(Photo credit to the Washington University in St. Louis Twitter account, @washubaseball)
The Washington University in St. Louis Bears finished their 2017 season with a 27-10 record, but lost in the regional section of the NCAA Division III season for the third straight year. This year, they will try to get back to the postseason with a different cast.
The Bears graduated ten seniors from last season, including five starting position players, two starting pitchers, and their three most used relief pitchers. Right fielder Auggie Mense is the lone senior to return from 2017, and he will be asked to set the tone for the offense.
Mense spent most of the 2017 season as the number two batter in the order behind Austin Darmawan. With Darmawan graduated, Mense will likely step into the leadoff spot. Mense’s patient approach and plus on-base skills make him a natural fit at the top of the order. He walked in more than 19 percent of his plate appearances last season, leading to an on-base percentage of .448. The Bears will look for their lone senior to be a consistent source of runs at the top.
Behind Mense, the Bears are hoping third baseman John Brinkman will be able to fill one of the power spots. Brinkman burst onto the scene last year, winning conference Player of the Week in just his second week of play. Brinkman enters his sophomore season after starting 33 games during 2017. He showed some gap power last year, finishing with a .114 isolated slugging percentage. The Bears are counting on Brinkman as a power bat this season, as he is the only returning player with at least two home runs from 2017.
The rest of Washington University’s lineup will be filled with relatively inexperienced players. Three names to keep an eye on are John Ostrander, Thomas Gardner, and Brian Schutter.
Ostrander is a sophomore outfielder who was often used as a defensive replacement. He was a little too aggressive in his 35 plate appearances, striking out ten times. Strikeouts aside, the Bears view his defense as a plus asset, and that may be enough to keep him in the lineup even if he struggles at the plate.
Gardner served as the team’s backup catcher in 2017. He rarely saw the field, as Tate Maider played both games of doubleheaders. Maider graduated, clearing out a spot for Gardner as the team’s backstop. Gardner had just 14 plate appearances last season, but he impressed enough to move past the rest of the catchers on the team depth chart. Heading into his sophomore season, Gardner figures to get the majority of the action behind the plate.
Schutter is another who impressed defensively and did so at a premium defensive position. The sophomore will likely take Darmawan’s place this season as the starting shortstop. Schutter also didn’t see much action at the plate, but he showed good range in the field when used late in games. He should help improve their middle infield defense this year.
On the pitching side, the Bears will have even less experience. Here is the full list of returning players who threw more than five innings last season: Zack Kotin and John Howard. Both were used as regulars in the rotation last season, and the Bears are hoping for stability at the top to counter two new starting pitchers filling the prior year’s voids.
Kotin is the pitcher on the Washington University staff with the highest upside. He throws hard and might reach 90 mph on his fastball this season. He also has a slider that generates a lot of swings and misses when kept below the hitter’s belt. Kotin racked up 46 strikeouts in 45 innings, though he did struggle with control at times, hitting eight batters. Kotin’s best performance came against Centenary, when he threw seven no-hit innings to get his first win. After Kotin showed such good potential last year, the Bears hope to push him deeper into games this season.
Howard is a much different type of pitcher, but also had success in 2017, mixing in a sinker to induce a lot of ground balls. In 59 1/3 innings, Howard posted a 2.73 ERA while walking just 18 batters. He doesn’t strike many batters out, but the ground balls help him escape trouble when he is in it. Howard had a pair of seven-inning shutouts in his final four starts and will look to build on those games going into next season.
Outside of those two pitchers, it’s unclear who will be in the rotation. Brinkman may pitch more this season, as he started one game and threw five innings last year. No other returning players threw more than 2 innings last season. The Bears will have to rely on some of their new freshmen to fill out their bullpen, and maybe even a starter spot. They tried using just three relief pitchers (Jake Mintz, Matt Clohisy, and Bill Heisler) in their bullpen last season. Expect to see more relief pitchers used early in the 2018 season as the team tries to figure out who they can rely on late in games.