Feb. 12, 2013
If you step foot on the Auburn campus these days, you will know that spring is not far off. Birds are chirping. Most of the 25,000-plus students are wearing shorts and flip-flops. And the `Pop' off of a metal bat or a fastball sailing into a glove are emanating from Plainsman Park, home of the Auburn baseball team. Expected to be a NCAA-Regional caliber team by baseball prognosticators, fifth-year head coach John Pawlowski (134-103 / .565) is anxious to get the 2013 season underway.
"Our team has high goals and aspirations and our guys have worked extremely hard," Pawlowski said. "We have a good, core group of returning players. I like the nucleus of our team."
Since his arrival prior to the 2009 season, Pawlowski's clubs have oozed with offensive firepower. In two of the past three seasons he has guided the top hitting team in the SEC, which included a .304 team batting average last year, as well as a team blessed with speed, stealing a league-high 113 bases in 2012.
The key to a good offense is having a solid nucleus in place, something that Auburn will enjoy this season. The nucleus starts behind the plate with junior catcher Blake Austin and works its way to first base (Garrett Cooper), shortstop (Dan Glevenyak) and two of the three outfield positions, where Ryan Tella and Cullen Wacker combined for an outrageous .356 batting average in 2012.
The new season brings about a major change in leadership for the offense as former assistant coach Link Jarrett, who spent three years at Auburn, was hired away by UNC-Greensboro to be its head coach. With Jarrett gone, Pawlowski tabbed Ty Megahee, who was his Volunteer Assistant Coach the last three years, to be a member of his fulltime staff. He also elevated Gabe Gross, a student assistant coach last year while he finished his undergraduate degree and a seven-year MLB veteran after an All-American career at Auburn baseball, to run the offense.
Last year's club relied a lot on team speed to score its runs, finishing seventh in the nation in stolen bases. Gross figures to have less speed at his disposal but will continue to look to manufacture runs by pressuring the defense into making plays.
"The philosophy hasn't changed that much," said Pawlowski, who had a hand in running Jarrett's offense in years past. "It's really dictated by the personnel. We still have to find ways to score runs, to manufacture runs."
Tella, a Preseason All-America selection, figures to be either at or near the top of the lineup, maximizing his propensity to get on base (he had a team-leading .448 on base percentage last season) and his ability to run (17 steals in 2012). He also uses that speed to lead the outfield from his centerfield spot where he can cover ground as well as any other outfielder in the league.
Flanking Tella in the outfield is still in question, though senior Cullen Wacker and junior Bobby Andrews both figure to be near the top of the list. Wacker hit .350 last season and was a major piece in Auburn's offense, finishing the year among the SEC leaders in batting average (eighth), slugging percentage (.503, 11th), on base percentage (.441, eighth) and triples (five, tied-third). Andrews has spent time at both the top and the bottom of the order in order to maximize his speed (career 66 percent success rate in stolen bases and a lifetime .297 hitter), a spot he is expected to return to in '13.
"Our outfield has a lot of depth to it in veterans Cullen Wacker, who got hurt and missed quite a bit of time last year, Ryan Tella and Bobby Andrews," Pawlowski noted. "Patrick Savage (career .271 hitter) can slide out there. We also have some freshmen in Sam Gillikin (rated the No. 7 newcomer in the SEC by Baseball America) and Jackson Burgreen that could make an impact. Terrance Dedrick can also play the outfield. We feel like our depth in the outfield is pretty good."
The biggest position battle going into spring practice has been at second. Tanner Cimo is a left-handed hitting sophomore who excelled as a defensive fill-in last season while hitting .300. Neck-and-neck with him is Jordan Ebert, a right-handed hitting freshman who drew rave reviews from Perfect Game during his high school career. If for any reason either should falter, senior Mitchell Self, who has made the most of his opportunities in the past, including a memorable stretch last May, could slide in for a spot start either at second or short.
A 2012 JUCO All-America, Damek Tomscha looks to be the leader at third base. A 19th-round pick out of Iowa Western Community College this past summer, the right-handed hitting junior was the 18th-best JUCO prospect by Perfect Game and helped IWCC win the JUCO World Series and chose Auburn over pro dollars.
Auburn's backstop last season, Austin is once again the favorite to land the job this year while senior Kody Ortman is right behind him on the depth chart. One of the top defensive catchers in the league last season, Austin has already thrown out 20 would-be base stealers, tied for ninth all-time at Auburn with just two seasons of work under his belt. Getting an opportunity to play regularly last season, he pieced together a .296 batting average while handling the pitching staff with aplomb.
