Todd Van Emst
For Auburn, a lot of question marks and new faces in the rotation will cause predictors to rank the Tigers low. However, a combination of youth and JUCO talent could prove to be big for the Tigers in 2013.
The best way to describe Auburn's pitching staff is simply "youth". The Tigers look to have a rotation dominated by sophomores and will probably feel the losses of veterans like Cory Luckie, Slade Smith, Derek Varnadore and Jon Luke Jacobs pretty early. However, if there is one positive, it's that youth has a place on the mound. A talented pitcher can be successful, no matter his age. Auburn will hope that maxim rings true.
For the Auburn arms, the issues are numerous, but easily fixable.
The Weekend Rotation:
Favorites: Daniel Koger, Rocky McCord, Trey Cochran-Gill
Darkhorses: Trey Wingenter, Michael O'Neal, Dillon Ortman
Koger, McCord, and TGC are more than likely going to be the starting rotation. That's three sophomores with a combined 9-7 record. However, that stat is a bit unfair, as McCord didn't get a decision last season.
McCord really is a wildcard here. "Rocko" was decent last season in a midweek role with a 4.58 ERA in 10 appearances. Then, the magic of summer ball happened and something clicked. McCord pitched for the Amsterdam Mohawks and emerged as the top prospect for the Perfect Game Collegiate Baseball League. He dominated over the summer, going 4-0 with a 1.71 ERA and having a nice 25:8 K:BB ratio. His fastball was clocked up to 95 miles per hour, and he started developing his slider more. McCord's main knock has been consistency in his delivery -- he has a slinging sidearm motion that helps with deception but also is hard to replicate in later innings due to fatigue. However, it's a somewhat minor and easy fix.
McCord and Koger can be written in ink as weekend guys. McCord probably on Friday. Koger on Saturday. That last spot is up for grabs, and this weekend's series against Maine will go a long way in determining who becomes the keystone of the rotation.
Personally, I think the look should go to Cochran-Gill for one big reason: consistency. TGC was steady in midweek form last year and, surprisingly, was the only Auburn pitcher outside of Jon Luke Jacobs to finish the season with a winning record. With TGC, you know what you are going to get: almost JLJ 2.0. Consistent. Steady. Innings Eater.
One of the darkhorses should see a start this weekend. Auburn has four games and no reason to go "Johnny Wholestaff". Wingenter is a talented freshman from Bob Jones High School who has impressed in practices. He was a late-round pick by the Mariners last year, and his 6'7 frame and loose delivery make his delivery seem both natural and imposing at the same time.
O'Neal is a JUCO guy who keeps the Chattahoochee Valley pipeline flowing to Auburn (the same pipeline that delivered Tim Hudson and Derek Varnadore). The best way to put it? O'Neal is good and is proven. High-strikeout, high-duration, and left-handed, O'Neal will see the mound in some capacity this season and the opening weekend seems like the perfect time.
Koger is an interesting case. He would initially be penciled in as Auburn's closer, but his performance over the summer in a starting capacity showed that he might be better suited for the front of the order instead of the back. He went 7-2 with a solid 2.26 ERA.
Favorites: Trey Wingenter, Dillon Ortman
Darkhorses: Matt Schultz, Rock Rucker
Once the weekend rotation shapes up, Auburn will need two guys to carry the load during the week. Right now, it looks like whoever are the odd men out from the weekend will be called upon to step up and use the midweek to stay sharp and push for weekend time.
The two darkhorses here could be Rucker and Schultz. Both are freshman with high upside. The only caveat here is that Rucker's role (whether in the field or on the mound) won't be defined until Auburn notches a few games.
I'm pretty high on Matt Schultz. His stats from high school in Illinois were pretty incredible (1.17 ERA/90 Ks/49 innings as a senior). It's hard to tell what his role will be at this time, but just based on his pedigree coming in to Auburn, it's hard to imagine he will redshirt in 2013.
Favorite: Terrance Dedrick
Darkhorses: Justin Camp, Conner Kendrick, Chase Williamson
Dedrick, the Alabama JUCO player of the year last year, is going to be a fan favorite pretty early. He's a multi-tool guy, and his role in the OF for Auburn could factor into his closing time, but what limited time I've seen him on the mound, I've been impressed. He's not huge or overpowering, but he's deceptive and very effective in short bursts -- perfectly suited for a closer.
Camp is coming off of injury woes last season. The biggest question mark with him will be if he has regained his incredible high school form that saw him end his senior season with a 0.62 ERA and three no-hitters in his career.
Kendrick is another JUCO guy and was ranked the 63rd best prospect by Perfect Game. Although mentioned in the conversation for closer, I think Kendrick is best suited for a set-up role. He normally has a pretty low WHIP and doesn't give guys free passes. Kendrick could be a natural for that Slade Smith type spot-starter if injuries become a bug for Auburn.
Lastly, don't sleep on Chase Williamson. He had a fantastic summer and recorded eight saves and a 3.86 ERA. Williamson is almost unhittable by left-handers and could prove to be a nice matchup guy if called upon in that capacity.
Overall, Auburn will enter 2013 with a lot of questions marks based purely on unproven ability. New faces, new places and new roles could mean either big things or big trouble. However, my gut tells me that while most people will look at the lack of experience on Auburn's pitching staff and use that as a reason to rate the Tigers low in the preseason, it will actually turn out to be a surprise strength for the team.