2019 St. Cloud State Baseball Preview
Originally posted January 23, 2019 on KVSC.org
The 2019 St. Cloud State Baseball season is finally here.
When St. Cloud State opens their campaign against #5 Texas A&M-Kingsville, they begin the final chapter of collegiate baseball for a program-record 14 seniors. Having graduated just four players from a year ago, bringing back 6 of their starting position players and returning essentially the entire pitching staff, the Huskies have the goal of finally making their first appearance in the College World Series set firmly in their sights.
The Huskies made their eighth NCAA Central Region Tournament appearance since 2010 last season, finishing 30-17. A major theme of their success came in the program’s lineup, as they led the Northern Sun in batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, OPS, and OPS+. St. Cloud State found themselves fighting a lack of depth in 2018, carrying just one true backup position player in true freshman catcher Reid Conlee and being forced to play ace Dominic Austing at second base when starter Aaron Hammann pitched. That certainly won’t be the case in 2019, as head coach Pat Dolan and his staff focused on putting together a higher-quality bench during their recruiting. We’ll begin our 2019 Huskies Preview with a look at the position players.
The first of three starters to replace, All-Region catcher Bo Schmitz left a massive hole for the Huskies to fill after occupying the leadoff spot for most of 2018 while posting a .980 OPS and driving in 44. Seeking a veteran presence to handle the talented pitching staff and give the lineup some punch, SCSU brought in Toran Shahidi, a redshirt senior transfer from NCAA Division I University of South Carolina-Upstate. Shahidi slashed .280/.405/.379 at Upstate with 11 doubles, a triple, a home run and 19 RBI across 43 games and 41 starts (29 at DH, 12 at catcher). Known as a defensive stalwart, Shahidi gunned down 28.6% of opposing baserunners, didn’t allow a single passed ball, and produced a .990 fielding percentage while backing up Atlanta 26th-rounder Charlie Carpenter. Coach Dolan spoke to Shahidi’s leadership as a major addition to the program.
“I want our catchers to hit,” said Dolan, “But all we really wanted out of him was a guy that could come in and control the game, be that quarterback and that leader. He’s went up and beyond. He’s just really fit in well with the guys…He’s a captain-type of leader, and he is that vocal type of guy behind the plate.”
Shahidi will be backed up by starting first baseman Mat Meyer, as Conlee and talented freshman backstops Drew Bulson, Tucker Alstead and Ean Von Wold are expected to redshirt in 2019.
In the infield, Meyer returns as one of the conference’s best all-around middle of the order bats. The now-redshirt senior slashed .335/.405/.468 for an .873 OPS in 2018, belting 11 doubles and 4 home runs while racking up 39 RBI. One of Meyer’s calling cards is his ability to consistently put the ball in play with power, shown in his miniscule 3.9% swinging strike rate and 5.5% strikeout rate, along with finishing second on the club with a 42.8% hard hit rate. Across the diamond, redshirt junior Matt Quade rejoins St. Cloud State as the projected starter at third base after redshirting with the Huskies in 2016, then playing at St. Cloud Technical & Community College from 2017-18. Across 72 games and 286 plate appearances in two seasons with the Cyclones, Quade slashed .415/.486/.695 for a 1.181 OPS with 24 doubles, 6 triples, 10 home runs, 67 runs scored, 86 RBI, a 14.7% strikeout rate and an 11.5% walk rate. A two-time All-Region XII and All-Minnesota College Athletic Conference selection, Quade was named the 2018 Spalding NJCAA DIII Defensive Player of the Year after posting a 1.000 fielding percentage with 166 putouts and 13 assists at first base. The righthanded hitter gives the Huskies flexibility on the corners, as he’ll likely be the starter at first base when Shahidi needs a day off and Meyer moves behind the dish.
“Quade had a great fall for us,” Dolan said, “He’ll play a little more third base, and when Meyer catches he’ll be able to play first base, so he gives us some options.”
