The Michigan baseball team has a formula for setting its lineup: If you want it, come and get it.
In other words, no player on the roster is safe. Starting is anything but a guarantee, even for the most seasoned veterans on the Wolverines’ roster. Michigan coach Tracy Smith has made that very clear to his team.
“My style of management (is) to try to keep the guys involved,” Smith said March 24. “You pick your spots and try to keep up (what I) call an active roster. … But we’re not going to do it just to do it. We talk about (in) this program, ‘you get what you earn.’ ”
And so far, this strategy has paid off tremendously. Freshman outfielder Jonathan Kim started his season on the bench, but after putting in the work, Smith rewarded him with the starting job. With the opportunity, Kim has flourished. Smith isn’t afraid to reward those who have put in the work, and he has kept his word.
It isn’t all flowers though. Now, the problem is, what should Smith do with the imminent return of senior catcher Jimmy Obertop?
Obertop has been nursing an elbow injury for the first half of the season. Smith affirms that a return is imminent, but that it will be at designated hitter. However, sophomore designated hitter Joe Longo has impressed in recent games, currently batting .344 on the season. He also boasts 13 RBIs and has hits in six of his last nine games. Clearly, Longo has been a focal point of the offense.
So is Smith going to take him out of the lineup even with the run support he provides? If not, where is the seasoned Obertop going to fit in?
Obertop brought a steady presence to the Wolverines throughout last season, leading all returning batters in RBIs and home runs with 54 and 15, respectively. He also serves as one of Michigan’s locker room leaders alongside players like senior second baseman Ted Burton and senior outfielder Tito Flores.
The Wolverines’ matchup against Central Michigan on Tuesday may have given a clue to the skipper’s plans. In the game, Longo appeared in left field instead of his usual designated hitter spot, perhaps a sign of his future spot on the diamond. Yet Smith affirms that he remains unsure of his plan for Obertop’s eventual return.
“(My decision) is trying to figure out what are we going to do,” Smith said. “ … When we get Jimmy back, Joe’s swinging the best bat for us. So we’ve got to figure that out.”
While Longo moved to left field Flores appeared at designated hitter, and he’s even played in pinch-hitter situations in recent games. But that shouldn’t be a sign Flores is in danger of losing his starting spot on the roster. Regardless of Flores’ recent struggles at the plate — he’s currently batting .195 on the season — he’s shown the potential to get hot at the plate in past seasons with Michigan, and Smith knows that. Just last year, Flores batted .276 with 49 RBIs, and the Wolverines are looking for him to get back to that production.
“(Flores is) gonna be a good player for us the rest of the way,” Smith said March 26. “ … He wants to lead (and) he wants to do well for his team. … He’s gonna be a good player for us.”
Keeping Flores in the lineup would likely mean removing senior outfielder Joey Velazquez from his starting role. But he also has quietly begun to put it together for Michigan, hitting a leadoff home run that kickstarted an eight-run fourth inning in the Wolverines’ victory over Penn State on Friday.
Michigan has a problem to deal with, but it just happens to be a good one. With all four of those players serving as competent starters, there will have to be an odd man out.
Most programs don’t have an overabundance of capable players to fill their starting nine. Fortunately for the Wolverines, they do. And regardless of what Smith decides, Michigan should benefit.