Posted on February 11, 2020
In this fourth installment of our Pac-12 preseason baseball previews, I examine the 2020 prospects of the two Oregon schools, the Ducks and the Beavers. If you missed the first three, you’ll find links to them at the end of this column.
2019 Record: 27-29 (10-19 Pac-12)
In his place, UO brought in Mark Wasikowski, who served as an assistant to Horton before getting the head job at Purdue. The hope in Eugene is that Wasikowski can provide the spark and stability needed to make the Ducks a team that consistently competes for playoff berths.
While a change has brought some excitement to the baseball program, the outlook for the 2020 season is filled with uncertainty. Oregon does not have any big-name proven stars with the exception of two-way player Kenyon Yovan. Beyond Yovan, the Ducks will need to have some guys emerge and produce to be a contender this year.
Oregon brought in Wasikowski hoping he can create a program that develops great offensive players. Since the reinstatement of the program the Ducks have struggled to find consistent offense, even with some of their better teams. Wasikowski is expected to change that at some point, but how soon he can get it done remains an open question.
The three familiar names for Oregon fans, along with Yovan, will be senior Gabe Matthews and sophomore Sam Novitske. Yovan is clearly the MVP of this team, and his bat will be relied upon in the middle of the lineup, as will his arm on Friday nights. Matthews hit .290 during the 2019 campaign, and is poised to assume a bigger role in the offense. He can do that by building on his six home runs of a year ago. Novitske must remain consistent at the plate, as he was last season in hitting .300 in 233 at-bats.
The newcomer to watch for the Ducks will be freshman Anthony Hall, a big freshman with an even bigger bat. Hall is likely to provide some much-needed power throughout the year.
In addition to Hall, sophomore AJ Miller is a potential breakout player for Oregon. Miller did not see much action during his freshman season, logging just two hits in his 20 at-bats. However, the coaching staff likes what he has done over the summer and during the fall, so don’t be surprised if Miller plays a significant role for this team.
Simply put, the Ducks do not have a lot of big-name returners that contributed in a big way in previous years. They do have a new coach that brings a lot of experience to the offensive side of the game. Nonetheless, Wasikowski will have his hands full in finding enough players to be competitive in a conference full of good pitching staffs.
As many unknowns as Oregon faces in his offensive line-up, there are an equal number of question marks on defense. Matthews spent substantial time at first base a year ago, and the expectation is for him to do the same in 2020. Sophomores Novitske and Aaron Zavala are slated as the everyday second and third basemen respectively. The shortstop position remains open for the time being, but Novitske could slide over and play there, if needed.
Freshman Jack Scanlon will likely see a lot of innings behind the plate. Scanlon is coming to Oregon as a two-way player and could see some innings on the mound. It is extremely rare to see a two-way player as a catcher at the college level. The Ducks will need to make a decision on whether they are going to keep Scanlon as a dual threat or have him focus on his catching.
In the outfield, junior Evan Williams will likely hold down the center field spot. Alongside him, sophomore Tanner Smith will occupy one of the corners. The remaining outfield spot will probably be dictated based on who coach Wasikowski wants to see in the lineup on any given day.
While coach Wasikowski was brought in to ramp up the Oregon offense, the strength of this team should still be the pitching staff. Yovan was touted as a top arm entering 2019, but his production on the mound was limited due to a hand injury. The talent is clearly there, however, and the Ducks expect him to handle the Friday night starts throughout the season. If Yovan can stay healthy, and lives up to his hype of 2019, he could potentially produce as one of the top starters in the nation.
The Saturday and Sunday starters are not as set in stone. As of now, Oregon is hoping that left-hander Robert Ahlstrom will be the Saturday guy and right-hander Hunter Breault will finish series on Sunday. Ahlstrom has a lot of experience posting a 3.93 ERA in just over 73 innings a year ago. Breault is a bit of a wildcard. He has limited experience and his ERA was over 10 a season ago. The junior has a powerful fastball, and could be a valuable piece of the rotation if he can learn to use his secondary pitches effectively.
Out of the bullpen, the big name for the Ducks is Cullen Kafka, a junior with a powerful arm who provides Oregon a fastball in the mid-90s. Like Breault, he needs to develop some consistency in his secondary pitches, but if he does, he could become a real shut-down guy out of the bullpen for the Ducks.
The newcomers worth watching on the pitching staff are a pair of two-way freshmen: Scanlon, slated to see some action behind the plate, has a mid-90s fastball; Josh Kasevich is is capable of throwing a lot of strikes, and is a good candidate to eat up some innings in mid-week.
