Auburn baseball enters the 2014 campaign with an air of optimism, uncertainty and relief. On paper, the Tigers aren’t expected to do much. The pick to finish last in the SEC West by the league's coaches kind of reaffirms that thinking. The roster, pockmarked by new names and missing some key 2013 contributors, isn’t helping boost confidence among outsiders. Still, the 2014 Tigers sit as a team hungry to improve after 2013. They have become a team refocused in 2014, a group refocused on one particular goal: Omaha.
Previewing the 2014 Tigers isn’t an easy task. With so many pieces working -- or trying to work -- together for one purpose, it may be best to take each part individually instead of one large sweeping preview.
1. The Lineup
Here’s the easiest place to start when analyzing the Tigers. Auburn has 11 seniors on the roster. That makes it the most experienced group in the SEC (Ole Miss is next with nine seniors). The Tigers also return eight of nine Opening Day starters from 2013. However, that’s one of the more misleading stats. Sure, Auburn has a bunch of returning starters. Of course, the Tigers have a senior-loaded roster. That’s by design and that’s what was left over from former head coach John Pawlowski: a roster with many seniors (who were brought in as JUCO guys) but absent of many multi-year letter winners. Auburn may return 11 seniors and eight Opening Day starters, but the 2014 Opening Day lineup will feature five new faces. Not just five new faces, five new freshman faces.
This youth movement comes from two places. It comes from the 13th-ranked recruiting class, and it comes from an easier road for new head coach Sunny Golloway to navigate as he develops "his team" and "his style."
First base faces one of the biggest challenges: replacing Garrett Cooper. Give it time, but Cooper will go down as one of the best first basemen in Auburn history. His defense and leadership will be sorely missed. Going into 2014, it seemed like the heir apparent to replace him would be Patrick Savage. The Macho Man has taken his lumps, stepped up when needed and been a steady bench bat for three years. Still, he won’t be an Opening Day starter. The first base job will go to a freshman: Keegan Thompson.
Thompson represents the future for Auburn baseball. The 6’1 two-way player from Cullman comes in with an impressive pedigree: hands down, the best player from Alabama; 2011 and 2013 Gatorade State Player of the Year; three-time All-American; Gold Medal winner; Rawlings All-American; and the No. 14 prospect in the 2016 MLB Draft. Thompson is being touted as the next Hunter Morris, a guy who turned down Major League dreams and can contribute for three years on the Plains. He hasn’t really disappointed. In the fall, Thompson hit .317 with a solid .390 slugging and .396 on-base percentage. The expectations are high for Thompson, and there doesn’t seem to be any reason why he won’t be able to deliver.
"He's shown us a glimpse of maybe what Tim Hudson was back in the day, and that's saying a lot," Golloway said. "He can really swing the bat. He's not getting to swing it in the live-bat era like Hudson did, but he's a big, strong guy who likes to attack the first pitch in the zone.
"I like his athleticism around first base and the way he competes on the mound. He has a quiet nature, but he's very competitive."
Next in line at first base will be the steady Savage and talented freshman Daniel Robert.
Robert is an interesting prospect and another freshman who should see a ton of playing time. If you see him in person, he gives a bit of a Kevin Patterson vibe. He’s big: 6’4 and 249 pounds. That’s the size of a mid-range pulling guard for the Auburn football team. He’s strong: He hit 10 home runs as a senior at Briarwood Christian and was the only Tiger to hit a home run during the fall. Robert will fill in the DH role on a regular basis.
The easy thinking at second base is that the incumbent, Jordan Ebert, would keep his position. That easy thinking would be wrong. Damon Haecker (another freshman) has wrested the position away from Ebert and pushed him to the crowded outfield. Now, Haecker has the tools. The former high school QB is rangy and athletic with an emphasis on defense. I’ve seen firsthand that Haecker can cover a lot of ground and make plays that you don’t expect from a freshman. He’ll be a guy who will be kept in the lineup because of his glove and not his bat. Still, he will give Coach G a nice tool to keep in the lineup: a guy who can bunt and will looked upon to advance runners, not necessarily bring them home.
Next in line at second base will be either Connor Short or Tanner Cimo. Cimo is developing into that super-platoon rat role at which Mitchell Self excelled. He can play pretty much any position on the field and can do so competently. Short could be the shortstop of the future for Auburn. He’s athletic and dynamic and will push for playing time.
