Washington Huskies 2016 Preview

 I’ve long been a believer that the most underrated, under-appreciated sport is college baseball. Part of the reason for it is the lack of exposure, relative to football and basketball. That’s starting to change. More games are on television than ever before, and in the Seattle area, the Washington Huskies have built a successful program after some dry years prior to the hiring of head coach Lindsay Meggs.

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The Huskies begin their season Friday at Baylor, a quality Big 12 opponent, and this year’s Dawgs team appears to be more of what was shown the previous two seasons — pitching, defense, base running and situational baseball late in games. They do have a few new bats that could hit a few long balls, however, and the upside in the pitching department is exciting.

Meggs’ weekend rotation is set:

Friday: SO Noah Bremer, RHP
87-91 FB, average breaking ball, medium-effort delivery with sound mechanics. The fastball gets glove-side run away from lefties and in on right-handed batters, and while the curveball flashes fringe-average and needs tightening, he does show a good feel for it and can throw where he needs to.

Bremer, 6-foot-4 and 190 pounds, looks like an ace from a physical standpoint, with fluid lower-half actions and a clean arm action creating a repeatable delivery with no red flags. He commands his pitches well enough, though at times ‘spotty’ is more accurate, but all of that was from his freshman season.

The past few Huskies aces have been different from Bremer; Tyler Davis was an undersized, command-and-feel arm who bulldogged his way to All-conference honors. Jeff Brigham, while a lot more physically gifted than Davis, lacked the kind loose-armed projectable body of Bremer.

If the Berkeley native, whose brother was drafted by the Cubs out of Baylor four years ago, develops consistently, the Dawgs have a true-blue ‘Friday Night’ starter — for the next two years.

Saturday: FR Joe DeMers, RHP
DeMers is an absolute beast at 6-feet and 240 pounds, and takes full advantage of his stature with an explosive fastball into the mid-90s. He’ll pitch comfortably at 91-92 mph with sinkbut is not afraid to go to his changeup or curveball, because he commands both very well already.

DeMers will double-up on his changeup, even to right-handed batters, but it will be interesting to see how more disciplined hitters handle the pitch, and how DeMers deals with that differential.

The delivery is simple and he’s typically consistent with his release point.

Sunday: SR Will Ballowe, LHP
Ballowe is the veteran here; he’ll throw strikes and attempt to get outs early in counts, which is backed up by a strong defense once again. He doesn’t throw hard — a lot of 85-88 mph fastballs — but he’ll mix it up, locate everything and throws downhill from a high three-quarter slot, giving him a shot to induce a lot of ground balls.

The mid-week games will be a potpourri and some candidates for starts including junior lefty Henry Baker, junior right-hander Westin Wuethrich and southpaw Greg Minier, a junior transfer from Bethune-Cookman. More on Minier later.

The relief corps is expected to be a strength under pitching coach Jason Kelly, who has built a reputation of finding the right roles and situations for his arms. Senior right-hander Troy Rallings is the club’s top high-leverage reliever, with sophomore right-hander Spencer Jones also considered a late-inning, high-leverage type.

Defensively, the Huskies expect to be solid-to-strong at just about every spot on the field, despite the loss of center fielder Braden Bishop and catcher Austin Rei to the draft last June.

 Jack Meggs, the unquestioned leader of this year’s team, takes over for Bishop. He’s not likely to make the flashy plays Bishop did — and still does as a member of the Seattle Mariners organization — but when he did get on the field last season he showed instincts and the ability to make all the plays. Some believe defensively, Meggs isn’t much of a downgrade to Bishop.

Junior Kyle London, who is likely to start a lot in left field, can cover a lot of ground and another speedster, junior M.J. Hubbs who transferred in from Central Arizona CC will be the mainstay in right field, setting up Coach Meggs with three above-average outfielders with range.

Around the infield, Chris Baker is a plus glove at second base and freshman A.J. Graffanino will start at shortstop. Neither misplayed a single ball in any drill I saw in practice. Josh Cushing, who could see the outfield some, too, will start at third base. Baker, who has played a lot of third base, is expected to get some starts at third base, too, which opens the door for sophomore Levi Jordan (Puyallup) to get some time at second base.