The Huskies will be very strong up the middle, as senior shortstop Jordan Joseph anchors the infield defense. Joseph posted a .348 wOBA and a .754 OPS a season ago and produced a 4.02 range factor per 9 innings at short. There will be plenty of competition at second base, as 2017 NSIC Gold Glove third baseman Ethan Ibarra makes the move back to his natural keystone position. Ibarra improved across the board at the plate in 2018 as a redshirt junior, slashing .307/.359/.418 with 10 doubles, two triples and a home run while laying down a team-best 10 sacrifice bunts. He’ll be sharing starts with junior Aaron Hammann, who produced an .847 OPS and a .393 wOBA while tying for the Huskies lead in home runs with 5 as the everyday starter at second base in 2018. The two give SCSU great flexibility throughout the infield, as both players can play second, third and shortstop while providing plus defense. Redshirt freshman Erik Holloman is regarded as the Huskies “shortstop of the future” and has plenty of potential for a breakout first season given his talent with the bat. True freshman Dylan Haskamp has had both coaches and players buzzing over his two-way potential, but he’ll likely redshirt this year due to the depth of seniors before making a serious impact in 2020.
St. Cloud State’s outfield was arguably their most productive offensive group in 2018, and All-American Mitch Mallek and Caeden Harris return to the corners as redshirt seniors. Mallek will occupy the three-hole while providing sound defense in right field, and earned Preseason All-American honors entering his final season. The Huskies’ lone lefthanded hitter comes off a 2018 campaign in which he slashed .383/.459/.531 for a .990 OPS. Mallek clubbed a team-high 11 doubles and 5 home runs, driving in 32 while scoring 43 runs. He also went 4-5 on the basepaths on his way to being named ABCA/Rawlings First Team All-Region and First Team All-NSIC. Harris started all 47 games in left field last year, quietly dominating despite receiving no All-NSIC recognition. The powerful righthanded slugger led St. Cloud State in batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage and OPS by slashing .393/.469/.577 for a 1.045 OPS while clobbering 8 doubles, 5 triples, four home runs and knocking home 39 RBI. Harris finished second among NSIC qualifiers in on-base percentage and slotted in at fourth in both batting average and OPS. He led all NSIC qualifying outfielders in OBP and was second only to now-graduated Northern State star Jack Schmidt in batting average and OPS. The graduation of three-year starter Jackson Goplen means the team will be fielding a new centerfielder. Junior Najee Gaskins, a transfer from NJCAA Division I Arizona Western Community College, projects as the new starter in center and at the leadoff spot in the lineup. Gaskins battled a nagging injury in 2018 but still managed to slash .318/.444/.455 for a fantastic .899 OPS. Over 77 career games with the Matadors, Gaskins went 33-38 on steals while walking at a 12.7% clip. Along with his outstanding offensive profile, Gaskins’ elite speed, sharp instincts and cannon arm give St. Cloud State a defensive anchor in center. SCSU brings in another high-profile Arizona Junior College outfielder with the addition of Lenny Walker, who hit .300 at South Mountain Community College in 2017 then transferred to Phoenix Community College last season. Across 75 career games at the two schools, Walker posted a .283/.399/.352 slash line with an 11.8% walk rate and 10 steals.
“We knew what we were getting with Najee,” said Dolan, “He led that Arizona league in stolen bases his freshman year, he’s a 6.7-6.8 runner, throws 90 plus from the outfield. Offensively he’s going to start off batting leadoff, we’re expecting big things from him. Lenny Walker was the three-hole hitter early on for Phoenix College, one of the best junior colleges in Arizona. He’s faster than Najee, he’s faster than Goplen, and he kind of reminds me a little bit of Brandon Arnold offensively. He’ll hit a home run or two here and there, but he doesn’t strike out a lot like Brandon didn’t his senior year. He’s going to be a big-time player.”
Holloman can play some outfield as well, giving St. Cloud State plenty of options to give their starters a day off. True freshmen Luke Bailey and Jake Fietz have opened eyes with their potential at the plate and will likely redshirt before taking starting corner spots in 2020.
The third and final starting position player that the Huskies needed to replace was designated hitter Isaac Matchinsky. Unlike years past, where the Huskies employed “DH-only types” such as Reese Gregory, Hayden Gerlach, and Matchinsky as their designated hitter, SCSU will have more of a fluid approach to the position in 2018. Harris, Walker, Hammann and Holloman will likely all receive at least a handful of starts at DH, depending on who’s hot. The Huskies also possess the ability to use the position to give an everyday starter a day off from the field while keeping their bat in the lineup.
