Iowa baseball takeaways: Rotation taking shape, Chris Whelan's progress, position battles and more
IOWA CITY, Ia. — Fresh off their Big Ten Tournament title and second regional appearance in three years, the Hawkeyes officially kicked off the baseball season with Thursday’s media day.
Iowa opens the season next Friday with the Diamond 9 Sunshine State Classic Series in Kissimmee, Florida. The Hawkeyes will face Toledo, Oakland and Old Dominion.
Here are the biggest takeaways from Thursday’s session:
Rotation taking shape
There was little surprise with Rick Heller’s rotation announcement. Redshirt junior Nick Allgeyer will start against Toledo; junior Cole McDonald will go Saturday versus Oakland, and Sunday remains to be determined as Iowa works around Brady Schanuel’s rotator cuff issue.
Heller said Schanuel could still start Sunday’s finale against Old Dominion, but that it would be an abbreviated outing followed by extended innings from the bullpen. The issue, classified as rotator cuff weakness or fatigue, emerged in January, and Iowa shut Schanuel down for 10 days to further evaluate. No structural damage was revealed, and the Hawkeyes hope the problem won’t linger for too long.
“I think through the season,” Schanuel said, “I’ll be OK.”
Iowa needs the Parkland College (Illinois) transfer healthy as the Hawkeyes look to revamp their weekend rotation with Nick Gallagher, Ryan Erickson and C.J. Eldred all departed. Schanuel, who the Phillies drafted in the 20th round last June, brings a lively arm that can provide stability on the weekends heading into conference play.
“I just really want to get in there, kind of get my foot in,” said Schanuel, who had a 2.16 ERA in two starts at the World University Games. “It’s a little tough being out a few weeks, but I know I need to earn my spot — and I think I will during these next few weeks when my pitch count is a little higher.”
'Rehab has gone extremely well'
Iowa knew it was going to start the season without outfielder Chris Whelan, who needed Tommy John surgery after suffering a torn UCL on Scout Day back in the fall. It's a bit rare to see a position player need the baseball procedure so commonly associated with pitchers, but Whelan’s progress has been encouraging over the last few months.
He was cleared to swing on Thursday and hopes to be back for the UNLV series (March 9-11), although Heller acknowledged that players often anticipate returning sooner than reality.
“His rehab has gone extremely well,” Heller said. “He got his range of motion back way quicker than most guys do, according to Dr. Wolf. He’s been progressing about as fast as possible.
“It’s kind of a new thing for me because I’ve never had a position player go through (Tommy John), where they were trying to get back to hit as opposed to get back to pitch. I’m kind of anxious to see how this whole thing goes.”
Even if it’s solely in a designated hitter role, having Whelan contribute in some fashion is imperative this season. The Parkland College transfer was a steady force atop Iowa’s lineup all last year, consistently reaching base and providing more pop than your average leadoff hitter. His bat is one of the more reliable ones returning in 2018.
The next month will certainly be important as Whelan pushes through. He hopes to progress to where hitting off machines and live arms materializes in three-to-four weeks.
“The coaching staff and I have talked about it that I’ll probably be the DH for most of the season, just with how my arm is not quite caught up to where my bat is,” Whelan said. “I won’t be able to throw until March — or at least start my throwing program, which will probably go into May.
“So maybe play a little first base if I can, but other than that, I’ll probably stick to hitting.”
Shuffling at the corners and beyond
Whelan’s injury has generated some shuffling among a handful of positions, including left field, first base, third base and DH. Heller indicated that Matt Hoeg will be in the lineup somewhere, probably as somewhat of a utility guy at least until Whelan returns.
Hoeg started 55 games at third last season, but the 6-foot-1 senior likely will rotate between left field, first base and DH. Sophomore Grant Judkins should be a regular starter as well, seeing action at both first and DH. If Iowa wants a more defensive-rooted outfield, it can slide center fielder Ben Norman over to left and plug in Justin Jenkins in center.
‘We’ve got some options there,” Heller said, “and I think a lot is going to depend on how guys play in the first couple weeks.”
All that maneuvering opens up third base, where Kirkwood transfer Lorenzo Elion has seemingly earned the first crack at the permanent job. Heller raved about Elion’s defensive improvement throughout the offseason, particularly in cleaning up his back-hand fielding and arm strength. The sophomore brings strong lateral quickness and the ability to make plays on the run, which should help in bunt defense.
“Before I was kind of going with the flow, always just naturally talented (defensively),” Elion said. “I always knew what to do with my glove and stuff, but I never knew there was a certain way you have to field until I got here. (Heller) broke that down to show me why, when to do this, how to do that and it honestly helped a lot.”
Although Jake Adams’ departure is probably the most noteworthy absence, replacing shortstop Mason McCoy and his consistency is no easy task. It seems sophomore Kyle Crowl will get the initial opportunity, with newcomer Tanner Wetrich continuing to push.
Crowl started all seven games in Taiwan and hit .333 with five runs and five walks. After a disappointing freshman campaign, during which Crowl played in just 20 games, Heller said the 6-2 shortstop is “a different player” from the spring.
“Right now, Kyle’s the guy who we’re going to go to next weekend, at least on Friday and Saturday for sure,” Heller said. “He’s earned it. He’s been the most consistent to this point, but Tanner isn’t far behind.”
Baseball for Connor?
It’s been a tumultuous freshman year so far for Connor McCaffery, who’s still working his way back from a tonsillectomy in late December.
He was initially slated to redshirt in basketball and play baseball, but those options flip-flopped after point guard Christian Williams transferred right before the season. Then came mononucleosis, an ankle injury and the tonsillectomy, and it now appears McCaffery will redshirt in basketball. He’s played in only four games and none since Dec. 22.
Which begs the question, will he have a baseball role this year?
“Connor’s just really trying to get healthy and trying to get his strength,” Heller said. “It’s limited what he can do with us these last few weeks, with him having the illness and all the setbacks he’s faced. It’s been a rough year for Connor on the physical side.
“I don’t think (he’ll play baseball) this year, but it could happen. If Connor ends up joining us at some point and is playing really well, that’ll determine whether or not he does or doesn’t. We don’t have to make that decision for a while down the road. I would think that it’s going to be late March before we’ll really take a serious look after he’s had a chance to be with us for quite some time.”
Dargan Southard covers preps, recruiting, Iowa and UNI athletics for the Iowa City Press-Citizen, The Des Moines Register and HawkCentral.com. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter at @Dargan_Southard.