That’s how Michigan baseball coach Erik Bakich described his team before the start of the season. Last season, the Wolverines had both depth and experience with 13 seniors and 10 freshmen. With most of those seniors gone and everyone one year older, Michigan finds itself with an experienced team but still has a few holes to fill. Just like last season, Bakich went to the transfer portal again and brought in players who could start opening weekend. With a combination of homegrown players and high-IQ veterans from successful programs, the Wolverines now have a team built to score.
Ahead of Friday’s home opener against Dayton, The Daily breaks down Michigan’s roster.
Junior catcher/infielder Jimmy Obertop was the primary first baseman for the Wolverines last season, and he made an impact with his bat immediately. In 42 games, Obertop hit .275 with 11 home runs and 34 RBIs. This season, the catcher position was up for grabs, and Obertop stepped up. Not only is he poised behind the plate, but he is currently hitting .357 with one home run.
After sophomore right-hander Chase Allen got his first win of the season, with Obertop behind the plate, Allen took the time to give a lot of the credit to Obertop:
“I just believe in our coaching staff and give a lot of credit to Jimmy Obertop behind the plate,” Allen said. “I thought he caught four great games this weekend. (I’m) excited for what’s to come.”
Behind Obertop, the catcher position is thin. The Wolverines have redshirt junior Jordon Rodgers and freshman Joe Longo. While Longo hasn’t recorded an at-bat this season, Rodgers played in 30 games last season and six already this season. Rodgers has also slotted in at DH, hitting his first home run this past weekend.
Last season, the Wolverines had Obertop take the first base duties. With his move to catcher, Michigan had to find other options. While they had juniors Jake Marti and Ted Burton took reps last season, they wanted to find a more permanent option. Bakich went out and found senior Jack Van Remortel from Umpqua Community College. So far this season, Van Remortel is having himself a solid start. He is currently hitting .258 with multiple two-hit games including the go-ahead RBI double in the sixth inning in the win over Kansas State.
Unfortunately for Van Remortel, he just broke his hand this past weekend and will be out for the next two to three weeks. That leaves Burton to switch from DH to first base in his absence. Once Van Remortel is healthy again, he will likely return to first and move Burton back to DH. For now, it is Van Remortel’s position to lose.
With senior Riley Bertram moving from second to shortstop this season, the Wolverines needed to find a replacement at second base. As a result, Michigan turned to grad-transfer Alex Fedje-Johnson from Davidson to take second base duties. Last season, Fedje-Johnson hit .303 with five home runs. This season, Fedje-Johnson is off to a slow start, posting a .136 batting average, but he is very solid defensively, only contributing one error. If Fedje-Johnson can fix his offensive issues, he can be an under-the-radar bat for Big Ten play.
Behind Fedje-Johnson is sophomore Dylan Stanton who had seen playing time recently with Fedje-Johnson battling an injury.
Bertram has started every game at shortstop to this point, giving a strong sense of leadership to the infield. Last season, he struggled to hit consistently, but his fielding was very solid. This season, Bertram took his game to another level by not just being consistent in the field, but putting up a .293 batting average to this point, including a game-tying home run against Maryland that would help the Wolverines secure a win.
So far, Burton and grad-transfer Matt Frey have split the third base duties with the other filling into the DH spot, providing a dangerous one-two punch. While Burton started off the season in a big slump, hitting below .100 through the first five games, he has turned it around, hitting .470 since that point, including two home runs, including a grand slam.
“Baseball is just one of those games where there’s a roller coaster of variety,” Burton said. “I’m just sticking with my approach and maybe see one of those loopers fall and just kind of lead to a string of hits. That’s just kind of how the game works and just being able to stay level-headed through all the highs and the lows, it’s kind of the crucial factor for me to perform and while this season.”
While Burton’s hitting has been hot and cold, Frey keeps giving Bakich reasons to stay in the lineup. With a .362 batting average and two home runs, Frey is slowly moving up in the lineup.
“If a kid is a grad transfer, he’s not in professional baseball,” said Bakich. “He’s got a little bit of a chip on his shoulder. They want to go to a program where they have a chance to be part of a special culture and it’s almost like they’re underclassmen again because they’re learning a new system and they’re old enough and mature enough to know that they want to take in as much information and learn as much as they possibly can.”
