Rick Heller gives a Connor McCaffery update and more.
Dargan Southard, [email protected]
IOWA CITY, Ia. — Blink too long in college baseball and you’ll miss the roster turnover.
Graduation, the MLB draft, reliance on junior college prospects and coaches constantly looking to maximize every scholarship all amplify the attrition. Lineups from only two years apart can look completely different.
That’s where Rick Heller stands heading into his sixth year of Iowa baseball’s resurgence. Only three offensive starters and a few bullpen pieces remain from the Hawkeyes’ 2017 regional team. The draft especially gobbled up many of last season’s crucial players.
A new wave of leaders and contributors must emerge if this campaign is going to fall in line with the previous four — ones that either delivered an NCAA Tournament berth (2015, 2017) or had the Hawkeyes just within postseason reach (2016, 2018).
Now rooted inside the program, Iowa’s baseball culture and expectations give this unit an early benefit of the doubt. Heller has previously transformed modest preseason buzz and position question marks into special seasons. The blank canvas that is the 2019 season could certainly unfold similarly.
“The guys are really driven and focused to get to that (regional) spot,” Heller said. “There are just a lot of unknowns with this team. I still feel really good about the makeup, about the chemistry — all those things. But the lack of offense coming back and the losses we’ve had defensively, how is that going to play out once the season starts?”
As is the case every year, Iowa must find its early footing amid a hectic itinerary. The Hawkeyes open play in Florida for the Diamond 9 Sunshine State Classic Series, where they will face George Mason (Friday), Pittsburgh (Saturday) and Marshall (Sunday). All first pitches are 10 a.m. or earlier.
It’s a drastic pivot for the second weekend. A four-game trip to Hawaii will see no game start before 5:05 p.m. (CT), punctuated by Friday’s 10:35 p.m. first pitch. Two road series follow at Oklahoma State and Evansville before Iowa gets its first home weekend (March 15-17).
The offense, it seems, has more ground to cover than the arms to start. Reliable boppers Robert Neustrom and Tyler Cropley — along with secondary bats like Matt Hoeg, Austin Guzzo and Kyle Crowl — have all departed. An offense that sputtered badly in the 2018 Big Ten Tournament will need retooling at multiple spots.
The obvious starting point is Chris Whelan, currently the team’s most versatile and reliable lineup piece. Whelan spent the bulk of 2017 and 2018 as Iowa’s leadoff hitter, but Heller will likely need his services more in the middle portion of the order.
As a result, Heller said second baseman Mitchell Boe could slide up top after spending most of the last two years lower in the lineup. One of the few offensive veterans, Boe’s ability to draw walks and get on base would offer much more flexibility to Iowa’s attack.
From there, promise blends with uncertainty.
Can Izaya Fullard and his gaudy stats at Kirkwood transform into Iowa’s latest junior college success? Will players like Lorenzo Elion, Justin Jenkins and Tanner Wetrich take steps forward after some starting experience in 2018? Can Ben Norman return to his 2017 form? How smooth will Connor McCaffery’s transition be once he resumes baseball full-time? What other newcomers — particularly at catcher — will blossom into trusted assets?
“There are going to be new heroes every year,” Boe said. “That’s what coach Heller does. He brings in new talent every year and it steps up. Everyone steps up.”
Iowa’s mound status has more clarity. In senior Cole McDonald and sophomore Jack Dreyer, the Hawkeyes believe they have two horses who can set a productive tone each weekend.
McDonald’s mental improvement and confidence restoration has him in position to take the next Friday night leap. Nick Allgeyer did it last season; Nick Gallagher the year before. Both morphed into top 16-round draft selections.
“I know there’s a little more pressure in terms of expectations and what Friday night starters typically do,” McDonald said, “but as long as I keep the process that I had last year and keep the same routines, I know I’ll do just fine.”
You could see some fluidity with Iowa’s third starter in the early going. Grant Judkins gets the nod in the opening series, but sophomore Cam Baumann will likely get a start the following weekend in the four-game set at Hawaii. Trenton Wallace, Iowa’s midweek starter last year until a late-season elbow injury, will also be in the mix.
The bullpen is interesting, littered with anxious arms looking to establish consistency. Nick Nelsen and Zach Daniels — Iowa’s most-used relievers in 2018 — are gone, but Grant Leonard, Ben Probst, junior college saves leader Trace Hoffman and others comprise a promising bunch. A Kyle Shimp bounce-back would only help the cause.
You won’t find Iowa in any NCAA regional projections or high in the preseason conference polls. Those are fair prognostications — but ones Heller has proven wrong before.
“They’ve done everything we’ve asked them to do from an improvement standpoint,” Heller said. “Now, we’ll find out in the first few weeks how it goes.”
Dargan Southard covers Iowa and UNI athletics, recruiting and preps for the Des Moines Register, HawkCentral.com and the Iowa City Press-Citizen. Email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter at @Dargan_Southard.