The 2020 Rutgers baseball season commences Friday, February 14 in familiar fashion, at Miami (FL) for the 11th time in the last 12 opening sets.
The roster returns mostly intact for new Head Coach Steve Owens and his staff. The 2020 slate features 14 weekend series prior to potential Big Ten Tournament action. Rutgers looks to qualify as a top eight finisher in the conference standings to join the field in Omaha for the first time since joining the Big Ten.
2019 in review
The ballclub took a step back overall (20-31) compared to the .500 record (25-25) they had put together in 2018. The season began with many bumps in the road during the non-conference games as the team too slowly acclimated a host of freshmen and transfers to an 8-19 start. Then after drubbing Iowa 15-3 in the series finale, the Scarlet Knights hit their stride, winning nine of eleven games during that stretch. Things looked good to finally qualify for the eight team Big Ten tournament until Rutgers was swept by 2nd place Michigan and could not recover. The team lacked power offensively, was victimized by poor infield defense at times, and eventually the five main pitchers (four of which return) wore down due to the heavy workload.
Rutgers lost a few key contributors from the 2019 squad that they look to replace. The team only had four seniors and the most critical was Serafino Brito (13 career saves) who served as the team’s closer the past two seasons and was drafted in the 28th round by the Cleveland Indians. The Knights also lost three position players, Carmen Sclafani who led the team in homers with seven, starting catcher Tyler McNamara who battled clean up, and Luke Bowerbank (hit over .300 twice) the streaky hitter who started 103 games in his career.
Without a full recruiting cycle, new Coach Owens only has six true freshmen on the roster, though three likely will get regular playing time. They do get the services this year of two potential impact transfers, Richie Schiekofer from Maryland who originally hails from Millburn and Owens’s son Sam, the ABCA All-Northeast First Team catcher a year ago at Bryant. College Baseball rosters historically have had even more turnover than any other sport, including football, and this is the least I have ever seen in a single offseason for any school. With a new coaching staff, it’s truly shocking, and Coach Owens said, “There’s a solid core there.”
On the subject of the new coaching staff, Steve Owens was not someone on most fans’ radar after Patrick Hobbs declined to renew the contract of Joe Litterio. After he was hired though, it was obvious why Hobbs made the selection over a very qualified pool of candidates. Owens has been the head man at three different northeast programs (Cortland State, Le Moyne, and Bryant) and NEVER had a losing record in 28 seasons. That fact alone is mind-boggling in a sport like baseball where any team can win any game and it wasn’t like he was coaching already established national powerhouses. Instead, Hobbs selected a proven program builder like Rutgers has had success with in recent years across the other athletic programs. Owens was a star baseball and football player in college himself at St. Lawrence and has remained in the Northeast virtually his entire career. His most recent stop at Bryant resulted in over 36 wins per season (tops in the Northeast) and a peak ranking of #15 in the country, yes Division I. This hire may turn out to be a coup.
The second most important role on a baseball staff is the pitching coach. Admittedly, I thought the right move was retaining two-time National Pitching Coach Phil Cundari who took a cast of characters who collectively were the worst statistically in the Big Ten when he arrived to middle of the pack by midway through his second year and ended 2019 with a weekend starting trio that rivaled anyone in the conference (all of whom return in 2020). Had Owens kept Cundari that might have been the holy grail result in this coaching search, but I would have been ok with Cundari as head coach if that’s what it took as well.
All that said, I can’t blame Owens for instead bringing his pitching coach and recruiting coordinator Brendan Monaghan with him from Bryant to Rutgers. Monaghan was a captain as a catcher at St. John’s after his days at Wayne Hills High School, so he is a North Jersey guy who already has plenty of recruiting ties in the state and also played Minor League Baseball in the Orioles organization. Brendan has had successful stops at Umass Lowell and George Washington before producing more MLB draft pick pitchers than Rutgers has in the past three years. He has his hands full solely due to the low quantity of pitchers currently on the roster.
Kyle Pettoruto may get some street credibility in the Garden State with his last name alone, but hails from Andover, Massachusetts. He will coach outfielders, baserunning and hitting after doing much of the same the previous six seasons at Bryant with the two aforementioned coaches. Kyle played at New Haven, helping his club to the 2010 NCAA Tournament.
Branden Cogswell has the task of re-establishing reliable infield defense among other duties such as assisting Pettoruto with hitting. Cogswell, originally from Ballston Lake, New York, took his talents to the University of Virginia where he did enough to become a 7th round draft pick in 2014. After college he climbed the ladder all the way to AA ball for the Oakland Athletics, then returned to Virginia as director of player personnel before arriving on the banks.
