Jawuan Harris is garnering a lot of attention lately, but baseball is still a team sport and the Rutgers diamond dwellers begin the season at #9 Miami (FL) this weekend. It was an eventful offseason after the team’s postseason hopes were dashed on the final weekend last year. The program responded by making some high profile hires with its coaching staff. This new and improved staff has to deal with the losses of several key contributors, but can turn to an experienced player at virtually every position if that is the best option.
Everyone who follows baseball knows it’s all about pitching. New pitching coach Phil Cundari is tasked with getting more out of many of the same arms the trotted out to the mound for the Scarlet Knights a season ago. Cundari had tremendous success at Seton Hall where he was named National Pitching Coach of the Year in 2011. He inherits a staff so short on starting pitching depth in 2017, it forced Litterio and former pitching coach Casey Gaynor to use senior infielders Chris Campbell and Gaby Rosa as starting pitchers.
John O’Reilly and Serafino Brito return as the top two starters yet again. Both struggled at times, but each turned in a performance late in the season that reaffirmed the talent is there. O’Reilly turned in several quality starts, including an outing where he retired the first 19 men to bat against Purdue. The secret to Brito’s success is pumping strikes low in the zone early in the count. If he can get ahead, he has tremendous life on his fastball up in the zone, but we only saw this for a full game once when he went 7+ innings against Illinois.
Harry Rutkowski was drafted by the Cincinnati Reds in the 28th round of the MLB draft and figures to be in the equation after deciding to enroll on the banks instead of going pro. He has the build (6’2, 230) to be a workhorse out of the gate, but the staff may elect to ease him into college baseball. Regardless, he has natural talent to have been drafted out of high school. Fellow freshman lefty Eric Heatter could end up a starter as well, as Litterio mentioned him by name in his preseason interview with scarletknights.com.
In the bullpen, someone will need to step up and be the team’s next closer. Max Herrmann at times seemed to be the only reliable option out of the pen and graduated as the program’s all-time leader in saves. It will be interesting to see who gets the high leverage assignments in the early season. Kyle Gerace was third on the team with a 4.20 ERA, Ryan Wares didn’t have good stats but seemed to figure it out as the season went along and got some higher leverage assignment, plus both Eric Reardon and Tevin Murray could surprise if they cut down on their walks. Kevin Romero has talent as evidenced by his leading the team in strikeouts per inning but wore down in his outings. Grad student Karl Blum will also be in the mix after joining his brother Kevin on the banks. Karl had a 3.18 ERA in 28.1 innings for Duke least year and if he can simply replicate those numbers it would be a huge boost for this club.
Peter Barron is the new director of player development and time will tell how much on field responsibilities he has. Even if it’s only off the field, many of these pitchers are big guys still growing into their bodies who benefit from all the on and off the field programs.
Behind the plate, Chris Folisunz and Nick Matera had big shoes to fill in replacing all-conference catcher R.J. Devish a season ago. They did a good job as a tandem and the key will be maintaining that level of play while doing even more to help the pitching staff. Tyler McNamara returns as the third catcher, having started one game behind the dish as a sophomore in 2017.
In the outfield, the Scarlet Knights deployed the speedy Harris in center field last year where he was able to track down a lot of would be hits. Harris also has an excellent throwing arm as that prevented runners from advancing an extra base on balls in play. New coach Jim Duffy may have the luxury of focusing more of his time and effort on offense, because Luke Bowerbank, Mike Martinez (also a pitcher), and even the big guy Folinusz are more than adequate to man the corner outfield spots. A freshman like Michael Nyisztor or Adam Holland, an excellent all-around athlete, could begin as a late game defensive replacement.
Litterio, a former Scarlet Knight infielder, had to be disappointed when the infield defense early in the 2017 was absolutely awful. After shifting some personnel, the unit became passable heading into the Big Ten slate with shortstop Kevin Welsh and second baseman Carmen Sclafani. Both return and having a full offseason to build more chemistry should help.
One corner spot was expected to be manned by a true freshman in Davis Schneider, but after being drafted by the Toronto Blue Jays last summer, Schneider elected to forego his eligibility. So that means veteran Milo Freeman could be back at the hot corner after splitting his career between both first and third base. That leaves flexibility at first where we could see Folinusz or Matera, depending on who is not catching, or one of the primary pitchers who would serve as a big target to throw to. Litterio has been high on Nyisztor as an infielder as well, so he could end up at third and shift Freeman back to 1st. Also of note is that the Fred Hill training complex offers a place for the team to work on fielding in the offseason unlike any opportunity they had in past years. We’ll know shortly if the early season returns are significantly better.
Per Coach Litterio, “One of the strengths, has been and will continue to be, is the way we swing the bats and our offensive approach.” The team will need to replace a lot of production from the 2017, most notably Mike Carter (.329 avg, 200+ career hits). In addition to Carter, Campbell added some clutch hits, Rosa had a nice career, as did Tom Marcinczyk (200 hit club). Litterio will have to replace them, but has shown an ability to find offense year over year despite being seemingly in this position at the dawn of every campaign.
Matera really came on late in the season to earn third team All-Big Ten honors, hitting .293 with 11 doubles and five homers. Harris’s final batting average was disappointing (.269), but his power/speed combo (8 HR, 23 SB) makes him extremely dangerous. Folinusz was named third team all Big Ten as a designated hitter, leading the team in batting in Big Ten play at a .323 clip.
After those three, Freeman (35+ hits all three seasons), Bowerbank (15 runs scored in only 14 starts), Martinez (.273, 28 R, 23 RBI), and Sclafani (14 game on base streak, 25 RBI) have all proven to be capable Big Ten hitters. Welsh is in there for defense and anything they can get from him with the stick will be gravy. He was the team’s best hitter with runners in scoring position (.346) though, so he did an excellent job of keeping the line moving to get back to the top of the order.
Assuming those eight are all starters (no guarantee of course), there is still one spot in the lineup completely up for grabs from a very unproven group. Rutkowski was drafted as a pitcher, but led New Jersey high schoolers in home runs as a senior. He could get some looks at first base (throws lefty) but is more likely to get ABs at DH (hits righty) if he is allowed to both pitch and hit. Tommy Genuario is also primarily a pitcher, but did have 5 RBI and a .412 OBP with only 14 at-bats last year. Expect someone not listed to break through as one of the starting nine, perhaps a freshman or pitcher pulling double duty.
The coaching shake up will bring added focus and life to a program that may have felt (and rightfully so) like an outsider compared to some of the other sports at RU that were generating more headlines. More experienced staff members and the Fred Hill complex should infuse life into a program that seems like it could use it. Baseball can be a funny game because it can click with someone unexpected going on a hot streak or even an entire season. Slightly better defense and a little more from starting pitchers can really make a difference. Even team camaraderie, which Litterio highlighted in the number of community service hours the team put in this offseason, can give just a little more of an edge to a ballclub.
Nothing jumps out as a reason to believe Rutgers will be leaps and bounds better than they were in 2017, but you really never know. If Cundari truly is a pitching whisperer, the Scarlet Knights could cruise into a Big Ten tournament berth. The other schools in the Big Ten face similar challenges and most of those schools are in even COLDER climates with even less local baseball talent. Some of those teams will get on a roll at some point, will Rutgers join them?
Three players were named this week as one’s to watch in the Big Ten Preseason Honors List, including junior outfielder Jawuan Harris, junior catcher Nick Matera and senior pitcher John O’Reilly.
Dust off that cap, break in a new glove, and grab a really good piece of lumber because the 2018 season is upon us!