The only thing standing in Short’s way is Dan Glevenyak. King Yak is back for his final season at Auburn. I’m not going to dance around this: We all know the knock on Yak. It’s his defense. However, it’s a defense that seems to have improved. He only committed one error in the fall. Yak is aware of the pressure on him. Golloway is aware of the pressure on him. He represents a key part of Auburn’s infield and will determine a lot of games not with his bat, but with his glove. On a positive note, Haecker has great range at second base, and Yak won’t be expected to make every play by himself.
At third base is Damek Tomscha. Tomscha has the added pressure in the role of team captain this year. He brings back a team-leading seven home runs and if he can develop into a solid power-hitting clean-up or power-hole hitter, Auburn will be able to contend. Now, the Tigers are not going to rely on only his bat, but it will go a big way in determining Auburn’s future. Pushing Tomscha will be Dylan Smith. I really like Smith a lot. He’s talented, and I’ve seen him play in both high school and college. He has the build, range, bat and athleticism to compete. However, he just hasn’t had a chance to really get his sea legs under him. Unfortunately, unless Damek struggles, Smith will be clawing for playing time and may end up the way of Savage. That’s not really a bad thing, it’s just reality. Auburn has a stud third baseman committed for 2015 in Montrell Marshall, who should be the heir apparent at the position. With Tomscha taking up 2014 and Marshall possibly taking 2015, Smith could be on the outside looking in next year. However, this year is this year, and Smith has the talent to compete right now and could find his way onto the field in a more regular role as the season progresses.
Possibly more than Smith, Brett Binning (judged by the fall) seems to be next in line at third base. Binning is an interesting prospect. He's another California kid, like Ryan Tella and Cooper. He has a solid scouting report:
Brett Binning is a 2013 SS/3B with a 6-1 170 lb. frame from Danville, CA who attends Monte Vista HS. Long slender athletic build, projects very well. 6.88 runner, quick and athletic footwork, loose overall actions, soft hands, release a bit long, outstanding raw arm strength, all the tools to play shortstop for a long time. Right handed hitter, leg raise trigger, extended swing, loose out front, has bat speed and some power potential, squares up fastballs well, sees the ball. Very projectable player. Good student.
Binning had the most experience backing up Tomscha in the fall. He's not a project, but he will definitely need some refining. To me, Binning is a guy who should play a lot more in the midweek to gain experience and be ready just in case Tomscha or Glevenyak go down due to injury or cold streaks.
At catcher is old reliable Blake Austin. Austin is the face of the Tigers in 2014. He’s a guy Golloway recruited and liked at Oklahoma and could continue the string of success Golloway has had developing catchers for the next level. Austin still has that elite gun that keeps base-stealers honest. He still has that sold Texas Leaguer swing that produces consistent doubles. He has the attitude, the experience and the knowledge to help develop some of Auburn’s young pitching. Austin is another team captain and probably the unquestioned leader of the club.
Backing up Austin will be another Blake. This time it’s Blake Logan. The Battling Blakes represent 100 percent of the catchers on Auburn’s roster. It’s a position where the Tigers are dangerously thin, and Logan will be called upon to spell Austin regularly -- especially in the beginning of the season, when there are more games and Austin isn’t fully stretched out. I’m going to make a bold prediction and say that Austin is going to surprise some people with his bat this year. He’s gotten stronger in a refined strength and conditioning program, which was brought in by Gus Malzahn and Ryan Russell. He’s hungry, and this is his year to breakout and solidify himself as one of the Auburn greats.
The outfield presents a complicated and crowded scenario. During thefFall, Golloway had 12 different players spend time in the outfield. At the end of the day and heading into the season, it will shake out to Ebert in left, Tella in center and Anfernee Grier in right. That's one returning starter playing out of his original position, one senior returning starter and one true freshman.
Tella has a lot to prove. Instead of improving his draft stock last year, he actually regressed and didn't get drafted at all. He is, hands down, the most dynamic hitter on the team. He brings a consistency and a mix of power and speed. When he's hot, he's one of the best players in the SEC. When he's cold, he can present a gaping hole in a lineup designed to suit his style. Tella should (and probably will) be moved to leadoff or 2-hole in the batting order. If he can consistently get on base, he's the catalyst for a lot of moving parts on offense.