Peter Barron remains the Director of Baseball Operations.
It always starts with pitching, and Rutgers returns 11 of the 13 pitchers who tossed more than one inning in 2019. That may sound great, though Brian Fitzpatrick and Garrett French are not yet cleared to return to game action. So at least to start the season, Rutgers will rely heavily once again on their starting trio of senior Tommy Genuario, junior captain Harry Rutkowski, and senior Tevin Murray (2019 2nd Team All Big Ten). When I spoke with Coach Owens last week, he indicated that he will start his three best in order during weekend series, the traditional approach to trotting out starters.
Lefthander (and captain) Harry Rutkowski was named to the Big Ten Preseason Honors List for the second straight year after serving as the Scarlet Knights Friday night starter all season as a sophomore in 2019. Harry led the team in starts (14), innings pitched (81.2), and strikeouts (83) for the second year in a row, but was often victimized by poor defense to extend innings and a lack of run support. Righthander Tommy Genuario is a senior who only stared exclusively pitching in the 2018 season. Genuario became the regular Saturday starter last year and was incredibly reliable (3.14 ERA). Southpaw Tevin Murray also was named to the Big Ten Preseason Honors List after being named Second Team All-Big Ten a year ago. Tevin showed the same control issues early in the year but all of a sudden magic happened and once promoted to Sunday starter, he was among the Big Ten leaders in ERA (3.01) and WHIP (1.26), striking out 81 men in just 68.2 IP. These players are the key to Rutgers staying games long enough for their offense to break through.
After the top three, the bullpen will need to figure out a way to replace Serafino Brito who pitched in seemingly all high leverage situations down the stretch. The first name is Steven Acosta who can’t take on any more workload than he did (30 appearances, 2nd in program history), incredibly throwing in 17 of the 23 Big Ten contests. Acosta was a two-pitch guy who functioned best in his role of coming in to face just a few hitters, but more may be asked of him in 2019.
Garrett French has no sure date for his return while lefty Brian Fitzpatrick won’t likely be back until after the Ohio State series per Owens, which leaves RHP Kyle Muller (20 IP), senior captain LHP Eric Reardon (19.1 IP), and RHP Parker Scott (14.1 IP) needing to improve their ERAs in potentially more innings. LHP Jared Bellissimo and RHP Jack Parkinson were key contributors during the Rutgers winning streak, particularly eating up innings during midweek games, but more may be asked of them, too. Freshman Matt Ciccone and Redshirt Freshman Jacob Newman are the only other pitchers on the roster which is a concern to Owens who told me he’d prefer “18 pitchers” on the roster, but that’s not a reality in 2020 as the current club has just 13 pitchers and 17 position players.
Behind the plate, Rutgers continues its strong catching tradition despite losing a starter for the third time in four years. The team will miss McNamara but returns 2018 draft pick Peter Serruto while adding 2019 draft pick Gus Sosa (who also opted for college instead) and Sam Owens who was All-Conference at Bryant last year. Without having been at practice, I can’t tell you of those three plus sophomore Andy Axelson is the best at handling a pitching staff or throwing out runners and since catcher is not a spot anyone plays every single game we should see a few different guys. Expect quality defense since the team is so deep here and Owens didn’t commit to any individual at this point.
With the over abundance at catcher, Coach Owens said “some of those [players] are interchangeable.” Sosa and/or Sam Owens will also likely play in the infield at times, most likely third base which could be “three or four different guys.” A number of players including Tim Dezzi (who played 2B, 3B, and DH in 2019) and freshman Grant Shulman have been working at the hot corner so it will be curious to see who gets the assignment(s) opening weekend. Sam Owens has been dealing with an elbow issue though per Coach Owens, so he may not be ready to go for opening day defensively.
Up the middle Coach Owens made it crystal clear for me when he said, “Dan DiGeorgio is the shortstop, period.” “We need him to stay on the field for us every day.” Rutgers will be anchored by the return of the redshirt junior captain DiGeorgio, a Big Ten player to watch, at short who missed all of last year with injury and senior captain Kevin Welsh at second base. The Scarlet Knights have struggled mightily with infield defense the last four years, but they achieved their most consistency with this tandem during the latter half of the 2018 season. After a solid if unspectacular freshman year, Chris Brito will be the primary first baseman.
