By Andrew Call
Wright State baseball fans will see a new coach, a bunch of new players, and perhaps even a new stuffed animal in the dugout in 2017.
On the field … hey, how about more of the same?
“Someone asked me, ‘What are you going to do to make your mark, to make a difference?’” said Jeff Mercer, the former assistant promoted to head coach last July. “I’m going to try to find a way to keep things much the same. We’ll use the same numbers and the same charts, watch the same video, and follow the exact same processes. From the outside looking in, you shouldn’t see any difference."
“There is a right way to do things. That was the case before, and that will be the case moving forward.”
Mercer played a part in recruiting, by his estimate, “95 percent” of the players on the current roster. Wright State is coming off back-to-back NCAA tournament regional finals appearances and has won 124 games during Mercer’s three years as an assistant.
The Raiders were 46-17 in 2016, setting a school record for single-season victories and claiming the Horizon League regular-season and tournament championships. Five Wright State players were taken in Major League Baseball’s June draft, drawing even more attention to the program.
Maintaining that high national profile, realistically, is going to take some doing.
Six of last season’s seven top hitters are gone. So are starting pitchers Jesse Scholtens (Padres) and Robby Sexton (Red Sox) and relief pitchers who recorded 11 of last season’s 13 saves.
“We will not be the team during the first month of the season that we will be during the last month,” Mercer said. That is kind of the exciting part of having a young, talented, athletic group—watching them grow and embrace those opportunities.”
While the team’s young hitters accumulate at-bats, the Raiders can rely on a deep and talented pitching staff to keep them competitive.
Sophomore right-hander Caleb Sampen (9-4, 2.76 ERA, .219 opponents batting average) was the Horizon League Freshman of the Year and defeated Ohio State in the NCAA tournament. Left-hander Danny Sexton, Robby’s younger brother, will likely join Sampen in the starting rotation. He was 10-0 in 13 junior college starts in 2015. Senior right-hander Trevor Swaney (9-2, 3.00), a Second Team All-Horizon League selection last season, and sophomore left-hander Zane Collins (3-1, 3.02) combined to make 15 starts in 2016.
Big, hard-throwing redshirt freshman right-hander Ryan Weiss, who missed last season with a back injury, could also earn a spot in the rotation.
Relief pitchers who may be called on for a spot start include juco transfer Chris Rodriguez and right-hander Jeremy Randolph, a member of the 2015 Horizon League All-Newcomer team working his way back from Tommy John elbow surgery.
Among the potential setup men are Randolph, left-hander Alex Anders, the 2016 conference pitcher of the year at Sinclair Community College, fireballer Bear Bellomy, freshman Daniel Kreuzer and sophomore Jason Foster. Derek Hendrixson inherits the closer role—a role he excelled at during a memorable season at Division III Heidelberg (1.15 ERA, 86K in 78 IP).
“I think the pitching staff in general has a chance to be—I don’t want to say dominant—but a force we can build around,” Mercer said. “We have five or six guys who can start on the weekend and be fantastic. We have two or three guys who are Friday night caliber guys, and I don’t think that’s an exaggeration. We have two or three guys who can slide back into the bullpen and be back-end guys. We have a lot of arms.”
Wright State’s stable of position players is a less proven commodity.
The batting order will be built around first baseman Gabe Snyder and left fielder J.D. Orr. Snyder was second in the team last spring in home runs (10) and RBIs (48). Orr, a member of the league’s all-freshmen team, had the Raiders’ top batting average (.346) and has the highest on-base percentage (.396) among the returning players.
Junior second baseman Matt Morrow, a freshman All-America selection two years ago, has the team’s best batting eye (40 walks, 24 strikeouts, .394 OBP) and stole 12 bases in 16 attempts. Daniel Arthur, who forged a .463 slugging percentage in 123 at-bats last season, is likely to begin the season as the starting DH.
One interesting newcomer is utility infielder Nick Weybright, a graduate transfer from Dayton who hit .284/.353/.351 last year but made the Atlantic 10 all-rookie team as a pitcher in 2013. Another is Seth Gray, a true freshman who could open the season as the starter at third base.
Filling out the rest of the starting lineup are likely to be shortstop Kevin Whatley, center fielder Zach Weatherford, a defensive whiz, the right-field platoon of Alex Alders and Adrian Marquez, catcher Brandon Giltrow, and catcher/DH Cory Heffron.
“These guys are high-end athletes who just need more experience playing baseball,” Mercer said. “We don’t know who’s going to break through … but I am very optimistic.”
There are reasons for optimism.
There are 17 games, starting with the February 17 season opener at Clemson, for the hitters to gain needed experience before the March 17 Horizon League opener against Valparaiso. And the competition has some room to make up—Wright State finished six wins ahead of second-place Milwaukee in last year’s standings.
“It would be easy for a group as young as we are to get carried away and think we will just show up and win because we always have,” Mercer said, “but I have been impressed with their attention to details that matter and lead to success."
“I am hesitant to look too far ahead. But if we stick to the core values that have led to our success, it is a fair expectation for this group to compete for a championship.”