Unfortunately, Tella will miss the first two games due to a violation of team rules. His replacement has already been selected in freshman J.J. Shaffer. Shaffer is an interesting pick. He's a homegrown talent -- his dad is Auburn's head diving coach -- and he didn't have many struggles at the plate during the fall. He hit .306 and was a on base machine (.382). However, his big struggle is with strikeouts. He's a firecracker on the basepaths and has speed to burn to cover a lot of real estate in center field. Plus, having him and Grier in the lineup at the same time gives you two guys capable of stealing 30-plus bases a year.
Grier is the unknown. He's talented, there is no question there. He's fast, that's easy to see. He's playing a little out of position in right, but he needs to be on the field. Outside of Thompson, Grier is one of the most highly coveted prospects Auburn has had in a while: MLB drafted out of high school, MLB lineage, All-American, one of the top 100 recruits in the nation. Grier has all the intangibles and all of the tools you'd want in an outfielder. He has a great bat, great instinct on the bases and the speed and fluid running form that can turn singles into doubles and long doubles into triples. He does lack power, but honestly, he doesn't need it. I may be getting ahead of myself, but after watching Grier, I see Auburn's version of Vanderbilt terror Tony Kemp.
Ebert is going to be the biggest question mark in the outfield. This is a bit of editorializing, I know, but Ebert was my favorite player last year. He hustles, he never quits, he has the energy and passion that you want in a ballplayer. Jordan is the guy you point out to your kid playing Little League and say, "Hey, play like that. 110. All the time." Seeing him in left field instead of at second base is going to take a bit to get used to. He's going to struggle. It's going to be tough to watch. There is a learning curve in going from your little tiny box in the infield to this wide-open expanse in the outfield. How these struggles are managed by Golloway will say a lot about his coaching style. Will he keep a short leash, or will he let the development come over time?
Outside of these four, Auburn will look at a host of other options in the outfield: Terrance Dedrick, Jackson Burgreen, Hunter Kelley, Sam Gillikin and Rock Rucker.
2. The Pitching
There's a good-news, bad-news scenario for the Auburn pitching staff this season. The bad news? Auburn lost a couple of big pieces to the draft in Conner Kendrick and Will Kendall. The good news? Auburn returns a de facto ace in Michael O'Neal.
I've long held that the best thing for a college baseball team is a consistent pitching staff: having three set guys for your weekend, grooming one or two guys in the midweek and having a designated setup and closer. Auburn, for the first time that I can remember, has that.
The rotation has been set. It's Dillon Ortman, O'Neal, and Thompson. The main midweek guy has been set. That's Justin Camp. The setup guy and closer have been set. That's Trey Cochran-Gill and Dedrick.
All of these guys were named (publicly) a week ago, meaning they've actually had simulated-game experience and know exactly what their role will be. That's a different mindset compared to Pawlowski, who would go into seasons with TBA and would continually mix and match his rotations throughout the year.
The best thing I can say about the pitching staff this year is that there are actually and clearly defined roles.
You've got your front-line starters: Ortman, O'Neal, Thompson.
You've got your next in line: Camp, Kevin Davis, Cole Lipscomb, Chase Williamson, Daniel Koger, Trey Wingenter, and Rocky McCord, all but two of whom will be moved to long relief.
You have your short relievers like Jacob Milliman and Robby Clements.
You've got your specialists like Reed Carter and Jay Wade.
And you've got your back end: TGC and TD.
Golloway's strategy with pitching has been to get the best six innings out of a starter, mix and match for the seventh and eighth. Shut the door in the ninth. It's effective. I also wouldn't be surprised, given the wealth of arms, to see Auburn employ a style similar to Mississippi State and Butch Thompson. It's an "IED Attack," where you throw as many pitchers as you can, each with different styles, and each pitching an inning or less. You narrow the hitter's focus down that single at-bat and heighten the pitcher's focus to three outs and shorten the game. It's worked in Starkville. It's a little non-conventional, but with a staff heavy with arms and short on lefties, it's a good way to utilize the staff effectively.
