By Eric Rynston-Lobel
The 2019 Wildcats were so close…
to making the Big Ten Tournament.
To most teams, that would be viewed as a somewhat demeaning statement. But for Northwestern last year, it was a very encouraging season albeit in a different manner than many probably expected.
Entering the year, pitchers Hank Christie and Sam Lawrence (both rising seniors in 2020) were expected to rediscover the tools that made them successful their first years wearing Wildcat purple. Christie ended up missing most of the season due to injury and Lawrence posted an ERA of 5.82 in 34 innings.
Instead, first-years Michael Trautwein, Shawn Goosenberg and Mike Doherty showed that they were ready to be thrown into the fire of Big Ten baseball. Trautwein, though he hit just .243, was superb behind the plate, displaying incredible game management skills for a pitching staff that struggled. Goosenberg, by season’s end, found himself penciled into the three-spot in the lineup each night and played a competent second base. He was third on the team with a .288 average and also drove in 27 runs while stealing 12 bases. Doherty, due to injuries to Christie and Quinn Lavelle, wound up starting nine games going 5-1 while posting an ERA of 3.72 in the process. Though his 31:29 strikeout-to-walk ratio and WHIP of 1.56 suggests regression in 2020, he was nevertheless a valuable piece in 2019.
Overall, the team fell short of its preseason goal to be one of the best 64 teams standing at the end of the season. But NU improved its win total from 17 in 2018 to 24 last year. Also encouraging is the fact that the ‘Cats return all of their pitchers besides Nick Paciorek and Danny Katz, as they hope to improve on last year’s team ERA of 5.27.
Though they lost only two pitchers, Paciorek’s departure will be a particularly difficult one to swallow. In his first year pitching, the right-hander struck out 44 hitters in 26.2 innings. That was enough for the New York Yankees to draft him in the seventh round of the MLB Draft in June.
Speaking of the MLB Draft, the ‘Cats also lost their two best offensive forces following 2019. Jack Dunn’s time in Evanston was finished regardless after wrapping up a stellar four-year career (led the team with a .340 average and 36 RBIs). The Washington Nationals drafted him in the 20th round. But Alex Erro had one season of eligibility remaining. Erro moved to third base due to the emergence of Shawn Goosenberg and thrived at the hot corner. He hit .322 with 4 home runs and 34 RBIs. The Boston Red Sox drafted the switch-hitter in the 17th round, and he elected to turn pro rather than spend one more season in Evanston.
So with their leadoff hitter (Dunn), most complete player (Erro) and closer (Paciorek) all gone, where does that leave Northwestern baseball in 2020?
In the recruiting department, Head Coach Spencer Allen welcomes at least six additions to the Wildcats’ roster. The ‘Cats will have a bolstered pitching staff adding four right-handed pitchers in Jack Dyke, Coby Moe, Jack Sauser and Reed Smith.
Northwestern also adds a pair of position players in middle infielder Evan Minarovic and utility man Luke Tanner.
The six first-years will add to a fairly experienced Wildcats’ roster. Sure, they lost their three best players from last season, but that’s the reality of college athletics.
Here are my projected starters in the field for next season:
Catcher – Michael Trautwein
I mentioned his inconsistent hitting last year, but I’m still very excited to see how Trautwein improves in his second year. His batting average was hovering above .260 for much of the first half of the season before he tailed off. His defense, though, never went into a slump. Any offensive production he provides can almost be seen as a bonus when you consider how valuable he is behind the dish, both managing the pitching staff and throwing out opposing base-stealers. He should have no issues holding the starting catcher spot all season, and at least early in the year, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him in the six hole in the lineup.
First Base – Anthony Calarco
We didn’t see much of Calarco in 2019 (just 73 at bats), but that was mostly due to the presence of a senior at his position in Willie Bourbon. Calarco projects to be a similar player to Bourbon – in fact, he’s two inches taller (6’3) and weighs 20 more pounds (215) than Bourbon. While it might still take some time for him to develop as he embarks on his second year, I’ll put my money on Calarco to lead the offense in home runs and hit in the cleanup spot in 2020.
Second Base – Evan Minarovic
With Erro and Dunn gone, this opens up a spot in the infield for a first-year player to make his mark. I expect Minarovic to have the opportunity to do that early in the season. He hit .372 with eight RBIs and 13 runs scored in his senior year at Cooper High School in Texas, and while it’s hard to know how those stats will translate against Division 1 talent, Minarovic should certainly be given a shot as Allen looks for a new crop of infielders to replace Dunn and Erro.
Shortstop – Shawn Goosenberg
Though he played mostly second and third base last year, there’s a major void to fill at shortstop. I expect Goosenberg to take over, as it would make more sense for him rather than Minarovic, a first-year, to be the captain of the infield. Offensively, his 2019 campaign will only raise expectations for him to be the MVP of the Northwestern hitters next year. As a steady presence at the top of the ‘Cats order, Allen will certainly need Goosenberg to produce numbers similar to last year if his team wants any chance of vying for a Big Ten Tournament berth.