The theme for the 2020 Oregon baseball season will be prove it. Having brought in a new head coach and staff to give the team a fresh start, the Ducks are confident they have some of the pieces they need to be competitive. Nonetheless, Oregon doesn’t yet have enough elite Pac-12 baseball players to play with the Conference’s top teams. The most important change the Ducks can make this year will be to culture, laying the groundwork for future success.
|OSU’s Troy Claunch is expected to step up in the wake of Adley Rutschman’s departure in the MLB Draft. | OSU Athletics|
Record: 36-20 (21-8 Pac-12)
The only appropriate way to begin an Oregon State baseball season preview is to acknowledge the greatness of Adley Rutschman. Rutschman, who spent the previous three years behind the plate for the Beavers, was drafted number one overall by the Baltimore Orioles in the 2019 MLB draft. Since then, multiple MLB general managers and scouts have gone on the record saying that Rutschman is the best prospect since Bryce Harper or Stephen Strasburg. Replacing that kind of generational talent will be a near-impossible task for Oregon State.
But losing Rutschman wasn’t necessarily the biggest offseason story for the Beavers. Many thought legendary coach Pat Casey would return after his year away, but when he declined, another OSU baseball legend stepped up. Mitch Canham played catcher for the Beavers when they first broke onto the national scene, and had spent recent years as a rising star coach in the Mariners organization. The opportunity to return home to Corvallis as the Beavers’ new head coach was too good to pass up.
While Rutschman essentially carried Oregon State’s offense last year, his dominance gave some of the younger players a chance to develop. The Beavers are hoping that development pays dividends this season in the wake of his departure.
The middle of the Beaver lineup should feature three familiar names to Oregon State fans: Troy Claunch, Joe Casey, and Alex McGarry. Claunch was the backup to Rutschman a year ago but saw plenty of action behind the plate. He is a solid hitter and should inject some pop into the lineup.
Casey and McGarry are both outfielders who have shown a lot of speed and a little power in their time at Oregon State. Both have focused on getting stronger, and they expect to add some power to their bats this season.
At the top of the lineup, expect to see Andy Armstrong and Preston Jones. Both have plenty of experience, but neither has put up eye-popping numbers in the past. If Canham can extract their potential, they could take huge steps forward, giving the Beavers some consistency getting on base.
The two guys to watch for potential breakout years are Ryan Ober and Jake Dukart. Both have seen limited game experience, but have stepped up in important moments for the Beavs. Ober should play a number of innings at first, while Dukart will get his share of opportunities up the middle.
Although this Oregon State lineup does not have the star power that previous Beaver teams had, it has enough experience and potential to give OSU a shot at success. The lineup is filled with players that have shown ability on a limited scale; if they capitalize on that ability and play consistently over the course of the season, they could gel into a solid offensive unit.
In previous years, the Beavers have had an abundance of guys who could play all over the field. This 2020 team is similar, especially around the infield. Armstrong and Dukart can both play any spot in the infield with the exception of first. It’s likely that Armstrong sees the majority of his innings at shortstop, but that could change based on team needs. Richie Mascarenas, a junior college transfer, is another player who could see some innings at an infield spot.
In the outfield, Casey, McGarry, and Jones all have the ability and speed to play any of the outfield spots. Casey and McGarry are also capable of moving to first base if another outfield bat emerges, but the Beavers can take away some hits by keeping the three together in the outfield.
Behind the plate will be Claunch, a consistently excellent defensive catcher, who had the opportunity to learn from Rutschman, and will now get his shot while continuing to learn from one of the all-time greats in Canham. If all goes well, Oregon State will be able to build on his solid leadership.
Like the Beaver offense, the pitching staff is solid with the potential to be outstanding. Though fans don’t want to hear it, they aren’t likely to see Kevin Able on the mound in an Oregon State uniform again. Able had one of the team’s most dominant performances in securing the National Championship two years ago, but his season was cut short last year when he required Tommy John surgery. Able is too talented to risk coming back too soon.
With Able out of the picture, Oregon State does not have a clear-cut Friday starter. Christian Chamberlain is a small but powerful lefty who could fill that role. His fastball is firm, and his off-speed pitches make him a real threat. Beyond Chamberlain, Jake Pfennigs showed some signs of becoming a quality starter a season ago. He could take over the Saturday role if the Beavers decide to go with Chamberlain on Friday.
Another interesting piece for Oregon State will be Jake Mulholland, a dominate pitcher out of the bullpen in previous years. However, there are signs that Mulholland may be moving to a spot in the weekend rotation.
Other names to watch are Mitchell Verburg, Andrew Walling, and Nathan Burns. All three have experience on the mound, and are capable of starting, or working from the pen. There should be plenty of opportunity to crack the weekend rotation for any one of these guys. The others will likely see important innings out of the bullpen.
Finally, the beavers have some really talented freshman arms in the wings. The two to watch are Will Frisch and Jack Washburn. Frisch has a huge arm with potential to throw in the mid-90s and touch the upper 90s. Washburn isn’t quite as strong, but has a devastating breaking ball.
Fans in Corvallis have grown accustomed to an old-school style of championship baseball. Bringing in Canham ensures that mentality and grit will continue to be a mainstay of the program. However, replacing a superstar is never easy, and it’s possible the Beavers could take a step back from a year ago. If Canham can get some familiar faces to step up and preform to their potential, that step could be a small one, or might even be avoided altogether. In short, this team has the ability to compete for the Pac-12 championship, but could end up being pretty mediocre as well.
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