A couple of guys to focus on this year:
Davis is being touted as a potential weekend replacement. However, he's got a lot of tread on the tires. The hype and build up are there for Davis: 0.95 ERA in high school, Team USA selection, 460 Ks in 199 innings. They're video game numbers. Davis, if healthy, could be a lethal force for Auburn. However, it's not worth risking his future to rush his progress, especially if he went into the fall with some soreness.
Ortman is the wild card in the rotation. Most people suspected Koger would be a shoo-in for the Friday job. However, Ortman has matured greatly. After bouncing around from starter to reliever to closer to setup, he may have finally found a home on Fridays. His K rate is way up. He had a solid summer. He's experienced. His ERA in the fall was the second best on the team. Ortman is a guy I'd tab as having a breakout season in 2014.
One guy who's not getting a lot of attention and publicity is Milliman, a JUCO transfer RHP. He is big. He looks massive on the mound. He's a hard thrower, a stikeout maker and an innings eater. He's experienced and has the potential to be one of the biggest weapons out of the bullpen as a consistent bridge between the starter and the closer.
You'll hear a lot about Thompson on the mound. He's listed as the Sunday starter and has been described as "Tim Hudson-esque." I can tell you a few things from watching him. He works fast. He pounds the strike zone. He toes the rubber far to the left. He's deliberate, and he's focused. He pitches with a bit of fire. He's going to be fun to watch.
3. The Freshmen
I’ve talked about it a bit already, but Auburn is going to be relying on a lot of youth in the 2014 season. Logan, Grier, Robert, Haecker and Thompson are going to be the core nucleus for a few years. Add in Binning, Davis, Short and Shaffer, and you have nine Freshmen who are all expected to have significant roles in either starting or platooning during the 2014 campaign.
So what’s the deal? Are all these guys that good? Are the position players they are beating out not as good?
I think it’s really a combination of a few extenuating circumstances. Yes, guys like Davis, Thompson and Grier are that good. They would be seeing the field regardless of whoever was in front of them. Other guys are just fortunate enough to be better suited for positions that weren't deep to being with. Haecker has benefited from Ebert’s move to the outfield, Robert’s power and size have necessitated his potential role at DH.
Also, Pawlowski did not do the best job of recruiting position players. He could stockpile pitchers easily, but position players were at a premium and were slots were being filled by JUCO guys whenever possible. This stopgap system led to Auburn being thin at places like shortstop and second base.
Honestly, I thought Thompson, if he was named as a starting pitcher, would have been a midweek guy and not thrown into the fire completely on the weekend.
I think there are some other factors at play. First of all, this is a new team with a new head coach. What’s the quickest way to establish your style of play? Use the guys who are easily moldable: the new guys, guys who haven’t had a style or a mindset stamped on them by a previous coach.
You have to commend Golloway for one thing: He doesn’t play favorites, at least not that I can see. If you can play, then you will play regardless of age. He has a win-first mentality. It will work for him at Auburn. Playing guys early means that Auburn can actually build a program instead of plugging holes in the dyke whenever a guy transfers out or leaves early.
4. The Coach
I’m sold on Golloway. Really, I am. His hiring was a surprise, and Auburn was fortunate to get him. He basically landed in our lap, and we had a lot of serendipity fall in our favor.
If you’ve never heard him, just go listen to him speak. Golloway is a salesman, and that’s exactly what Auburn needs. He came in with a plan and with a vision. He’s emphasized fan interaction and involvement. He’s made himself visible to the media and fans. He’s done everything he can to be out front and push Auburn baseball into the mindset of Auburn fans. Credit also needs to be given to director of baseball operations Scott Duval for helping with some of the initiatives like the open house or the "visit-your-seats" promotions.
Golloway has made subtle changes that on the surface might seem insignificant but in the grand scheme will do wonders to Auburn. He has forced -- or maybe I should say heavily persuaded -- athletic director Jay Jacobs to commit more to baseball. Renovations are on the way. Some upgrades, like the club house and the bullpen, have already been completed.
He’s established captains for the team, holding players accountable to fans and to each other. He changed everything he could: from the way the team warms up to how they dress on the field (everyone in stirrups, player names returning to the back of the uniform). All these might seem like small or nit-picky things, but they all add up to a change in attitude and mindset that was sorely needed in the program.
