Pitchers and catchers reported for Spring Training across Major League Baseball this week, but college baseball plays by different rules. That’s why the Cincinnati Bearcats will begin the 2019 season on Friday with a three-game series against the Florida Atlantic Owls. Before they do, let’s explore some of the most pressing questions surrounding the team this year.
Are 30 wins possible?
In each of the last two seasons, the Bearcats have won 28 games. While that might not seem like anything to celebrate, it really is in this case. Prior to the 2017 campaign, the Bearcats last won that many games during the 2011 season. In 2019, which marks the second year under head coach Scott Googins, the goal is to build on the growing momentum of the last two years and reach and perhaps even surpass 30 wins. It will be a tough task since the Bearcats enter the year ranked second to last in the American Athletic Conference in RPI and will be replacing a lot of important contributors, but its a worthy goal all the same.
How will the Bearcats replace the offensive production of departing players?
The 2019 season represents a changing of the guard in the lineup. With the departures of shortstop Manny Rodriguez, second baseman Kyle Mottice, third baseman Connor McVey and outfielder Treg Haberkorn, the Bearcats are losing four of their top five batters from last season. Rodriguez and Mottice will be particularly missed, with the latter slashing .335/.433/.443 with a team-high 76 hits and 20 steals while Rodriguez blasted 12 home runs and slugged .589. In addition, Haberkorn’s pop (17 extra bases hits) and McVey’s speed (16 steals) and bat-to-ball skills (.274 career average) can’t be forgotten or replaced all that easily either.
Will A.J. Kullman be more than just an innings eater?
There is a real value in pitchers who can step to the mound and pile up innings. During a long season, such a rubber arm can help bridge the gap between starters and the back of the bullpen and fill multiple roles on the staff. For Kullman, a senior right-hander, its time to graduate from such a role and become a more effective pitcher overall. He has already logged 166 1⁄3 innings in his career with the Bearcats, primarily out of the bullpen, but has a career ERA of just 4.44. Now he is pegged as the Friday night starter, at least to begin the season. How well he adjusts to being a full-time starter will really dictate the direction of the staff.
Can Nathan Kroger take the next step?
While Kullman is handling the Friday night duties to start the year, Kroger will be the Saturday starter. Kullman is a bit more of a known commodity, but Kroger still has potential to meet. The junior right-hander made the third-most starts on the team a year ago, and flashed good control (41 strikeouts compared to 15 walks) even if he did give up far too many runs (5.71 ERA). With the departure of J.T. Perez and Cam Alldred, the Bearcats are pretty much rebuilding the rotation from scratch, but Kroger has the experience and tools to make it a smooth transition. If he can realize that potential and make his control translate to zeros on the scoreboard, the Bearcats will have less to worry about.
How will the rest of the rotation shake out?
Pitchers with lots of starting experience are few and far between on this roster. After Kroger, the returning player with the most starts during last season was Jalen Wade. The sophomore right-hander made a total of five as a freshman and posted a 6.52 ERA across 38 1⁄3 innings. For now, the third starter appears to be sophomore left-hander Garrett Schoenle, who tallied only nine innings last season. Unless he takes to the job immediately, its likely that Googins will experiment with his rotation, especially at the back.
Can A.J. Bumpass be more 2017 than 2018?
Bumpass had a breakout sophomore year when he slashed .287/.384/.491 with 26 extra-base hits. That made expectations reach the stratosphere for his junior campaign. While he was still a solid outfielder and critical bat in the lineup, he took a step back across the board, finishing with 19 extra base hits and a triple-slash line of .249/.371/.442. He also struck out more (55) despite fewer at-bats, but there are signs that he can return to form as a senior. His vision at the plate was still excellent, as his on-base percentage remained within the same range as his 2017 mark while he worked 28 walks compared to 33 in 2017. A little more patience and more barrels on the ball will get Bumpass back to the all-league caliber player he can be.
Can Eric Santiago continue his upward trend?
If the Bearcats are going to reconstruct their ravaged lineup, they need guys like Santiago to maintain or even exceed their performance from a year ago. The junior infielder can play multiple positions, so he is already an important player, but turning into an impact bat would raise his stock even higher. He slashed .275/.335/.403 last spring and even added a career-high 11 extra-base hits. In addition, he was one of the better fielders on the roster. Versatility and glove work will continue to give him a role, but maintaining his offensive improvements will determine how expansive that role is.
Was Joey Wiemer’s breakout for real?
Speaking of players who are going to be asked to step up, Wiemer is another breakout performer from last year who needs to avoid a slump. The sophomore outfielder tied for third on the team with five home runs despite ranking seventh in at-bats. He also flashed some speed (nine steals) and wasn’t an overly aggressive swinger, walking 25 times compared to 36 strikeouts. A little regression might be expected for Wiemer, but if he can avoid it, at least to a degree, the Bearcats have the makings of a pretty solid lineup. If they get positive answers to all of the questions listed above, then they’ll have more than that.