I’ve been told the playing surface will play a large role in who plays where in the 2B-3B-LF scenarios; faster surface means more Baker at third base and Jordan at second, with Cushing going to the outfield in many cases.

Joey Morgan, who gained valuable experience last spring when Rei was out of the lineup with an injury, will be the main backstop, but Willie MacIver, an impressive 6-foot-2, 200-pound freshman, will play a lot, including perhaps serving as the regular on Saturdays to catch former high school teammate DeMers.

Juniors John Naff and Greg Matuszak are the best bets at first base with Alex Galgano, an outfielder by trade, serving as the DH. Naff, Matuszak and Cushing also could get some PAs from the DH spot. Senior Duncan Hendrickson may a wild card here; he’s a strong, sturdy bat with a power swing that’ll getcha drooling in batting practice but hasn’t yet turned it into game production.

Scoring runs is always the most difficult thing to do in college baseball these days, at least since the advent and installation of the BBCOR certified bats; the bats play a lot more like the wood bats in pro ball, removing the ‘trampoline effect’ and making the game safer, and frankly truer to the game and easier to scout.

This has forced teams to manufacture runs with, yes, bunts, but also tons of situational hitting. The first thing I noticed at workouts and practices was the focus put on not just putting the ball in play with runners on base, but avoiding the lazy fly ball and pop out in those situations. Taking the smart, extra base is a necessity, avoiding baserunning mistakes is, too, and this Dawgs team has enough speed to do all of the above, putting pressure on opponents.

The batting order, as always, is fluid, but expect something like the following to start the year:

1. Kyle London
2. Jack Meggs
3. John Naff
4. Greg Matuszak/Josh Cushing
5. MJ Hubbs
6. Joey Morgan
7. Chris Baker
8. Alex Galgano
9. A.J. Graffanino

Early, the 3-8 spots are probably as fluid as you’ll see in college baseball, and a platoon-type approach may be necessary. Hubbs could see the No. 3 or 4 spot, flipping with Naff-Cushing-Matuszak. Baker can be used just about anywhere from 6-9 or even in the 1-2 spots. Graffanino could earn his way higher in the order as the season progresses. Hitting coach Donegal Fergus is excited about the offensive future of the freshman shortstop.

Expect a lot of 1-run games again in 2016, but with another strong pitching staff and perhaps a better defensively club all-around, the Huskies may win a few more of the close ones than a year ago, which could change where they end up when May rolls around.

Keep An Eye On…
Graffanino has a lot of upside, and DeMers is one of the most highly-touted prospects to enter the program in its long history. Those two are no-brainers.

Minier, however, is an interesting athlete. He sits 88-91 — Washington is hoping for more of the 90-91 variety — with downhill plane and sink. He’s displayed the nasty factor and he’s physically projectable at 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds. His role is unsettled; could start some mid-week games, could be used out of the bullpen, so probably both occur. He’s an uncomfortable at-bat for hitters, hides the ball well and if things go his way there could be more velocity in there, too. Expect to see him cover as many innings as Coach Meggs can find for him.

I was told to keep an eye on junior right-hander Lance Berringer, a 6-foot-4, 210-pound JC transfer whose father John pitched in the Chicago Cubs organization in the late-80s. Lance started 13 games for Nevada in 2013, then transferred to San Joaquin Delta College in Stockton, California where he appeared just four times on the mound but batted .317 in 38 games.

Washington sees him as a potential option on the mound where physically he fits any bill you can muster. He sat in the mid-80s out of high school but has packed on a few more mphs since then and could land in the low-90s before all is said and done.

Dallas Tessar, a freshman middle infielder with plus speed, terrific hands and fluid actions, projects as a very good defensive option at second or short, fitting perhaps better at second base. He’s raw offensively, but the physical tools all are there, including solid present strength, which is rare in a middle-infield prospect that can run.

The Huskies’ first home game is Friday, March 4 at Husky Ballpark.

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Jason A. Churchill

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