking for.
Worst-case scenario is exactly what we saw a season ago. They finished 9-12 in Big Ten; 4-7 at home. They managed to finish 5-12 in one-run games. Those are categories that can make or break a season. In last year’s case, it did the latter. They’ll need to flip those around in order to play any kind of postseason baseball.
This chat concludes our preseason coverage of MSU baseball. Their four-game set with Fresno State begins tonight at 9:05 p.m. EST, and can be heard live on Fresno’s ESPN affiliate, 940 AM.