Jan. 26, 2013
The University of Minnesota baseball team gathered for the first time in the 2013 season at the Gibson-Nagurski Football Complex, Friday, January 25. The Gophers and coaching staff opened Minnesota's 125th year as a varsity sport with a team meeting at 2:30, followed by the first official practice from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. All members of the coaching staff were on hand, including pitching coach Todd Oakes. After being diagnosed with acute leukemia in June of 2012, Oakes went through chemotherapy; a bone marrow transplant is now in remission and back with the team. Minnesota completed its practice and will hold practices throughout the weekend, while also attending TwinsFest at the Metrodome. The Gophers are scheduled to move into the Dome early next week. Here's a short question/answer session with head coach John Anderson as his team prepares for the season.
Gophersports.com: It’s an exciting time with Gopher Baseball entering its 125th year as a varsity program and the opening of Siebert Field.
John Anderson: It’s going to be an exciting and special year for our program. Anytime you have a time to celebrate your history and tradition, a 125th anniversary is pretty special. Of course the opening of the new Siebert Field and life that brings to our program and the opportunity to go back, celebrate and connect generations of Gopher baseball. It brings people together, forces us to stop and look at what’s happened before. This also gives us life as we look into the future and make more special memories in our program. I’ve had many moments in the old Bierman and Siebert Fields and looking forward to helping the players create some of their own memories as we move forward.
GS: It’s amazing of what pitching coach Todd Oakes has gone through in less than a year and is going to coach this year with his son Tyler as the volunteer. What does he bring to this program?
JA: Todd’s fought an unbelievable battle here through his leukemia. In the office here, we feel normal now that he’s around here every day. I think it’s a relief to the players to see him on more of a regular basis and he’s an integral part of our program. His 15 years here has been well documented in the improvement he’s made in our pitching and the team in general. Our success has been great since he’s joined our program. I think it’s exciting that he and Tyler get to work together this year. Tyler’s coming back into our program as a coach and I’ve been impressed with him. He’s younger and closer in age to the players. That’s been fun to watch and he draw connections to the staff and team. I think it’s necessary to have someone close to their age and recently go through their experience. He brings youthfulness to the staff. None of us are getting younger so if you are fortunate to have someone that’s lived that experience it’s been great. I think both Todd and Tyler enjoy working together and it’s only going to enhance Tyler’s resume. I think he has an outstanding chance at being a college coach.
GS: How do you feel the Big Ten Conference will shake out this season?
JA: I think the whole league is up for grabs. It’s going to be a dogfight and will probably come down to the last weekend again. I don’t see this year ending any differently. We won’t play Indiana or Purdue this year, but it’s a competitive league and you hope there aren’t rainouts and games can be decided on the field. I don’t think there will be any easy days out there. On paper, Indiana probably has the most players back from last year. They made a good run at the end of the year and advanced to the championship game. They had some outstanding performances from some of their young players step up at the end. If you had to pick someone, based off of last year’s results going into this year, you have to look at them. Last year Purdue had an unbelievable season, couldn’t host a regional, made a great run and represented our league well, but they graduated a lot of players. Michigan State has grown since they’ve changed coaches and Jake Boss took over and Michigan has a new coach and are going through transition. It's going to be a competitive league and we're excited to get going.
GS: You’ve got a couple spots in the infield to fill. At this point, who do you see filling those positions?
JA: I’m looking for some surprises at third base. We hope to put Ryan Abrahamson there. We see his potential in practice and we’ve seen growth. I keep waiting and believe that he’s still capable of putting together a good career then what we’ve seen. Both the third base and second base are important positions and we need to find people that can play consistently. I think we’ll be able to find people around the rest of the field, but it is those two positions that we need to solidify and see who can take those jobs. Ryan will get an opportunity. It’s what we originally planned, but with Kyle Geason coming in, we moved Ryan to first. Ryan has turned out to be an outstanding defensive player; we just hope he can be more consistent on offense. There’s plenty of talent there and if he can gain some confidence right out of the gate, I think he’s capable of putting together a pretty good year.
