We’ve reached the opening weekend for college baseball. It may not seem like baseball season weather-wise, but the calendar doesn’t care about all that. With the Cincinnati Bearcats set to visit the San Diego Toreros this weekend (unless the weather continues to no cooperate), let’s take a look at the most important threads that will run through this season.
Scott Googins’ first season
For the last four years, Ty Neal was the head coach of this program but now we are in a new era. In a spring filled with surprises, Neal stepped down last year and was then replaced by Googins, who spent the previous 12 seasons coaching at Xavier. A coaching legend for the Musketeers, Googins has more wins than any coach at the X (341) and also led the program to four NCAA Tournament berths.
Obviously, Googins can’t hope to fix the Bearcats in one year, but it will be telling to see how we handles a program that was seemingly on the rise. UC went 28-30 overall last season and flirted with a .500 finish in American Athletic Conference play. While the league success rate was a step back from 2016 when they went 13-10-1, the Bearcats had two more overall wins than that campaign and also finished with double-digit league wins for just the second time since 2012. Googins will be in charge of making sure this isn’t a plateau, but it may take a while before he can start lifting UC up.
Ryan Noda is gone and so are his team-high nine home runs. R.J. Thompson and his team-high slugging percentage (.493) are also no longer around. That means the UC lineup has lost a great deal of its punch. A.J. Bumpass will be the anchor of the group following a season when he hit seven homers and slashed .287/.384/.491, but he can’t do it alone. It will be imperative that Treg Haberkorn bounces back and a few other players on the roster find at least power to the gaps. Otherwise the already low-scoring Bearcats will get that much worse.
A.J. Bumpass’ encore
Speaking of Bumpass, with Thompson gone, he is easily the most promising player on this team. While Connor McVey (.280/.382/.383) is a strong contact hitter who can steal bases very well, Bumpass has the star power. He can hit for power and average, gets on base well and also plays the field effectively. However, in 2016 he slashed .172/.258/.310, so his 2017 performance was a major breakout. I’m a believer in his skill set, but if he regresses, that will be a big problem for the Bearcats.
J.T. Perez and filling out the starting rotation
Even if he didn’t go out with a bang, Andrew Zellner was the ace of the staff the last two seasons. Losing his ability to start on Fridays, eat innings and at times completely shut down opponents (more so in 2016 than 2017) is a tough pill to swallow. That is unless J.T. Perez finds himself again. The southpaw pitched to a 6-5 record with a 2.97 ERA in 2016 when he threw 91 innings. He can still be a workhorse, having thrown a team-high 77 innings last year, but those innings need to be accompanied by fewer opposing hits and runs.
After Perez there is some uncertainty about the rest of the rotation. There are plenty of options, but no clear favorites. If UC wants to surprise some folks this year, then A.J. Olasz (5.35 ERa), David Orndorff (3.41 ERA) and some of the younger arms really need to prove that they are more than just extra depth.
How will Wichita State change the AAC landscape?
Just like the Shockers have altered the look and prestige of the AAC in basketball, they add a new and what could be competitive program on the diamond. They may have only gone 28-30 last season, but there is a lot of talent on the roster. Greyson Jenista (.320/.413/509) and Alec Bohm (.305/.385/.519) provide lots of pop in an lineup that has more than a few strong hitters.
Cincinnati is already fighting an uphill battle against perennial favorites like Houston, USF, UCF and UConn, but adding another team to the fold will make the level of difficulty that much higher.