Yesterday we published the first part of Kevin's Auburn Baseball preview. If you haven't read that, then go do it! Today we continue with the schedule and lineup analysis. Part three (because Kevin wrote a TON of great stuff) on the pitchers and how to measure success will be tomorrow!
Here’s the deal with baseball schedules: they are constantly in-flux. Agreements are made years in advance but most of the time the schedules are so fluid that they aren’t officially finalized until maybe 6 months before the season.
Every Auburn coach has approached their scheduling strategy differently. Some liked to schedule at least one premier out-of-conference opponent (Arizona State, Arizona, Missouri, etc), one tournament (normally at home), and then one mid-level weekend series against an Ohio Valley or Southern Conference team. Others liked to look specifically at potential RPI and highlight three or four individual games that would be RPI tentpole wins.
Last season, Auburn got lucky. It managed to sneak a game/win against Oklahoma State for an RPI bump and then Radford went on a tear late in the season and kept remaining a solid non-conference win.
My thinking on scheduling is this: Get wins and get experience. You’ll make your best RPI moves in the SEC and a winning record in conference will help erase any low rpi wins you may have had before then. I’m not saying you fill your weekends with SWAC schools and MAAC schools, inflate your overall record and then hope it carries you through conference play. That’s pretty risky and won’t work out in the long run (ask Kentucky).
No, for a schedule, you need balance. You don’t want to make every weekend a grind against Top 25 clubs and then hit the SEC. You want a good number of in-state schools, a sprinkle of Power 5 teams, and one good but not great weekender against a team that’s probably their favorite from a one-bid league.
Auburn has just that in 2016.
The schedule sets up fairly nicely in that it has an off-site tournament (and a built-in RPI boost) against historically decent but not world-beating clubs; a good learning series to open up (Sacramento State); a potential stealth RPI boost (Oral Roberts); and a regroup weekend (Southern).
The best part of the schedule is the SEC draw this year.
For the past couple of seasons, the goal of Auburn baseball has been to just make it to a Regional. To do that you need to be one of the 10 best schools in the conference. That means you need to make yourself standout from the mid to bottom of the league. Over the past few seasons, those teams have been: Kentucky, Missouri, Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, and Auburn. Our Tigers have series against 5 of those 6 schools. If you avoid being swept by the top half of the league (LSU, Vanderbilt, Texas A&M) and steal one or two series against the middle tier (Arkansas, Ole Miss, Mississippi State) and Auburn won’t have to sweat their name being called tournament time. To me, this is the best SEC draw that Auburn has had in a few years.
The Tigers open with and close with two of the top three teams in the league (Texas A&M and Vanderbilt), avoid the pre-emptive favorite (Florida), avoids a historically good team on the rebound (South Carolina), and plays most but not all of the bottom half of the league. Being in the West helps a ton. So does having Mississippi State and LSU at home. It’s a favorable schedule on paper and one that lends itself to the growth before SEC play and during conference play. Growth and identity building that the Tigers will need in 2016.
With all of the dust settling and "learning-on-the-go" that Auburn baseball will face at the beginning of the year, the lineup (or rather what I think the lineup may be), is going to be a work in progress for the first couple of weeks. Initially, and just based on some assumptions from practice reports and performance last year, I have the lineup looking like this:
C: Blake Logan
1B: Daniel Robert
2B: Melvin Gray
SS: Cody Nulph
3B: Damon Haecker
LF: Jordan Ebert
CF: Anfernee Grier
RF: Josh Palacios
DH: Niko Buentello
SP1: Cole Lipscomb
SP2: Justin Camp
SP3: Gabe Klobosits
SP4: Daniel Sprinkle
SP5: Tavo Rodriquez
Set Up: Casey Mize
Closer: Ben Braymer
Catcher: This is probably Blake Logan’s position to lose. Lose is a kind of strong word to use in this case. Logan should be the main go-to guy, but Auburn has the depth and experience with Ben Braymer and Kyler Deese returning and Jonathan Foster (hopefully) being groomed as the Catcher of the future. That gives Auburn 4 solid guys to man the plate. Foster and possibly Jack McPherson give Auburn a good base to build a future on. Logan is only a junior and there still remains a good possibility that he returns next year. However, the Auburn method for years has been to cycle a catcher through the program for their entire eligibility and then slowly groom a replacement in the incumbent’s junior and senior seasons. It also wouldn’t surprise me to see Ben Craft develop a relationship with one of the starters. It builds in a relief day for Logan and allows Craft to further develop and cement a language with one of the starters.
First Base/Designated Hitter: Daniel Robert is the favorite and the returning favorite. However, Nike Buentello, a Junior College transfer from Oklahoma and then Grayson College (Denison, TX), has been impressing with his bat and range. The biggest thing about First Base is that Auburn has to find locations in the lineup to stash a plus-power bat. Buentello has that. Robert is developing that. There is also the possibility to use the DH to get more playing time for another power bat like Bo Decker. To me, First Base is either going to be Robert or Buentello with the other player being slotted at DH. There’s a chance, and I think it’s a slight chance, that Robert could get pushed out to Right Field. That frees up the DH slot to put in a guy like Decker or Josh Palacios or even go with a speed/high average guy like Jackson Burgreen.
Second Base/Shortstop/Third Base: This is probably the toughest to nail down because you have three guys: Melvin Gray, Damon Haecker, and Cody Nulph, who are all experienced and bring positives with their bats. Right now, I have Gray at 2B, Nulph at SS, and Haecker at 3B. Nulph started every game last year at Shortstop and there’s no reason (right now) to think that he’s lost that position. However, if Nulph is cemented in that position then that puts Auburn in an odd-man-out scenario with Haecker (who played almost every position last year) and Melvin Gray (who excelled late in the season). Right now, I’m penciling Haecker into Third Base because of his range and because Gray took the majority of reps (43 games) than Haecker (19) at Second Base last year. In my opinion, Haecker has to find the field somewhere and with a super crowded outfield, it doesn’t look like he can be stashed there like in 2015.
Further complicating things would be if Jordan Ebert resettles at Third Base. If he does, then Haecker might be forced into another super-platoon role and would slot in if a guy is injured or hitting cold.
There’s depth as well in the infield that makes it even muddier. Keaton Weisz has the tools, the pedigree, and the practice results to push for playing time. Same thing for Daino Deas. So that’s 4 main guys (Gray, Nulph, Haecker, Ebert) plus everyone’s hero Kyler Deese plus two talented Freshmen who could be groomed. That’s 8 guys for 3 positions. To say the infield has depth is great. To say it could become very crowded is an understatement.
Outfield: When looking at the lineup, the corner outfield positions seem like they could see the most players and face throughout the season. Why? Basically because our lineup and offensive needs will probably dictate who plays Left and Right. Center is locked up with Anfernee Grier (with J.J. Shaffer as a backup). I’ve got Ebert and Palacios as Left Field and Right Field right now, but that’s just an educated guess. It’s not really based on their defense, but mainly on what they bring to the plate.
Dictating these defensive positions based on offense is also a reason that Daniel Robert, Bo Decker, or Jackson Burgreen could see time there.
Unfortunately, there isn’t a lot of youth in the outfield, either. Jeremy Johnson (Not the QB) is the only true outfielder on the roster who is a Sophomore and Younger. All the OF that Auburn was trying to build over the past few seasons has either been cut or transferred out. Thanks to two key defections from last year in Austin Murphy and Hunter Tackett. There is a scenario (although very unlikely) that Jeremy Johnson is Auburn’s only Outfielder in 2017. That’s a scary thought but not one that Auburn should worry about right now.