The 2019 Huskies starting rotation can certainly make a case for best in the nation, with four All-Americans in the fold. The weekend trio of seniors Dominic Austing, Cal Giese and Sheldon Miks alone ranks as one of top staffs in the country. Austing picked up preseason All-American honors after going 7-1 with a 1.94 ERA and a 2.10 FIP over 78.2 innings and 13 starts. He posted a 0.877 WHIP while holding opponents to a .211 average and a .526 OPS, striking out 24.3% of batters faced and delivering an NSIC-low 2.9% walk rate. Giese more than likely won’t make a start at the Houston Winter Invitational, as the Huskies will be careful with their All-American southpaw coming off Ulnar Nerve surgery, but he may pitch in relief. He’ll return to the rotation either during the Missouri Western State series or the team’s trip to the Tucson Invitational. In 2017, Giese went 9-2 with a 1.86 ERA and a 2.01 FIP over 72.2 frames and 13 starts. He held opponents to a .238 average and a .568 OPS while punching out batters at a 26.2% clip. Two-time All-American Sheldon Miks has placed himself among the all-time greats at St. Cloud State, as over 37 career appearances and 25 starts he’s gone 18-6 with a 1.68 ERA, a 2.70 FIP, 9 complete games, four shutouts, a 2.7% walk rate, a 1.004 WHIP, and a .586 opponent OPS. He’ll make his long-awaited return to the Huskies rotation at the Houston Winter Invitational, finally completing his recovery from Tommy John surgery.
Joining the “Big Three” of Austing, Giese and Miks is junior transfer and 2018 NJCAA DII All-American Blake Flint. At Paradise Valley Community College in 2018, Flint chartered a 12-4 record over 16 starts, firing 102.0 innings to the tune of a 1.59 ERA and a 2.61 FIP. The righthander struck out 88 (22.2%) and walked just 13 (3.3%) while holding opponents to a .208 average. He hurled 5 complete games and 3 shutouts, showing off an elite ability to pitch deep in games. Junior Shannon Ahern and redshirt senior Kyle Boser slot in as the 5/6 starters for the Huskies after serving as weekend anchors in 2018, attesting to the team’s depth. Ahern has gone 8-4 with a 3.82 FIP over 96.0 career innings, recording a 1.365 WHIP and a 15.8% strikeout rate. Boser was the Huskies’ number two a year ago, going 5-6 with a 3.75 ERA and an 3.84 FIP over 15 appearances and 11 starts. When he’s on, Boser features some of the best pure stuff in the Region, let alone the Huskies’ staff. Given his ability as a high-leverage arm, Boser will be utilized as an elite weapon, capable of making clutch midweek starts, shutting down lineups in relief, and even closing games.
“Boser is such a team player,” Dolan said, “Such an overall ‘Husky Guy,’ that as much as he wants to be the number one guy he knows that sometimes he’s going to be coming out of the bullpen or, depending on who we’re playing, he’s throwing midweeks.”
Just like the rotation, St. Cloud State’s bullpen certainly is in the conversation for best in the country. First-year pitching coach Kassidy Gaines has plenty of options to use in high-leverage relief innings, and given the depth of the pen’ he likely won’t have a true closer. Redshirt seniors Nathan Strobel and Matt Butler are joined by redshirt juniors Zach Walz and Zach Iten, giving the Huskies four elite, established righthanded stoppers. Strobel served as the Huskies’ closer in 2018 before going down with an injury, making 8 appearances with two saves and a 1.84 ERA across 14.2 innings, striking out 15 and holding opponents to a .677 OPS. Butler exploded onto the scene midway through last season, posting an elite 3.04 FIP, a 25.7% strikeout rate, a 53.2% groundball rate, a 10.6% pop-up rate, and a team-leading 51.1% soft contact rate. The righthander also posted the second-lowest hard-hit rate on the staff at 19.1%, just behind Strobel. Butler made his Northwoods League debut last summer with the Bismarck Larks, earning a spot in the starting rotation. Across 37.2 innings with the Larks, Butler posted a 21.5% strikeout rate, a 12.7% walk rate, a 3.31 FIP, a 1.35 WHIP, and an elite .226/.329/.299 opponent slash line for a .628 opponent OPS. Walz didn’t throw for the Huskies in 2018 due to a shoulder injury, but was a 2017 NJCAA DIII All-American closer at Century Community College after going 2-1 with a 0.00 ERA and a 1.15 FIP over 14 appearances and 13.1 innings, saving 9 games. The gas-throwing righthander struck out 32.2% of opposing hitters, walked just 2.0% percent and held opponents to a .312 OPS. Rounding out the foursome is Iten, who finished 7 games while posting a 3.65 FIP and a 39.1% soft contact rate over 15 appearances and 18.1 innings as a redshirt sophomore.
