I've had a lot of time to think about the 2013 Auburn baseball team, thinking about what to expect, what to hope for, and what to worry about. But, during all of these ruminations, I kept having a consistent nagging thought: I just didn't know.
There are so many wildcards for this team that it's hard to start making predictions for 2013. There are so many unknown factors, so many possibilities, so many new faces, that Auburn has no real model to base anything off of for this season.
Here's what we do know: Auburn will return its four best bats in 2013 (Garrett Cooper, Cullen Wacker, Dan Glevenyak and Ryan Tella). However, thanks to heavy platooning, suspensions and transfers, those core four guys are pretty much the only offense that returns. That's not to discount guys like Blake Austin, Pat Savage or Mitchell Self. They will be needed and will be called upon early in the year. So the offense, despite missing Zach Alvord and Jay Gonzelez, should still click pretty nicely.
We also know that Auburn loses almost all of it's starting pitching from last year -- key losses like Derek Varnadore, Slade Smith, Will Kendall and Jon Luke Jacobs. The good news is that Daniel Koger still has ace potential, Rocky McCord had a fantastic summer for development, Auburn managed to stock up on JUCO arms and bullpen depth has quickly turned from a weakness into a strength.
Those JUCOs get us back to the main problem with predicting Auburn this year. Realistically, Auburn could be looking at a situation where almost half of its batting order will be newcomers. It's those newcomers that are the wildcards and are really the difference in the season. Look, we know that Coop and Wack and Yak and Tella can and will produce. What will set Auburn apart this year is if the supporting the players, these newcomers and the former platoon guys last year, can hold their own and honestly, overachieve.
I equate this Auburn situation to "A Good Day to Die Hard". One one hand, it's a Die Hard Movie. I should love it and be excited. The franchise is responsible for some classic memories. On the other hand? There's so much that is different and so many new things to accept and get used to that it just seems like it would be hard to accurately predict if I would even like the movie or not. Yet, at the end of the day, Auburn baseball is Auburn baseball and Die Hard is Die Hard and I'll love them both the same. I should just go into both with hopeful optimism.
To me, the success of the Auburn baseball team boils down to five keys.
1. Win the week
This will be more evident as RPI rankings start to develop, but Auburn has a pretty weak nonconference schedule. Instead of aggressively scheduling to reward Auburn and a new RPI formula that credits road wins, Auburn decided that it's biggest non-conference test would be a jaunt up to Kennessaw State. In the end, it probably won't matter. The SEC schedule should meet any RPI needs Auburn may have later, but just to make sure? Auburn needs to play almost perfect before hitting league play. Is anyone perfect? No. That's why it's unfair to say Auburn has to win out or bust. At the very least, Auburn has to "win the week," avoid losing streaks in non-conference play and build momentum. It's not fair to put a number on non-conference losses, but for me? Anything more than 4 Ls before league play and Auburn is already looking at a tough year.
2. Play chess, not checkers.
Love it or hate it, head coach John Pawlowski's strategy -- some may say over compensation for the new bats -- is here to stay. One small ball to rule them all. That means an emphasis of speed over strength. That's both good and bad for Auburn. Auburn WILL hit. There's no doubt about that, but the Tigers need to be smart when they hit. That means, instead of taking the super aggressive approach like a checkers player, Auburn needs to be a bit more slow, deliberate and focused. Chess is a game of sacrifices. Auburn must learn how to play unselfish and, when needed, sacrifice an out/power hitter for the greater good. I'm pretty sure with the arms that Auburn has assembled, ANY lead will be welcomed as it will allow the pitcher to loosen up, take chances and throw more effectively.
3. The closer.
I really can't emphasize this enough. Auburn needs a true, go-to, shut-down closer. The Tigers really haven't had one since Grant Dayton. Justin Bryant filled that role a bit last year, and Auburn was better because of it. Dillon Ortman seemed like an outside shot to take that mantle last year, as well, but nothing really materialized. Personally, I think Ortman is better suited stretched out and in a starting role -- primarily as long toss/fourth arm, i.e. the Slade Smith role -- instead of closing. Thankfully, Auburn has some candidates that can fit that role. The favorite right now is probably Terrance Dedrick. A JUCO transfer from Tuscaloosa, Terrance has the ability and has closed (with success) before. His motion is surprisingly deceptive for a guy his size, and he really rolls his hips a bit when he's winding up -- well, I'm not sure if he still does that, but it's something I observed last fall.
4. The ides of March.
Go ahead and pencil in March 15 on your baseball calender. That's the SEC opener at home against Vanderbilt. It will kick off a BRUTAL stretch for Auburn that will have the Tigers going to LSU, hosting Alabama and then traveling to Texas A&M. That stretch also includes Southern Miss (in Mobile), at Troy, plus home games against Alabama State and Wofford. Four SEC series: two on the road, two at home, three against top-10 teams? Yikes. It's how Auburn comes out of that stretch that will determine if the Tigers will go any farther than Hoover this year. What's the best worst case? Take every non conference game, plus the series from Alabama (+2), take one game each from Texas A&M, Vanderbilt and LSU (+3), and maybe push one of those into a full series win? (+1). That would leave Auburn at 6-6 in league play with three of the top dogs already done.
5. Find a slugger.
If there's one thing that Auburn has missed since the 2010 season, aside from a closer, it is a genuine masher, a true power bat. Is there even a place for a masher on Auburn's team, or with the new bats? Yes. The key number here is 40. That's 10 home runs from four different players. If Auburn does that? Then every day is "A Good Day to Play Ball".
The Auburn Tigers open their 2013 season against Maine on Feb. 15. First pitch is set for 3 p.m., and it can't get here soon enough.