Today our SEC baseball preview series checks in with our first SEC East school, the Missouri Tigers. Missouri won’t be able to participate in any postseason play this season due to the results of an NCAA investigation. We talk about the investigation and more with Rock M Nation’s assistant editor Joshua Matejka, whom you can find on Twitter at @joshmajika.
1. Expectations for 2020 have to be complicated for Missouri this year. The Tigers are ineligible for postseason play, including going to Hoover for the SEC Tournament. With that being said, what is the goal for Missouri this year?
Complicated is putting it lightly, to be sure. The NCAA sanctions hit a lot of sports hard, but the majority of the focus has been on football. Baseball has a hard time attracting fans at Missouri, and this year’s postseason ban certainly won’t help matters. However, it does provide the program with something of a clean slate. Steve Bieser has yet to make an NCAA Tournament in his time at Missouri, but the athletic department is clearly happy with the direction of the program - it rewarded him with a three-year extension and an annual raise just a few weeks ago. That tells me that the goal is about as simple as can be in 2020 - be competitive, do everything you can to generate fan interest and notch some eye-opening wins along the way as a middle finger to the NCAA.
2. I read your piece previewing the Tiger pitching staff. Who should our readers familiarize themselves with?
Obviously Ian Bedell is the big name for Missouri - he’s been named to several preseason All-American teams and will likely be a high draft pick this summer if all goes well. Art Joven is another experienced starter that should be a reliable option for the Tigers in the rotation. In the batter’s box, Missouri lost a lot of talent to the draft and graduation, so expectations are tempered. Senior Peter Zimmerman is the team’s best returning hitter - he slashed .287/.388/.484 with 7 home runs in 2019. Junior catcher Chad McDaniel leads all returners in at-bats from last season and stole 16 bases. He could be due for a big leap in production as he becomes an upperclassman.
3. Where does Missouri fit in in the SEC East hierarchy? Is there a chance it could finish ahead of a Florida, Georgia or Vanderbilt?
At this point, Missouri fans need to be blunt about their standing in the East. At best, they’re always going to be in that 3-4 range. They don’t have quite the same ceiling as programs like Vanderbilt and Florida, but they can always find a way to stay competitive as the third or fourth best team in the East - they may even be able to finish second in their best years. They finished ahead of Georgia in Bieser’s first year and topped Florida in last year’s standings. It would take a long run of success to break into that top tier of programs, and the university just doesn’t invest enough in baseball to see that as a possibility for the time being.
4. The SEC schedule seems okay for Missouri. The Tigers get Vandy and Georgia at home and avoid having to play Arkansas and LSU. How many conference wins can you see the Tigers finish with?
The absolute floor for the Tigers is probably around 10 to 11 wins, which would be the worst conference showing in Bieser’s tenure. That doesn’t seem likely, though. Even after an offseason when the Tigers lost a lot of high-end talent, the pitching always seems to come around for Missouri, and Bieser’s analytically-minded offensive strategies are able to glean almost every drop of talent out of his rosters. Conservatively, it’s fair to expect Missouri could win 13 games, which is right in line with how they’ve finished over the past three years. If things break right, though, and the offense is a little better than expected, I wouldn’t be shocked to see Missouri grab up to 15 SEC wins.
5. Finally, what would constitute a successful season for Missouri in 2020?
You hate to go into a season having low expectations, especially for a sport that annually feels overlooked at Mizzou. It feels especially disrespectful this year, when the team won’t get to play for the postseason because of an intentionally, resoundingly stupid ruling from the NCAA. But the fact is that Missouri lost many of its best hitters and three of its four starters, including two first-round draft picks. With a roster full of undreclassmen, an above .500 record and another 12-14 win conference schedule would be enough to get fans excited about a potentially exciting 2021.