Third Base – Charlie Maxwell
I’m playing it safe and going with the veteran here. Though Maxwell hasn’t produced much in his first three years as a Wildcat (career batting average of .224), I expect Allen to at least give Maxwell the opportunity at the beginning of the season to prove himself. If he struggles, though, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Allen turn to a younger player like Luke Tanner to see what he can provide.
Left Field – Leo Kaplan
After a strong first season at Northwestern which saw Kaplan hit .287, his batting average has fluctuated near the Mendoza line the last two years (.211 in 2018 and .193 last year). In 2020, Kaplan, now a senior, will need to produce like he did in 2017. One positive for Kaplan is although he struggled for most of 2019, he seemed to get his hits in big situations. That included an RBI triple against Duke as well as a grand slam against Purdue. In other words, Kaplan didn’t have many hits last year, but he made them count. In 2020, the ‘Cats will hope his hits not only count but come more regularly.
Center Field – David Dunn
If you go to a Northwestern baseball game and don’t see a player with the last name Dunn in the lineup, did you really go to a Northwestern baseball game? For the last four years, the answer to that question would’ve been no. For 2020, the answer looks to be the same even though Jack Dunn is gone. His younger brother, David, who on March 29 had a batting average of .370, finished the year in a major slump which saw his average drop to a still-respectable .271. The encouraging part with Dunn is that even with those second half struggles, he was still a very valuable player last year. The ‘Cats will need him to rediscover that swing and approach that allowed him to hit .370 for the team to be competitive.
I’d be remiss to talk about Dunn and not acknowledge his spectacular defense. If you’re looking to compile a highlight reel on how to play center field, Dunn is the guy to watch. Game after game, he amazed everyone looking on with his incredible range. Even when he wasn’t hitting (like Trautwein), the defense was always there and that should continue in 2020.
Right Field – Casey O’Laughlin
Perhaps the most underrated player on the ‘Cats last year, O’Laughlin quietly led the offense with five home runs and a .457 slugging percentage. If he can replicate those power numbers in 2020 that should only mean good things for Northwestern’s offense. He also showed off a cannon for an arm in the outfield last year which should only help NU have a top-tier outfield defense.
In essence, the key to the ‘Cats offense in 2020 in my mind lies in the production of the outfielders. If Leo Kaplan can hit like he did in 2017, Dunn can hit like he did through March 29th last year, and O’Laughlin repeats his 2019 season, that should help make up (at least partially) for the departures of Dunn and Erro.
This is where it gets even more interesting. Last year, the ‘Cats had to piece together the pitching staff due to the aforementioned injuries to Christie and Lavelle. Both are expected to return healthy in 2020 which will be huge and take some pressure off of the bullpen.
Entering the year, I predict Christie, Lavelle and Doherty will comprise the three-man rotation. Sam Lawrence and Josh Levy will probably compete for the closer’s role with the loser of that battle being the guy Spencer Allen turns to for putting out the fire in the later innings.
Tommy D’Alise and Parker Hanks flashed potential in their first years last season, so I expect them to build off of that and become valuable relievers and potentially midweek starters. Ryan Bader, who finished the season allowing 10 earned runs in his final 29.1 innings (ERA of 3.07), should also play a large role. Levy was probably the ‘Cats most consistent arm outside of Paciorek last year, as he didn’t allow a run in 14 of his 19 appearances. He was particularly strong down the stretch as well, allowing a run or more in just one of his 13 appearances from March 27 through the end of the year. Finally, Anthony Alepra, though he struggled toward the end of the season, posted a 2.81 ERA through his first 10 outings and will certainly play an important role in 2020.
With that being said, that’s six pitchers in the bullpen who experienced success at points last season – the next step, though, will be consistency. Only three pitchers last year (Paciorek, Levy and Doherty) finished with ERAs below four, and in order to make a run in the Big Ten, the pitching staff needs to throw more strikes and allow fewer big innings. The offense will likely take a hit as mentioned before, as Dunn and Erro are very difficult talents to replace in just one year. But the pitching is an area where Allen and his staff know what they have and can certainly have a bounce-back season on the mound if each individual is more consistent.
Projected 2020 Starting Lineup:
- David Dunn CF
- Shawn Goosenberg SS
- Casey O’Laughlin LF
- Anthony Calarco 1B
- Leo Kaplan LF
- Michael Trautwein C
- Charlie Maxwell 3B
- Evan Minarovic 2B
- Jack Anderson DH
Projected 2020 Pitching Depth Chart:
- Hank Christie
- Quinn Lavelle
- Mike Doherty
- High Leverage Relievers:
- Ryan Bader
- Sam Lawrence
- Anthony Alepra
- Josh Levy
- Middle Relief:
- Tommy D’Alise
- Parker Hanks
- Jack Pagliarini
- Unsure how they fit in:
- Nick Cauley
- Matt Gannon
- Jack Dyke
- Coby Moe
- Jack Sauser
- Reed Smith
Although the schedule hasn’t been released yet, I expect the ‘Cats to regress somewhat from last year and finish with anywhere from 20-23 wins. There are just too many question marks with this team to be able to say they can make an appearance in the Big Ten tournament. However, if they can hit this mark I’ve arbitrarily set out, I think we can expect more success in 2021 as these younger players continue to gain experience.