Spring Sports Guide: Baseball: Breaking down Northwestern’s roster, without injured Kyle Ruchim

Alex Putterman, Assistant Sports Editor

After the departure of five key players from a year ago, Northwestern — and 27th-year coach Paul Stevens — had numerous holes to fill this season. Almost every spot on the diamond carried some sort of question mark.

Then, on Tuesday, came tough news: Star shortstop Kyle Ruchim, the team’s undisputed best hitter, is having season-ending surgery to address arm troubles that have nagged him since the summer.

It’s a big blow for an already-shallow Wildcats roster. Even with Ruchim healthy, NU planned to rely on many inexperienced players. Now, there’s even more pressure on freshmen to step into big roles and former backups to thrive as everyday starters.

Position by position, here’s what to expect from the Cats this season:

Catcher: Catcher is arguably NU’s sturdiest position. It’s manned by junior Scott Heelan, who led the team in batting average and on-base percentage last season.

The only question with Heelan is health. Last year, he played in 32 of a possible 48 games as he battled a variety of ailments.

If Heelan does go down, however, senior Jake Straub is a very capable backup, having posted a .443 on-base percentage last year in 88 plate appearances. 

First base: The depth chart is similarly straightforward at first. Sophomore Zach Jones has started every game this season, while batting third as one of the Cats’ key hitters.

In 2013, filling in at right field and at first base, Jones hit .300 but totaled just six walks and six extra-base hits in 116 plate appearances. A year later, the lefty has started well in those categories, with three walks and four extra-base hits in his first 36 plate appearances. 

Second base: NU’s second base situation is extremely muddled. Junior Cody Stevens, back after a medical redshirt season, started the first two games at second, but slid over to shortstop when Ruchim went down with a leg injury (unrelated to his arm problems).

Now, with Ruchim out for good and Stevens at short, sophomore Antonio Freschet, junior Reid Hunter and Straub will man second. Of that trio, Freschet is the most natural at the position but also the weakest bat.

Shortstop: Ruchim entered the season as the team’s best hitter, having led NU in numerous offensive categories in 2013. Just two weeks ago, Paul Stevens called him one of the best bats in the Big Ten.

Cody Stevens played sporadically in 2011 and 2012 before missing 2013. He has already made three errors at shortstop this season, and it remains to be seen whether he can handle the position full-time.

Third base: It’s early to tell for sure, but third base could be NU’s weakest position. Senior Nick Linne is the starter, but he’s coming off of a season in which he hit .136 with a .440 OPS. Results have been slightly better this year but still underwhelming: six singles in 25 at-bats.

Right field: During NU’s season-opening series with USC, sophomore Jake Schieber started two of the three games in right.

But the following weekend, Stevens gave Matt Hopfner an opportunity, and the freshman made the most of it, batting .500 in 18 at-bats and earning a Big Ten Freshman of the Week honor. He should be the starter at the position for the foreseeable future.

Center field: Junior Walker Moses has started every game this season, six in center field and one in right. Moses didn’t hit much last year — .604 OPS — but is off to a better start this season, with a .407 on-base percentage and as many extra-base hits (three) in 23 at-bats as he had in 141 in 2013.

Junior Luke Dauch, one of the outfield’s few left-handed hitters, will see some time in center as well. Overall, NU won’t get too much pop out of the position.

Left field: Another freshman seems to be holding down left field for the time being. Joe Hoscheit has started every game — six in left and one at designated hitter — batting in the middle of the order, often cleanup. Stevens loves the rookie’s power, and Hoscheit figures to earn most of the playing time in left going forward.

Designated hitter: NU has started four different designated hitters in seven games, so Stevens seems to favor a platoon there for now.

Senior Jack Livingston will continue to play against most right-handed pitchers, while a rotation of guys could get shots against lefties.

Hunter, off to a scorching 8-13 start to the season, has likely earned more at-bats as a DH, and Straub makes sense there too.

Starting pitching: Junior Brandon Magallones returns for a third season as a weekend starter, this time as the team’s nominal ace. The Cats’ best pitcher so far, however, has been sophomore Matt Portland, who has allowed just 3 earned runs over 11 innings in his first two starts.

The Magallones-Portland one-two punch might be NU’s biggest strength. The third slot in the rotation is up for grabs, Stevens has said, between sophomore Reed Mason and freshman Joe Schindler. Neither pitched well in the Cats’ opening weekend sweep at the hands of USC, but both bounced back the following weekend.

Mason is the favorite to hold down the rotation slot, with Schindler likely relegated to mid-week duty when conference play begins.

Relief pitching: Senior closer Jack Quigley hasn’t pitched since being banged up on opening night but should be back soon. He’ll strengthen a relief corps that has relied heavily on a core of veteran pitchers through the season’s first seven games.

Livingston has thrown a bullpen-high 8 2/3 innings in long relief situations, with largely positive results, while senior Nick Friar has gotten off to an impressive start after a rough 2013 campaign.

Fellow seniors Dan Tyson and Ethan Bramschreiber have appeared in four games apiece and will continue to pitch frequently for the Cats.

Bottom line: NU hasn’t finished above .500 overall since 2000, and this won’t be the year that streak falls. Ruchim’s injury is a devastating hit to the lineup, which lacked depth to begin with, and the rotation should be solid but unspectacular.

With Ruchim, finishing in the top eight in the Big Ten, and thereby qualifying for the conference tournament, seemed like a reasonable goal for the 2014 Cats. Without him, that’s a stretch.

Still, this year provides a great opportunity for new freshmen and inexperienced sophomores and juniors to improve on the job. If those players make strides and Ruchim returns for a fifth year in 2015, that season could be a special one.

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Twitter: @AlexPutt02