Leading up to the 2017 season, the Michigan baseball team has been stressing two recurring themes — culture and experience. The program has now won 30 or more games in each of the last three seasons under coach Erik Bakich, improving its winning percentage each year. With a veteran core of 12 juniors and seven seniors returning, that mark appears attainable again.
Now in his fifth season at the helm, Bakich has overseen the development of an entire recruiting class. He has watched his players progress through the program, receive interest from MLB teams, and seen some eventually be drafted. To Bakich, the five players chosen in the MLB Draft last year — the most the Wolverines have had since 2010 — is emblematic of the culture his teams create.
“That’s the nature of the beast in quality programs, (you) try to build the best program you can,” Bakich said. “One of the impacts of that is that the players are going to develop and get drafted to professional baseball.”
Three of Michigan’s 2016 draftees — pitchers Brett Adcock and Evan Hill and utility player Carmen Benedetti — signed pro contracts last summer, leaving glaring holes to fill. While the Wolverines already have an abundance of upperclassmen ready to fill these roles, Bakich believes the 12 newcomers to the team have an equivalent chance to duplicate the success and year-by-year progression that Adcock, Hill and Benedetti made in their careers.
Of the Wolverines’ incoming class, the biggest immediate impact will likely be made by those who have already played baseball at the collegiate level – the five junior college and Division I transfers.
Redshirt sophomore outfielder Miles Lewis is perhaps the most high-profile among them. He was the 2016 Western Athletic Conference Freshman of the Year and a Freshman All-American at North Dakota, batting .360 and stealing 20 bases. When the Fighting Hawks dropped their baseball program after the season, Lewis had the opportunity to transfer anywhere and be immediately eligible to play. With only two returning outfielders on the roster, the Wolverines will likely rely heavily on Lewis’s speed and switch-hitting ability right out of the gate.
“He brings that impact ability to come in and solidify an outfield role and hit close to the top of the order,” Bakich said.
Another player that Bakich named as having an opportunity to contribute immediately is sophomore Nick Poirier, who hit .372 with four home runs and 31 runs batted in last season at San Joaquin Delta Community College. Poirier brings a left-handed presence with a chance to add much-needed outfield depth, and may also see time at designated hitter.
On the mound, Bakich said that junior Alec Rennard, a transfer from Santa Rosa Junior College, is one of the Wolverines’ four best pitchers. At Santa Rosa, Rennard was the Big 8 Conference Pitcher of the Year and a first-team Junior College All-American, going 14-1 with a 1.40 ERA, while walking just 10 batters in 115.2 innings.
“He’s got a winner’s mentality,” Bakich said. “He’ll be in our rotation somewhere.”
Michigan’s recruiting class also includes seven freshmen, three of whom were highlighted by Bakich as players to watch. Outfielder Christian Bullock brings athleticism and solid hitting potential, while pitchers Tommy Henry and Karl Kauffman have the talent to eventually comprise the backbone of the pitching staff.
“This is obviously a very skilled freshman class, and we have some talented (junior college transfers) that have proven themselves,” said junior infielder Jake Bivens. “They’ve been great additions to this team and have fit right in with this culture, so we’re excited to see them actually get on the field and play against other guys.”
Even though the potential is clearly there for the freshmen, the excitement may have to wait a little bit. With the veteran makeup of the lineup, it may be difficult for any of them to earn consistent playing time immediately. However, Bakich stresses that they will still have opportunities to play key roles.
“They’re trying to get a feel for the academics and the speed of the game while still having a social life and making friends,” Bakich said. “It’s going to be very challenging for them to get on the field and have an impact-type role, but I think you’ll see them contribute in ways where they can help the team in certain spots.”
The junior college transfers have the experience and ability to step in right away and fill key holes vacated from last season, supplementing an already veteran team. In the meantime, a promising group of freshmen lies waiting for their opportunity. After years of consistent improvement, the Wolverines appear to have a solid foundation in place, both now and in the future.