He’s also more upfront with the media. This was evident right off the bat when he announced that Tella would be suspended for two games for a violation of team rules. That’s different from the Pawlowski tenure, when a player could be in the "doghouse" and no one would know. At least now -- at least in this case -- Auburn knows Player X is not playing because Reason Y and will be back for Game Z.
5. The Style
Not much has been written on Golloway’s playing/coaching style. From what I can tell from observing at practice, it’s a combination of small ball and constant pressure. Golloway is constantly vocal and chattering during the game. He’s meticulous at times. It’s a good thing and (again) another change from Pawlowski. Where Pawlowski was reserved and deliberate, Golloway is outspoken and constantly tinkering.
There is a preach of "next pitch" from Golloway. That means so many different things. It means knowing what to do next. Keeping your head in the game and knowing how A leads to B which can lead to C.
It’s having a short-term memory, not letting something you can’t change affect your current and present position.
His offense style is small ball. That’s fine. However, it’s a small ball with a slight twist. Every run is important. Manufacturing runs is even more important. What Golloway tries to do it to force the defense to make mistakes. That means a steady stream of pressure on the base paths: bunting, hit and run, and sacrificing. Every run will be scratched and clawed for because doing those things could, in theory, force the dam to break and cause the opposition to implode.
You can’t affect what a team does in the field. You can, however, affect how they do it. If a pitcher is unable to get into a rhythm because the Auburn runner on first is dancing and always a threat to steal? That's a success for Golloway.
I’ll be honest, though. It’s going to be frustrating at times. I know message boards will light up and there will be audible grumbles in the stands when you see a power guy square up to bunt in what some see as off -- and awful -- situations.
All I can say is to give it time. Look, the Gorilla Ball days are over. You’re not going to have a team built for slugging mammoth home runs with the current bats. Those records Auburn set for homers a few years ago are going to stand for a long time.
The pace will be slow. The game will seem constantly tight. It will be nerve-racking, especially as Auburn tries to adjust.
The Pawlowski and Golloway styles are not too dissimilar. In fact, this style is one that Pawlowski was trying to implement at Auburn.
Think about it this way. Remember when Tommy Tuberville went from his Gorgeous Borges West Coast offense to a type of hybrid Tony Franklin spread? He had to start finding players and filling roles he never would have thought of filling before. Ultimately, it bit him on the butt. However, the players, that thinking, that style? All that was in its infancy. It ultimately ended up being a positive for Gene Chizik and Malzahn because they didn’t have to start completely from scratch.
The same situation is there with Golloway. Pawlowski was trying to move to this small-ball style. The parts are there. Now it’s up to Golloway to put them together in the right order.
6. The Issues
There are going to be some glaring issues that Auburn will need to address and address pretty quickly.
The Tigers, first and foremost, have to improve defensively. That has been the most glaring weakness for the last few Pawlowski teams. It will start with the middle infielders. The communication between Haecker and Glevenyak needs to be paramount.
Improve the defense and cut down on the errors, and the Tigers will win at least five more games than they normally would have lost.
Besides the defense, Auburn will have to develop a bit of power in order to compete with the big boys of the SEC. Right now, the prime candidates are going to be Tomscha and Robert. My power bat darkhorse is going to be Austin, but I want to see a few more games before I completely ride that horse. Hit for power consistently and don’t become an easy out? Then Auburn is going to turn some heads.
The speed is there. The hits are there. Auburn is just going to be searching for a bat that can consistently and easily bring runners home.
I’m not too worried about the pitching. It will get there. It already looks better on paper than it did last year. It’s just a matter of keeping guys in certain positions and roles and not spending the first two-thirds of the season in a state of flux. If you are going to change, then make the changes slowly. Don’t just have one bad weekend and then decide the rotation is TBA. The players are there to compete, you just have to give them time to learn and grow as the season goes on. When you pull a pitcher or shelve him after one bad outing, then you’ve already regressed his development. It will take just as long or longer for him to return to form.
That’s one of the reasons I have a bit more optimism for the 2014 season on the pitching side. Golloway has already named starters and roles. We aren’t working with a completely clean slate. Guys know what they are supposed to do and have been working since the fall with that mindset.