In the outfield Rutgers loses Luke Bowerbank, but returns Mike Nyisztor, Victor Valderrama, and Kevin Blum. Nyisztor has played well defensively wherever the staff has asked him during the first two years of his career and will be joined by Valderrama who possesses tremendous speed and a strong throwing arm. The third outfielder right now is Schiekofer, though I didn’t press Coach Owens on alignment. He also mentioned freshman Josh Rodriguez in the mix and Blum defensively which is an average at worst contingent with the potential to be stellar.
For the first time in a while, Rutgers will not need to replace half its lineup. The coaching staff wants to be aggressive so it will be interesting to see how they pull that off since the team is still not a slugging group quite yet. The fences at Bainton Field were moved in a little bit, so we might see more home runs from a Rutgers club that only tallied 19 on the 2019 season as a whole, seven of which came off the bat of the graduated Carmen Sclafani (also led team with 33 RBI).
The wildcard is DiGeorgio, “a much improved offensive player.” Since he is coming off a leg injury, the staff might not push him to match his 2018 total of 17 stolen bases when he also led the team in runs with 39; Dan could bat leadoff or end up elsewhere. The switch-hitting Welsh led team qualifiers in OPS and was second on the team in RBI as he continues to improve with the stick every year and is a more conventional #2 hitter in the order, though he has had more success near the bottom as a guy who keeps the line moving. Nyisztor has the potential to drive in some runs, but it hasn’t come yet and he led the team with a .281 average and 15 stolen bases last year so he could find himself in one of the top three spots in the lineup.
After those three seeming locks in the every day lineup, the middle of the order will include Sam Owens (.326, 6 HR), Brito (3 HR, 17 RBI), plus potentially Serruto (13 RBI) and Dezzi (.275, 19 RBI) when they are in the lineup. Schiekofer projects as a high average hitter and hopefully has grown since his freshman year with the Terrapins (.326 OBP) after sitting out a year ago so he could end up at the top or very bottom of the lineup tasked to keep the line moving. Valderrama (20 R, 12 RBI, 4 SB) is a boom or bust guy with amazing speed on the base paths and surprising power who was best suited for 6th or 7th in the order last year due to his inconsistency, but on the flip side at times wreaked all kinds of havoc to help turn the lineup over. The freshmen (Sosa, Shulman, and Rodriguez) when they get in the lineup will surely get merit based advances in the batting order.
Kevin Blum is fast (7 SB) and may be used to put pressure on the defense in bunting situations and as a pinch runner. Axelson and Jordan Sweeney may get some at-bats as pinch hitters to drive in some runs. Reece Horneck (who hits lefty) and Anthony Greco are looking to find a niche for themselves as well.
“We’re not very deep. We need to have some good fortune,” Coach Owens told me when also mentioning that “winning is hard.” (I didn’t ask him to imagine how the rest of the world feels who haven’t had a winning season every year.)
From the tactical standpoint, Rutgers does not possess much balance with only three left-handed bats among position players plus the switch hitting Welsh. There’s pretty good, albeit not Jawuan Harris type speed in the lineup to offset the lack of power, so Rutgers will do what they do best and force opponents to make mistakes with aggressive base running, small ball, and strategic pinch hitting. The team had no go to bat last year, so hopefully someone emerges as that guy to be relied upon in clutch situations in 2020. Just like I wrote last year, “without big time power threats to get runs back in bunches, the margin for error at the dish is razor thin.”
On the mound, Rutgers has a lot of guys who have pitched at the college level so the key is seeing how they matured physically and what they were able to work on in the offseason after many of them got their first real action last season. Monaghan has a New Jersey legend’s shoes to fill and not a lot of bodies to do it. Finding an innings eater like Genuario was out of the pen in 2018 would be ideal. Monaghan’s best hope is a Murray like transformation from one of the other tall lefties: Eric Reardon, Bryan Fitzpatrick, or Jared Bellissimo.
On personnel alone, this Rutgers team should be a slightly improved version of the 2019 club because almost all key contributors return with the only glaring hole being at closer. Throw in the fact that this coaching staff has found ways to maximize their talent at all the other stops and the team should believe their coaches know a few of those little things to eek out a few more wins. And lastly, outside of one sport, the rest of the Rutgers programs have done more than expected this school year, so why not baseball?
Dust off that “R” cap and grab your Heart of the Hide glove, because the 2020 season is upon us!
Season opening series at #3 Miami (FL) includes the following start times: 7:00 pm EST (Friday & Saturday), 1:00 pm EST (Sunday).
Look forward to seeing some fans make the trips! The LOW this weekend is 68 degrees, I’m sure your Valentine will appreciate that!
The season continues next Friday Feb 21 in Jacksonville with a three game set against North Florida.