Is it spring yet?
Still no, but, we’re getting closer. And, as we inch closer to opening day, we are returning this week for the second installment in our three-part series previewing the 2017 Boston College Baseball team. The last time out, we dove into what you can expect to see from the Eagles lineup this season and noted that, although BC may lack depth at some positions, the starting nine should form a pretty formidable challenge for opposing teams. However, as any coach will tell you, it doesn’t matter if a team has the best offense on the planet, they won’t be successful without a deep pitching staff, and that is what we’re going to focus on today.
Replacing key players that were lost either to the draft or to graduation, as mentioned last week, is one of the greatest challenges facing head coaches around the country. Boston College and Mike Gambino are no exception. Although only four pitchers are gone from the record setting 2016 team, those four may be the most difficult Gambino has had to replace during his tenure.
Justin Dunn, Mike King, Jesse Adams and John Nicklas combined for 20 of BC’s 35 wins a season ago, and were the reliable veterans of a pitching staff that saw tremendous improvement under Jim Foster, who left the program this summer to become the head coach at Army. Dunn, the flame-throwing ace of the Eagles’ starting rotation a season ago, amassed a 4-2 record with a 2.06 ERA in 65.2 innings pitched in 2016, in route to being drafted 19th overall by the New York Mets, tying him for the highest BC pitcher ever taken in the draft (Chris Lambert ’04). If Dunn was the most talented pitcher on the staff a season ago, then Mike King was the undisputed workhorse for the Eagles. King logged 104.0 innings pitched in 2016, 30 more than the next highest total on the team, and earned a record of 8-4 with a 3.29 ERA. On any other team, King would’ve been starting on Friday nights but, the presence of Dunn allowed Coach Gambino to use King on either Saturday or Sunday giving BC a chance to win every weekend series. For his efforts, the Miami Marlins took King in the 12th round of the 2016 draft.
If there is such a thing as a “utility pitcher” then Jesse Adams fell into that category for the Eagles a season ago. He saw action in 23 games on the year, including 7 starts, earning a 5-5 record, while also leading the team with six saves. He did it all. The versatility of the crafty lefthander prompted the Cincinnati Reds to select him in the 14th round of the draft. John Nicklas was a steady presence in the BC bullpen for four seasons, never appearing in fewer than 19 games. 2016 was no different for Nicklas as he appeared in 20 games earning a 3-1 record and giving Gambino and Foster a battle-tested arm to go to out of the bullpen. While it will be extremely difficult to completely replace these four pitchers, BC returns the vast majority of its pitching staff from last year’s Super Regional team and added some depth at the position in the 2016 recruiting class.
The Weekend Rotation:
The loss of Dunn and King leave Birdball without two thirds of its weekend rotation from a year ago. The good news, however, is that the third that is left is a pretty special player. Sophomore Jacob Stevens will enter the spring as the undisputed ace of the Eagles staff, and for good reason. A year ago, as a true freshman, Stevens started 14 games, compiling a 2.54 ERA in 74.1 innings pitched and was named to the ACC All-Freshman Team as well as being named a Second-Team Freshman All-American by D1 Baseball and Baseball America. In his rookie campaign, Stevens showed the ability to keep his team in any game, regardless of who is on the mound for the opposition. New pitching coach Alex Trezza will rely on him to do just that, as there are no easy weekends in the ACC. Beyond Stevens, the weekend rotation is fluid at this point, but, there are a few frontrunners to keep an eye on as we move toward February 17th and the season-opener at Bethune-Cookman. Sophomore left-handers Zach Stromberg and Dan Metzdorf appeared in 17 games apiece last season and combined for four total starts. While their experience as freshmen primarily came out of the bullpen, they showed the ability to throw multiple pitches for strikes and would each be a nice compliment to the right-handed Stevens. Also, do not be surprised if freshman Matt Gill finds himself in the weekend rotation to start the season. As noted previously, Coach Gambino likes to let his younger players gain experience early in their careers, and the 6’5 right-hander out of Avon Old Farms was impressive during fall practice. Another candidate for a starting role is sophomore right-hander John Witkowski. Witkowski appeared in 19 games as a freshman, all out of the bullpen, but showed the make-up to be a starter. His role could fluctuate between weekend starter, midweek starter, and reliever throughout the season depending of the matchups the Eagles are facing.
