Big Ten teams ready to take next step

Could the Big Ten be close to ending its College World Series drought?

Ohio State and Minnesota seem to think so.

The Buckeyes made a statement last season by reaching the Tallahassee Regional title game against Florida State. They enter fall workouts with much confidence with the return of ace pitcher Alex Wimmers and a crop of leading hitters.

Minnesota also returns several key players and has Omaha aspirations entering the fall.

Michigan hopes to rebound this fall and Indiana would love to build off its surprising regional appearance last season. There’s also Michigan State, which made a bold statement in its first season with coach Jake Boss leading the way.

It’s time to preview the Big Ten’s fall workouts.

Illinois

Biggest loss. SS Brandon Wikoff

What to watch. The Fighting Illini finished last season with a respectable 34-20 record and hope to take a step forward in the spring with an NCAA regional appearance. It’s first things first this fall, though. The Illini have some work to do. They welcome back five of their top seven hitters in Pete Cappetta, Willie Argo, Josh Parr and Aaron Johnson, but must replace Wikoff and Dominic Altobelli. The offense is in good shape, but the same can’t be said for the pitching staff entering fall workouts. The Illini must replace leading arms Ben Reeser, Aaron Martin and Phil Haig. Haig was dismissed from the team this week because of team rules violations. The Illini must shore up the pitching staff this fall to have a chance at the Big Ten title in the spring.

Indiana

Biggest loss. P Eric Arnett

What to watch. The Hoosiers took a huge step forward last season by tallying a 30-win season and reaching an NCAA regional by winning the Big Ten tournament. But coach Tracy Smith and his program don’t want to be a one-year wonder. They want to become a consistent player for the conference crown. That may be difficult to do in the spring. The Hoosiers have some huge holes to fill on the mound without ace pitcher Eric Arnett, Matt Bashore and Joey O’Gara. They also have some holes to fill at the plate with the departures of All-American catcher Josh Phegley, Evan Crawford and Kipp Schutz. The silver lining could be that the Hoosiers welcome back hitters such as Brian Lambert, Alex Dickerson, Jerrud Sabourin and Tyler Rogers. IU has some important arms to replace this fall.

Iowa

Biggest loss. SS Justin Toole

What to watch. There’s only one direction the Hawkeyes can go and that’s up. They finished last in the Big Ten last season and hope to turn the tide beginning this fall. They welcome back a few key cogs. The Hawkeyes must replace key hitters Justin Toole and Kevin Hoef, but welcome back Ryan Durant, Mike McQuillan, Phil Keppler and Kurtis Muller. On the mound, relievers Mike Schurz and Steve Turnbull will be tough to replace, but the Hawkeyes welcome back Phil Schreiber and Jarred Hippen. Iowa finished last season with a dismal 6.25 ERA. That must change in the spring if the Hawkeyes plan on taking a step forward.

Michigan

Biggest loss. P Chris Fetter

What to watch. Before last season, the Wolverines had accomplished enough in previous campaigns to earn national recognition. But after finishing the ’09 campaign with a less than stellar mark in the Big Ten, the Wolverines head back to the drawing board this fall. The Wolverines have the tough chore of replacing ace pitcher Chris Fetter, but will be fine on the mound with the return of Eric Katzman, Mike Dufek, Matt Miller, Travis Smith and Tyler Burgoon. At the plate, Michigan has the tough chore of replacing Kenny Fellows and Kevin Cislo, but welcome back Ryan LaMarre, Anthony Toth and Dufek. Dufek, of course, is a two-way contributor for UM. Michigan will be fine on the mound this fall, but the offense needs to rise to the occasion.

Michigan State

Biggest loss. C Eric Roof

What to watch. It only took a few months for new coach Jake Boss to make a statement with the Spartans. Sure, they finished last season with an unimpressive overall record, but managed to finish near the top of the Big Ten standings. That’s a huge step forward for a program that previously hadn’t experienced much success. Still, there’s much work to do. The Spartans have reasons to feel confident this fall with the return of starting pitchers Tony Bucciferro and AJ Achter in addition to reliever Kurtis Frymier. MSU also welcomes back five of its top seven hitters including Eli Boike, Jeff Holm, Chris Roberts, Bo Felt and Jonathan Roof. The Spartans enter fall workouts with much experience. Conventional wisdom suggests that will pay off in the spring.