Juniors Clarke Elliott and Tito Flores and grad-transfer Joe Stewart make up the outfield. The trio is arguably the most consistent position group on the team this season. All three have played in every game this season, with Flores and Stewart starting every game.
Right fielder, Elliott, was named the top MLB prospect in the Big Ten to start the season, and he has lived up to the hype. He leads the team with eight home runs and has a .362 batting average and hasn’t made an error this season. He is the leadoff hitter for this team.
“(He has the) combination of talent and preparation,” Bakich said. “He’s one of the harder workers we’ve had. He got a lot of confidence this summer competing against the best out in the Cape Cod League, and he carried that confidence into this season so far. He’s just very consistent.”
Next to Elliott is arguably the biggest pickup for Michigan over the offseason, center fielder Joe Stewart. Stewart played his collegiate career with Michigan State, and after considering walking away from the game, he got a call from Bakich that changed his plans.
Stewart has gotten off to a fast start, hitting .348 with three home runs and 17 RBIs. He also accounts for just one error as the leader of the outfield. If Stewart can continue his hot hitting and consistent defense, this outfield will be in good hands going forward.
Finally, Michigan has the Detroit native Flores to round out its outfield. The junior made a splash last season, starting all 46 games and finishing with a .325 batting average. This season, Flores started slowly but found his footing five games in. After not getting a single hit in the first three games, he broke out of his slump, going on a nine-game hit streak.
Currently, he has a .250 batting average, including a grand slam against East Carolina.
Led by the No. 4 draft prospect in the Big Ten in junior right-hander Cameron Weston, the Michigan pitching staff had high expectations to start the season.
The Wolverines lost their top starter, Steven Hajjar, to the Minnesota Twins in the draft this past season, so finding a rotation had proven difficult before the season started.
Weston was the clear number two last season behind Hajjar, and decided to come back to school instead of testing his luck in the draft. After having a full season of starting experience under his belt, Weston was ready to be a leader on the team, and especially to the other pitchers.
“After starting last year, there’s a little more comfort starting off,” Weston said. “There’s not a lot of jitters (this season) or anything like that (when I start). It’s just taking all that information (from last year) into the next season.”
Currently, Weston is 1-1 with a 4.29 ERA. Batters seem to have found a weak spot in Weston’s pitching as they are hitting him consistently. Despite this, Weston and Bakich are not worried due to Weston’s success in the past.
Behind Weston, Bakich slotted in junior right-hander Jacob Denner. Denner started very well this season, allowing just one run in six innings in his first start. In spite of this, Denner took a dip in his productivity, giving up six runs in back-to-back starts. Currently, he is 1-2 and holds a 7.78 ERA. If Michigan is going to go far in the Big Ten and even Omaha, Denner needs to find his groove once again.
Behind Weston and Denner, Michigan has a few new faces that have made starts. Left-hander Connor O’Halloran is only a sophomore, but leads the starters with the lowest ERA of 3.37 and starts with five. Nonetheless, he also has a 1-2 record to this point. Sophomore right-hander Chase Allen and junior right-hander Noah Rennard have also notched a start each.
While injuries could prove a shift in the rotation, the current starting three look to be in place to make the bulk of the regular season starts. They all have the potential to do serious damage, but they need to solve some of the underlying issues before Michigan can start thinking about Omaha and beyond.
“On one side of the coin, you look at the negative and you realize we’re not very consistent through the first 15 games,” Bakich said. But on the other side of the coin, we have a lot of optimism that our best baseball of this young season is still to be played. But that’s the frustrating part for the players and the coaches and everybody that we just haven’t been as consistent in certain phases, especially on the pitching side of things.”
The struggle has been real for the bullpen this season. Twelve relief pitchers have seen action this season, and very few have found consistent success. Most frequently, the Wolverines have turned to senior right-hander Willie Weiss, who they utilize as their closer, long reliever and possible starter in the future. Aside from Weiss, Allen and Rennard, senior left-hander Walker Cleveland, junior right-hander Logan Wood and sophomore right-hander Ahmad Harajli have contributed the most from the bullpen.
While there are injuries and roles that must be filled from graduating players, it is imperative the Wolverines solve their bullpen issues. There is still time, so the more reps the better.