"Blake Austin and Kody Ortman are both very good leaders behind the plate," Pawlowski said of his backstopping duo. "Both have matured. Blake Austin went up and played in the Cape Cod League this summer and that gave him some very valuable experience. With a newer pitching staff they will play an important role, being leaders behind the plate."
While the offense figures to not miss a beat in the transition, Auburn's pitching will have almost an entirely new look to it as less than 45 percent of last year's innings return, including just one weekend starter in sophomore Daniel Koger.
"Last year Daniel Koger had an opportunity to get a number of starts while Rocky McCord (also a sophomore) will also play an important role in what we are trying to do," Pawlowski said of his projected weekend rotation going into the season.
Koger, a 6-foot, 5-inch lefty, went 4-5 with a 3.19 ERA last season, logging 79 innings while McCord had his breakout over the summer after appearing in just 10 contests last season (three starts). Of Koger's team-leading 15 starts in 2012, six were quality starts and the then-freshman allowed more than three earned runs just twice. McCord, meanwhile, came out of the summer with high accolades. Perfect Game ranked him the number one prospect in the PGCBL where he went 4-0 with a 1.71 ERA, finishing the summer ranked third in ERA and opponent batting average (.180) and fifth in strike outs (50).
With the first two spots nearly set in stone, the third spot in the rotation is an open contest.
"Dillon Ortman and Trey Cochran-Gill, whether they start or are in relief, and freshman Trey Wingenter and Michael O'Neal, a junior college pitcher from Chattahoochee Valley Community College, all will have an opportunity," Pawlowski said.
Newcomers Wingenter, a 6-foot, 7-inch right-hander out of Bob Jones High School in Madison, Ala., where Dayton was also a prep star, and O'Neal, a lefty that transferred from Chattahoochee Valley Community College where former Auburn stars Tim Hudson and Derek Varnadore also found success, should also have an impact whether it is in the weekend rotation or during an important midweek schedule.
The eighth and ninth innings will also have new looks on the mound after the departures of closers Justin Bryant (graduated, seven saves) and Slade Smith (MLB Draft, four saves). Competing for that role is three new faces in Justin Camp, who was a freshman that redshirted last season, Dedrick, the Alabama JUCO Player of the Year, and Conner Kendrick, a transfer who began his career at Georgia Tech.
"Those three guys we think will provide some depth on the back end of the bullpen," Pawlowski said of the trio. "One of our goals (in recruiting last year), was to build a little deeper pitching staff. We feel good about our options there."
Auburn's pitching staff will also rely heavily on its defense behind it. An area of concern in the past, Megahee has taken control of that aspect in the hopes of shortening innings.
"You can't give teams extra outs," Pawlowski said. "I felt like we needed to do a better job coaching them, teaching them, and putting guys in position where they can be successful. We have spent more time on our defense, and on the other side of it, I think it helps when you have a few more out pitches. It helps when you have some guys who can get out of innings. When you don't strike guys out it puts a lot of pressure on the defense. I thought that was some of the contributing factors last year to our defense."
There are no easy weekends in the Southeastern Conference and Auburn's schedule sets it to be challenged right from the get-go. All three of the pre-conference weekend series opponents have been picked to finish third-or-better in their respective leagues and the midweek opponents and Auburn Tournament foes all have high quality pitching staffs. However, Auburn's road in the SEC is as tough as it can be as eight of the 14 SEC teams have been ranked in the top 25 by at least one poll, and six teams, four of which Auburn faces this year, are ranked inside the top 10. Auburn's home SEC schedule brings Vanderbilt, a consensus top-five pick, Alabama, Georgia, Ole Miss (top-25) and Arkansas, the preseason number one team in the country in two polls, to Plainsman Park. Auburn's road trips take it to LSU, a consensus top-10 team, newcomer Texas A&M, Mississippi State (top-16), newcomer Missouri and Florida (top-25).
One of just five teams to make the SEC Tournament in each of the last three years - and one of just two from the SEC West along with Arkansas - Auburn looks to make a run in Hoover this year en route to a NCAA Regional berth. Last year's SEC Tournament format increased from eight to 10 teams while this year, with Missouri and Texas A&M added to the conference, the tournament has again expanded, allowing 12 teams to make the league dance. The format changes just slightly in that now the top four teams will all have a bye on the first day and seeds five through 12 will play a single-elimination game on Monday before reverting back to last season's format.
by Dan Froehlich, Associate Director of Media Relations
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