Minnesota

Biggest loss. 2B Derek McCallum

What to watch. The Golden Gophers were close to earning an NCAA regional host last season, and hope to seal the deal in the spring. They enter fall workouts with much confidence. The Gophers have the tough chore of replacing key hitters Derek McCallum and Matt Nohelty. Two-sport star Eric Decker also has said he only will focus on football, but there’s time for him to change his mind. The Gophers do welcome back key hitters AJ Pettersen, Michael Kvasnicka and Justin Gominsky. On the mound, it’ll be tough to replace starting pitchers Tom Buske and Chauncy Handran, but the Gophers welcome back plenty of talented arms, including Scott Matyas, Luke Rasmussen, Tim Ryan, Seth Rosin and Cullen Sexton. The Gophers need to solidify the weekend rotation this fall, but will enter the spring with high hopes.

Northwestern

Biggest loss. OF Jake Goebbert

What to watch. The Wildcats finished near the bottom of the Big Ten last season, but enters fall workouts with more confidence. The Wildcats must improve offensively this fall. They finished last season with a .264 batting average, but welcome back hitters Kenneth Avila, Chad Noble, Chris Lashmet and Trevor Stevens. Offense still is a concern this fall, but the pitching staff should be vastly improved. The Wildcats finished last season with a 6.39 ERA, but welcome back several key arms, including top reliever Michael Jahns, Francis Brooke, Joe Muraski, Eric Jokisch and Zach Morton. The ‘Cats have the personnel to improve this fall and have a much better spring.

Ohio State

Biggest loss. P Jake Hale

What to watch. The Buckeyes headline the list of northern programs that have the best chance to reach the CWS. The Bucks reached the title game of the Tallahassee Regional last season and return almost every key player this fall. OSU hit .328 last season and welcomes back Ryan Dew, Dan Burkhart, Zach Hurley, Michael Stephens, Cory Kovanda and Matt Streng. On the mound, the Bucks welcome back ace pitcher Alex Wimmers in addition to Dean Wolosiansky, Eric Best and Drew Rucinski. Offense isn’t a question mark this fall, but the pitching staff must find a way to improve. The Bucks have a chance to get to Omaha if their pitching improves.

Penn State

Biggest loss. P T.J. Macy

What to watch. The Nittany Lions finished near the bottom of the Big Ten last season and would love nothing more than to turn the tide beginning this fall. That could be an incredibly tough chore to accomplish. The Lions finished last season with a .294 batting average, but must find a way to replace leading hitters Cory Wine, Mike Deese and Rick Marlin. They welcome back Jordan Steranka and Blake Lynd. On the mound, the Lions must replace starting pitchers T.J. Macy, Scott Kelley and Mike Lorentson, but welcome back David Lutz, Jesse Alfreno and Ryan Ignas. The Lions will make a move forward if the offense and weekend rotation are fixed by spring.

Purdue

Biggest loss. OF Brandon Haveman

What to watch. The Boilermakers would love to take a step forward in the spring. But to accomplish that goal, a few things must first happen this fall. First, Purdue must find a way to rebuild the offense. The unit finished last season with an impressive .316 batting average, but must replace Dan Black, Brandon Haveman, John Cummins and Alex Jaffee. The offense is a question mark, but the pitching staff is in excellent shape this fall. The Boilermakers welcome back starting pitchers Matt Morgan, Matt Bischoff and Matt Jansen in addition to top reliever Blake Mascarello. Purdue can compete for the Big Ten crown if the offense rises to the occasion between now and the spring.

Kendall Rogers is the college baseball editor for Yahoo! Sports and Rivals.com. Follow him on Twitter and follow Yahoo! Sports College Baseball on Facebook. Send Kendall a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Thursday, Oct 1, 2009