At the start of the last baseball season, you could count on two things: Zak Hermans ’13 and then-junior Mike Ford. As the snow thaws and the Tigers prepare to take to the diamond once more, however, Hermans and Ford will be following the action from afar as they travel with professional teams. Hermans, an Ivy League Pitcher of the Year, was probably the ace of last year’s staff. If Hermans wasn’t, Ford was the ace in addition to being the cornerstone of the lineup. Their departures – the former was drafted by the Chicago Cubs and the latter later signed with the New York Yankees – mean that Princeton will start this season with more questions than answers.
“We’re gonna have a young team,” senior Alec Keller said. “We don’t really know where a lot of production’s gonna come from.”
The last two years have seen the departure of some powerful hitters: Sam Mulroy ’12, Matt Bowman ’14 and the aforementioned Ford, to name a few. As such, the Tigers will begin this season without a definite cleanup hitter, but that’s not to say head coach Scott Bradley will not have plenty of talent on his hands.
One possible choice for cleanup hitter is Keller, a first-team All-Ivy selection last season. Often seen in the leadoff spot due to his speed – he stole six bases, the second-most on the team last year – Keller hit .378 last season, far and away the best average on the team, with a .435 on base percentage.
Though his speed makes him a candidate for the top spot in the lineup, he may move down thanks to sophomore infielder Danny Hoy, who has been known to swipe a few bases himself. Hoy stole 12 bags last season and was caught just once while hitting .307, an exceptional mark for a Princeton rookie. He was second on the team behind only Ford with 21 RBI.
Infielder Billy Arendt is another sophomore on whom the Tigers will rely this season. He worked his way into the starting lineup in 2013, finishing with a .231 batting average. Though he and Bradley would no doubt like to see that number improve, Arendt made the most of the hits he got. He was second on the team (to Ford, of course) with 12 doubles last season, scoring 13 times and knocking in 10 runs on 31 hits.
“Billy and Danny are going to be two major players this year,” Keller said. “And what’s good about them is they can move all over the place.”
Given that junior catcher Tyler Servais is the only person on the roster with significant experience at backstop, the infield may be mostly set. The outfield, however, will suffer the loss of Steve Harrington ’13 and Johnny Mishu ’13, both of whom started and contributed consistently over the last two seasons. Junior outfielder Peter Owens may well see increased playing time, but the rest of the outfield remains a mystery, especially given junior outfielder Matt DeNunzio’s recent injury. Keller said he expects to alternate between outfield and infield, depending on where the greatest need is.
“I don’t really mind; it’s kind of fun to bounce around,” he said. “You don’t get too stagnant in one place.”
The pitching rotation is also going to see plenty of bouncing around. It appears at this point that the Tigers have only one set starter: sophomore righty Cam Mingo. Mingo had a 2.92 ERA in his rookie season, righting the ship quickly after getting off to a bit of a rocky start. He became the third man in the rotation, which is saying something considering only Hermans and Ford preceded him. Mingo says he learned plenty from last year’s aces.
“I spent a lot of time with Zak, being in the rotation with him, just hearing his philosophies on how to work hitters and the right mentality to have,” he said.
“The progression he made from last fall to last spring was pretty remarkable,” Keller said of Mingo. “And I think he’s been progressing since then too.”
Mingo looks to have a lock on the top spot in the rotation, provided that he stays healthy; an elbow injury has nagged him this off-season, but he is confident he will be fine for opening day.
Even if Mingo is the opening day starter, who will start next is anybody’s guess. Senior southpaw Michael Fagan, who started five games before shifting to a relief role last year, will certainly be in the mix. Though his career ERA is barely under 10, Bradley has showed continued faith in Fagan, who is now the most experienced pitcher on the staff. Junior Tyler Foote, another lefty, is in a similar situation.
The freshman class includes four pitchers. Mingo expressed confidence in all of them, predicting that one, Keelan Smithers, would find his way into the starting rotation.
“I think our bullpen’s actually going to be a lot better than last year,” Mingo said. “I think we have a lot more depth – the freshmen all can throw right away and, I think, won’t be too intimidated by the stage.”
Keller stressed that, though some observers are already counting the Tigers out, the Ivy League is always unpredictable.
“I think it’s dumb whenever they say that, because no one knows,” he said. “There’s always a lot of turnover in the Ivy League.”
Columbia set the pace last year, vexing the Tigers on its way to sweeping Dartmouth in the Ivy League Championship Series. Before meeting the Lions for four games in the Big Apple in mid-April, the Tigers have a long way to go. The season will start, as it usually does for Ancient Eight squads, with travel to warmer climates to play high-caliber opponents. Lineups and rotations are usually in flux for much of this time, and teams like Princeton traditionally do not fare too well against teams like North or South Carolina.
“It’s not fun, but a lot of times it depends on how we’re doing it,” Keller said of this trial by fire, pointing to the 2012 season, when Princeton came close to beating the then-No. 2 Gamecocks.
This year, the Tigers will start off the season in California to face UC Santa Barbara before heading to Florida, the Carolinas and Maryland. Opening day is Feb. 28, while their first game at Clarke Field will be against Harvard on March 29.
“It’s always great because we throw everybody into the fire,” Keller said of the beginning of the season. Expect to hear that metaphor plenty of times over the next few months.