Two of the Big Ten's best prospects for this June's major league draft are both lefthanded pitchers for the Gophers -- Tom Windle and DJ Snelten. Their health will go a long way toward determining Minnesota's success this season.
After missing time because of a left shoulder injury last year, Windle is ready to start Friday night's season opener at UCLA. But now Snelten is on the mend, recovering from a left elbow injury that is expected to cost him the season's first month.
Once the Big Ten schedule starts on March 29, coach John Anderson looks forward to using the two lefthanders as the bookend starters for each weekend series, with the 6-4 Windle pitching Friday and the 6-7 Snelten going Sunday.
Baseball America recently listed Windle as the Big Ten's top draft prospect, thanks to a three-pitch mix that he honed last summer in the Cape Cod League. Snelten is more of a raw talent but ranks as the conference's sixth-best prospect.
Gophers righthander Alec Crawford -- Saturday's initial projected starter -- will miss the season's first month because of a knee injury. Still, even with those starting rotation holes, Anderson likes his team's outlook.
"We have some depth on the mound, so we have some other options," Anderson said. "Some guys are going to get some experience that will help us down the road."
Sophomore righthander Ben Meyer will make Saturday's start at UCLA, with sophomore lefthander Jordan Jess pitching Sunday's series finale.
The team's injuries seem small in comparison to what Gophers pitching coach Todd Oakes went through last year, when he was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia. After receiving a bone marrow transplant from his brother, Oakes is in remission and back with the team.
"That's huge," Windle said. "We look up to T.O. a lot."
Last year, the Gophers dealt with a slew of injuries to their position players as they went 29-27 and missed the Big Ten tournament for only the second time in 15 years.
Getting there this year will be important, because Target Field is playing host to the event.
"We had to overplay some guys that weren't ready," Anderson said. "We led the league in pitching, we led the league in defense; we just couldn't score four runs a game."
Six players return to the lineup this year, including the team's two leading hitters -- junior first baseman Dan Olinger (.318) and senior left fielder Andy Henkemeyer (.314).
UCLA will be a tough first test. The Bruins rank second nationally in the preseason coaches' poll. All their starting pitchers are back from last year's College World Series team.
"I think the kids are excited about the challenge," Anderson said. "It's been easy getting their attention in practice because they know what's in front of them."