Even though we’re in the throes of football season at the moment (and quite a finish to the year, I might add), there’s still plenty else happening across the street from Jordan-Hare Stadium at Plainsman Park. Butch Thompson’s Auburn baseball team has been concluding its fall practices, and Drew McCracken’s here to fill us in on what we can expect from the Tigers come the spring of 2018.
Following a year of marked improvement in Butch Thompson’s second season as the head man on the Plains, the 2018 Auburn Tigers wrapped up their fall practice schedule this week. Since the 2017 campaign ended on a Monday night in Tallahassee, many faces have changed on the staff and on the field.
Gone are Doug Sissons, who went to help the White Sox with their minor league systems, and Brad Bohannon, who is now the head man at Alabama. Replacing them are former Tiger and Major League slugger Gabe Gross, who leaves the ESPN broadcast booth for the dugout, and Karl Nonemaker, who joins the staff after an impressive stent at Old Dominion. If the name sounds familiar to Auburn fans, it should. Nonemaker was an assistant with Butch Thompson from 2005-07 as part of Head Coach Tom Slater’s staff. Also joining the staff as a volunteer assistant is former Baylor Head Coach Steve Smith. Smith will primarily work with the pitching staff along with Coach Thompson and brings a long list of post season success from his time at Baylor, including a College World Series appearance.
Perhaps the most important spot that the Tigers must replace is behind the plate. Auburn says goodbye to Blake Logan and Damon Haecker who anchored a majority of the games last season behind the plate. To the credit of Thompson and his staff, the Plainsmen addressed that need with the 2017 recruiting class that was ranked in the top 5 nationally by D1baseball.com and Perfect Game.
“Steven Williams is the first one that comes to mind,” Coach Thompson said. “He just looks advanced and has really hit the ball well, not only putting the ball in play, but hitting for power early.”
The 6-4 lefty from Albany, GA (Deerfield-Windsor), who was drafted in the 35th round of the 2017 MLB draft by the Yankees, is listed by the Tigers as a catcher but may see some outfield work in spots. Also helping fill the void at catcher is Brett Wright, a junior college transfer from San Jacinto College in Pasadena, TX.
“Brett’s done great,” Thompson said. “We got somebody that can really catch, handle a game, throw, competitive with the at-bat. He’s been an all-around solid player for us at catcher.”
The infield is where it will get fun for Auburn fans. The Tigers return 3 out of 4 spots around the horn, leaving only first base as needing a full-time replacement. Last season, that position was split between the departing Daniel Robert and the club’s home run leader Dylan Ingram. Ingram finished 2017 with eight home runs, 40 RBIs and a .288 BA vs SEC pitching. Another name to watch at first base is junior college transfer, Brendan Venter.
“Venter is a natural-born leader. Whether he plays third or first base, he just brings presence to us. We think his bat has something to offer too,” said Thompson.
Up the middle, the dynamic duo of Will Holland and Luke Jarvis return and have grown into their positions. Last year, Holland and Jarvis combined to commit 20 errors, but became one of the best combos in the SEC by tourney time. Senior Josh Anthony returns at the hot corner, where he flashed one of the most reliable gloves the Tigers have had in over a decade. Anthony will look to improve at the plate where he hit.266 average with two bombs and 39 RBIs in 2017, just a year after finishing second in home runs at the junior college level with 25 dingers while hitting .444.
The Tigers have the most open spots to replace in the meadow, but plenty of talent to fill them. Seniors Jay Estes and Bowen McGuffin return for one last crack at SEC competition. Jeremy Johnson looks to be the leading candidate to take over for the departing Jonah Todd, would was the second straight Tiger center fielder to be selected in the 6th round of the MLB draft. Also playing a role in how the outfield will look is returning slugger Conor Davis, whose memorable Sunday afternoon bomb helped the Tigers take the rubber game over South Carolina last year. Davis had spot service in right field for Auburn in 2017 and could do the same this year. Two newcomers that could have a say in how the outfield will look are Cade Evans and Edouard Julien. Both came to Auburn as infielders but can also roam the pasture as the season approaches.
However, as expected with any Butch Thompson coached team, pitching should remain the strength of the Tigers. Auburn possesses arguably one of the scariest Friday night arms in the country in Casey Mize. He is projected to be a first-round pick in the 2018 MLB draft and is the unquestioned Friday night arm for the Tigers. The Tigers also return last year’s Sunday starter Davis Daniel, who pitched over the summer in the Cape Cod leagues before having to leave with arm soreness. The battle to become Auburn’s Sunday starter should be interesting as the Tigers have several options on the table. Auburn returns Andrew Mitchell, who started a hand-full of SEC games and went 5-4 on the season with a 5.14 ERA. Ryan Watson, senior Corey Herndon, and side-winder Calvin Coker could also be in the mix.
The biggest wild-card may be freshman Tanner Burns, who was projected to be a top pick in last year’s MLB draft but made it clear he wanted to be a Tiger, leaving him to be picked in the 37th round by the Yankees. Burns has a mid-90s fastball and can slug too, but will focus his efforts on the mound moving forward.
Jack Owen, Cody Greenhill and Ryan Hoerter are three others to keep an eye on, although they are likely headed for the bullpen, where Auburn’s depth should be a strength this year. The Tigers will look to replace reliable closer Cole Lipscomb and early indications have been that Greenhill may be the number one option, however Coker also worked in spot positions and having two options at closer, one that throws left and one right, would give Thompson and pitching advisor Steve Smith matchup options.
Overall, this fall has been very productive for the Tigers both on the field and on the recruiting trail. Now the countdown is on for February 16th when the Tigers welcome Longwood to Plainsman Park. SEC play will begin exactly one month later when the Aggies of Texas A&M come calling on the Tigers. The conference as a whole will be as strong as ever, but with their starting rotation on the weekend, the 2018 version of the baseball Tigers look will have regional hosting hopes on their mind.