GS: Talk about some of the seniors like Andy Henkemeyer and Troy Larson and what they bring to the program this season?
JA: I would say Andy’s one of the leaders on our team. He’s got credibility, he makes good choices and he’s one of the hardest workers on the team. Traditionally, he’s been a slow starter. Some players are like that, but we’d like to see him get out of the gate a little better. He’s had some injuries that have affected his ability. We’re hoping he can come in and be healthy from day one and have a consistent year from beginning to end. Troy now has a little breathing room academically. He’s worked extremely hard to go to medical school, which he’s going to do. this year, he’s been at every practice, doesn’t look frazzled with all of the academic work and he’s put in the extra work on the baseball field. His swing is better because he’s had more practice time. He’s got experience and can commit to being a baseball player this year than in years past. I anticipate that he will be one of those seniors who will put in a good year for us.
GS: Minnesota’s lost two out of the three weekend starters, but overall have a good corps group coming back. Who do you anticipate taking over some of those roles?
JA: Replacing TJ Oakes (drafted in the MLB draft by Colorado Rockies) is going to be difficult because he was so consistent over the course of his career, especially as the Friday starter. To win series, it’s so important to win that first game and he always gave us that chance. We need to find a pitcher that can give us that consistency week-to-week since you’re always facing another team’s No. 1. We’re going to move Tom Windle into that spot. He’s back as a starter and he has dominating stuff. He’s got the experience, great pitches and he’s left-handed. DJ Snelten has a few physical issues so he’ll be delayed starting the season, but we hope that he can be one of the starters by the Big Ten season. If that's the case, we would probably split the two left-handers up and put DJ as the Sunday starter. We like the fact that we’ve got some choices as the Saturday starter. Alec Crawford looks like he could be that guy, who transferred here from junior college. He’s got a quick arm and is an experienced guy. Until DJ can get back, we’ll probably have Ben Meyer as a starter. He pitched so well as a freshman last year and better than we anticipated. We recruited him as a starter in our program and we think he's ready. We’ll try and go with a four-man rotation and get Jordan Jess in there as a mid-week starter. We’d like to build him up in case an injury happens or we need four pitchers during the Big Ten Tournament. We have a lot that are good two-inning guys in the backside of our bullpen. We need to get some innings out of Kyle O’Shea as a left-hander. We also look to Billy Soule, Lance Thonvold and Kevin Kray to put in some two-inning outings. Dalton Sawyer may be a guy where we use him if we need him to go a little longer. I think our challenge is going to be someone to find that fills the middle if we need to go to someone early and I think it’s something that we have to develop as time goes along.
GS: Last year with all of our injuries, we saw a lot of freshmen play that probably wouldn’t have. Do you see a lot of freshmen seeing action this year?
JA: Honestly, I’d like to red-shirt some of those guys. It’s been the history of our program; we’ve had great luck red-shirting guys. We like our freshmen class a lot, based on what we’ve seen so far. I think we have an older team this year and barring injuries, it's what I would like to do. I’d like to get us back to the point where we can add some depth into our roster and maintain a more consistent talent level year to year. A lot of kids today don’t want to red-shirt since it means staying in school five years. A lot of our guys aren’t on full scholarships here. We have eight seniors and probably some juniors that will get drafted so we’ll have quite a bit of turnover. I’d like them to red-shirt, go play in the summer and come back. Over the years, we’ve red-shirted so many good players and it benefited their careers. I think the one freshman that’s going to start playing out of the gate is Connor Schaefbauer. I think he’s going to be a high-level players here at Minnesota and he’s going to get a shot at second. He’s a left-handed hitter, Tony Skjefte is a right-handed hitter and we could have the option of switching them off. Connor could move over to other positions within the infield if we need him. The others, we’re going to see how it goes and see how the season shakes out.