The bullpen may be the deepest position group on the BC roster this season. It features a number of returning players who have seen significant action in plenty of big games and several new faces looking to get on the field.
Because of the nature of the college game, it is hard to pigeon-hole guys into “short-relief” or “long-relief” categories. Sure, there will be certain guys who lock down individual roles, but, for the most part, college relievers are asked, and are expected, to be ready to go in at any point during a game. Two upperclassmen will anchor and lead the BC bullpen this season. Captain Bobby Skogsbergh returns in 2017 after leading the team with 24 appearances a season ago. Skogsbergh, a redshirt junior right-hander, has proven throughout his career that he is reliable out of the bullpen and spark plug for his team. He’s the one who struck out Miami’s Zack Collins in the Coral Gables Super Regional to force a Game 3. He’s rock solid. The same can be said of redshirt senior Luke Fernandes, who has battled injury throughout his career. After redshirting his freshman year due to injury, Fernandes came back in 2014 and appeared in 21 games, good for second on the team, earning 3-2 record with a 3.71 ERA. He then appeared in only 10 games the following season and underwent Tommy John surgery. Most players need more than a year to rehab from Tommy John, but, Fernandez put in the work, and did what many thought impossible, by appearing in a game in 2016. His story and work ethic serve as great examples to the younger pitchers on the staff and, while it remains to be seen how much he will be utilized this season, there is no replacement for that kind of senior leadership on a young team.
While they may be young, guys like sophomore Jack Nelson and sophomore Thomas Lane gained valuable experience as freshmen, throwing 15 and 29 innings, respectively, in their first year on the Heights and will be looked upon to contribute more this season. Junior Donovan Casey, a two-way player and probable starting outfielder, when healthy, was almost unhittable a season ago, posting a 1.18 ERA in eight appearances. His availability may depend on whether he is needed in the outfield during a particular game, but, he will get his share of innings on the mound. Junior southpaw Carmen Giampetruzzi is looking to move into a more prominent role within the Eagles’ bullpen as he becomes an upperclassman, as are sophomore Sean Hughes, who appeared in eight games, and redshirt freshman Austin Batchelor, who missed the 2016 season due to injury. Also, bolstering the bullpen will be freshmen Mickey Giordano, Michael Marzonie, and Joe Walsh, who will look to contribute in their first season in the Maroon and Gold.
Although a true, dominant closer is a rarity in college baseball, it’s still an enormously important piece to have in any team’s bullpen. Much like last season, 2017 may see multiple pitchers fill this role for the Eagles throughout the year, but, currently, junior Brian Rapp may have the best shot at filling that role when the season opens. Rapp, a 5’11 195 pounder out of IMG Academy, appeared in 20 games a season ago and became one of Gambino’s most trusted arms out of the bullpen. But, as any pitcher or coach will tell you, being the guy responsible for the final three outs of a game is a completely different role than any other on the staff. For that reason, do not be surprised if a more experienced pitcher, like Skogsbergh or possibly Witkowski, sees time shutting the door on teams early in the season, as well.
While the Eagles enjoy more depth on the mound than they do in the field this season, it seems as though no roles are set in stone heading into the season opener besides that of Jacob Stevens. The good news is that there is enough depth and experience in the Eagles’ bullpen for Gambino and Trezza to shuffle guys around in the early going in order to identify and solidify important roles heading into the first ACC weekend in Tallahassee.
Stay tuned to BC Interruption in the coming days as we wrap up our three-part season preview by taking an in depth look at the current freshman class for the Eagles.