Both Boser and Hammann give the bullpen righthanded options as well, although the hard-throwing Hammann may be utilized more as a position player in 2019. If utilized as a reliever, Hammann certainly has the ability to be one of the best late inning firemen in the Region with his plus-plus stuff. 2019 marks the return of redshirt senior Ryan Wesely, who gives the Huskies another veteran presence out of the bullpen. Redshirt freshmen Riley Ahern and George Loxtercamp have impressed in practice, and may receive some leverage opportunities as the season progresses.
Lefthanded relievers are often sought out at a premium, and the Huskies have an impressive trio of southpaws to use out of the bullpen. Redshirt senior Zach Siggelkow has long been an important member of the staff, filling roles anywhere from weekend starter to a LOOGY (Lefty One Out Guy). Over his career, Siggelkow has gone 5-1 with a 3.49 FIP across 27 appearances and 5 starts, totaling 59.2 frames. Sophomores Matt Osterberg and Trevor Koenig flashed their potential as true freshmen starting rotation members in 2018, and with the influx of depth in the rotation will fill important relief roles along with the occasional spot start. Osterberg posted a 3.74 FIP over 12 appearances and 5 starts, holding opponents to a .266 average over 42.1 innings. Koenig, a 40th-rounder of the Milwaukee Brewers in 2017, made 10 appearances and 5 starts, throwing 25.2 innings to the tune of a 3.26 FIP.
Just like the freshmen position players, talented first-year righthanders Avery Stevens, Thomas Thompson and Eli Emerson are expected to redshirt along with junior transfer D.J. Wyman.
Given their overflowing talent and enviable depth, the Huskies certainly have high expectations for 2019. Their schedule is full of intrigue, beginning with their season-opening trip to the Houston Winter Invitational at Minute Maid Park in Houston, Texas. St. Cloud State will take on #5 Texas A&M-Kingsville on Opening Day, followed by Tarleton State on February 2nd and Central Region rival #22 Central Missouri on February 3rd. After that, they’ll have a brief layoff before a four-game set with Missouri Western State on the road over March 15-17, then a trip to the Tucson Invitational during spring break. The NSIC has made some changes to their conference scheduling in 2019, as each team will play the entire conference as opposed to missing two opponents as in years past. Weekend series have also been changed to three-game sets in favor of the previous four. The Huskies open Northern Sun action on the road with a weekend set against archrival MSU-Mankato on March 16th.
“We have a lot of hungry guys, we have a lot of humble guys, and we have a lot of seniors,” said Dolan, “When you put that formula together, I think at the end of the day we’re going to have a successful season. And hey, is that going to be the team that gets into the World Series? Is that the team that gets into the Regional? You know, who really knows I guess, because there’s so much competition…We got to play and go inning-by-inning, not game-by-game.”
All 2019 St. Cloud State Baseball games will be broadcasted live on the KVSC Sports Stream. “The Voice of Huskies Baseball” Thomas Breach returns for his third and final season as KVSC’s play-by-play commentator. “The Voice of Huskies Men’s Hockey” A.J. Fredrickson will join Breach as lead color commentator for home series. Prior to first pitch of each series, KVSC’s revamped Husky Den PreGame will feature a panel of former Huskies starting DH Isaac Matchinsky, “Voice of Huskies Women’s Basketball” Leif Ender and beat writer Sam Goetzinger, bringing fans analysis, insight, and interviews.