The offense will take a bit of time to get running. I fully expect that. However, the schedule lends itself to a bit of a learning curve.
7. The Schedule
I really like Auburn’s schedule. Mainly because it’s laid out with a solid progression and room for growth.
The opening weekend tournament in Port Charlotte, Fla., will provide Auburn a chance to face three quality teams that are rebuilding just as much as the Tigers, teams that have been to the NCAA Tournament recently and aren’t strangers to success on the diamond.
Early scouting on all three teams -- Ohio State, UConn, Indiana State -- shows clubs that have solid pitching, decent offense and fantastic bullpens. It will be important to Auburn to strike early and not get down.
Having the opening weekend on the road also allows for better practices. The weather in Auburn is a mess through the weekend, and the Tigers won’t benefit from staying indoors. Instead, they are down in Florida. They are traveling, they are bonding. They are setting the table for the season.
The following weekend is the normal Auburn tournament with a bad, a decent and a solid club all competing. Follow that with a decent non-conference series against Presbyterian and the Capital City Classic against Alabama, and you’ve set the stage for March beginning the grit of the season, and the team should be at least 85 percent formed by then.
Auburn has three key series throughout the year. These are the three most important matchups and will tell if the Tigers are ready to compete right away or if they are really in a rebuilding process.
It starts with Mercer, a team that, by name, seems like it should be a pushover. But, the Bears will be competing for an NCAA bid and potentially a regional host this year. They're going to be good. They will not be unfamiliar to Auburn, either, with former assistant Ty Megahee now on the Mercer staff. If Auburn can take the series from the boys from Macon, it will be a huge boost to the overall RPI and the possibility of making a regional.
No. 2 is Tennessee. The Tigers and the Vols are in a similar situation: both are rebuilding, both are trying to return to former glory. UT has a year head start and a talented and well-respected head coach in Dave Serrano. In order for Auburn to establish itself and get a solid footing in the SEC race, the Tigers will need to beat teams that are similar in expectation and talent. UT is that team.
Finally, the third-most-important series comes against South Carolina: mid-April, A-Day weekend, the SEC East favorites at Plainsman Park. If Auburn can stay competitive against the Gamecocks, avoid a sweep, and maybe pull an upset? Then the Golloway plan is light years ahead of schedule.
Auburn has a decent schedule. The Tigers avoid Florida and Vanderbilt, and get Missouri, Kentucky and Tennessee from the East. They have the toughest games at the friendly confines at Plainsman Park with South Carolina, LSU and Mississippi State at home.
The biggest key to the schedule is something I’ve preached for years: Avoid the sweeps. Losing three games in a series puts a team at such a serious bind toward the end of the season. Just getting one game, one crucial game, will help with RPI and help Auburn go from SEC Tournament team to NCAA Tournament team.
Golloway wants Omaha. That’s evident. He’s drilled it into the mindset of the team and fans.
Should fans expect Omaha in Year 1? No.
At least, not in my opinion. I think a team that is Omaha-ready is a team that has been building toward it. Omaha rarely happens overnight. SEC teams work and claw toward the College World Series by getting over little milestones bit by bit. First, they make the SEC Tournament consistently. Then, the NCAA Tournament on a regular basis. Then, NCAA super regionals. Finally, Omaha becomes a legitimate and tangible expectation.
Auburn should make the SEC Tournament. That should be a given. They were already making Hoover. And with 12 teams in the field, not making it now would be a big step back.
Auburn, on paper, is picked to finish toward the bottom the league. There is nothing except that glorious Auburn positivity that should suggest the Tigers should be booking tickets to Nebraska.
A realistic expectation should be an NCAA regional. If the Tigers make it that far, then this season will be a legitimate success. It will be a huge step forward and a sign of things to come. It will be a place Auburn hasn’t been in a while. It will be that first stepping stone toward the ultimate goal of Omaha.
Personally, I believe Auburn can make Omaha. However, I’m always an optimist. I believe, and I believe the players believe.
The fan expectation should still be tempered with a dose of reality. Auburn is what it is in baseball right now: a team searching for an identity. Once it finds that? Then the sky is the limit.
I’ll go on the record and say Auburn will surprise some of the critics and make a regional. I believe and have faith that Golloway is the right man for the job.
As always, War Eagle and War Damn Baseball.