Two years ago, the Michigan baseball team had 11 players selected in the draft, the most by any one school. All eleven of them signed contracts. Seven were juniors.
A year later, the absence of the seven would-be seniors leaves some gaps in the Wolverines’ lineup. And with those gaps come opportunities for young players to step into bigger roles.
Michigan’s reliance on younger, less-experienced players caused the team to struggle at points last season. The Wolverines got off to a slow start, losing 11 of their first 15 games. After that, though, they went on a tear, winning 20 straight games. Ultimately, though, the team’s collective lack of experience caught up to them in the Big Ten Tournament. After beating Iowa 2-1 in extra innings to start the tournament, their season ended with consecutive losses to Purdue and Ohio State.
But this year, with another year of experience, Michigan’s younger players look poised for success. The team has also taken the offseason to get stronger and faster, and that increased level of physicality has already been evident in how the team has been playing in practice.
“It’s a little bit of an older team, so I see a group of kids who’ve had another birthday, who’ve gotten stronger, who’ve become more physical, so I would like to think we’re capable of hitting for more power this year,” said Michigan coach Erik Bakich. “I like to think some of our pitchers are going to be stronger, more durable. We’ve seen some bumps in velocity from some of our pitchers, and they look more physical on the mound as well.”
Among those looking to make the jump is Jesse Franklin. The sophomore outfielder struggled to adjust to college baseball at the beginning of his freshman season, hitting an average of .095 with two hits over his first nine games. But he soon found his stride, hitting his first of a team-high 10 home runs on Mar. 20 to kick off a hot streak that lasted several weeks. Despite his slow start, Franklin finished the season with a solid .327 average and 47 runs batted in.
Franklin was part of a strong freshman recruiting class that stepped into big roles last season. Another notable now-sophomore is right-hander Jeff Criswell, who “has a lightning bolt for an arm” according to Bakich and who will now be in competition for a starting role. Criswell had a 2.23 ERA last season over 32.1 innings of relief, pitching several scoreless innings and one perfect inning in the process.
Also in a position for a strong year is senior Jimmy Kerr, who will play at either first or third base. Kerr made 19 starts at third last year. In 2017, his sophomore season, he was part of a defensive infield that was statistically among the best in college baseball.
“Jimmy Kerr has been in this program – this is his fourth year now – and he’s earned a starting job,” Bakich said. “He’s put on a lot of size, a lot of strength, a lot of explosiveness, he’s hitting the ball with a lot of juice in the bat, so it’s really good to see.”
Overall, expectations are high for Team 153, whose combination of youth and experience coupled with improved strength could be enough to send the team into a deep playoff run this spring.
“We’ve got our goals set as high you can set them, and in terms of how we’ve prepared and being around these guys every day, it feels like a championship team,” Bakich said. “Everything feels right in terms of what type of group this could be. It feels like a special group.”