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State of the Program: Baseball

When I originally pitched myself to C&M as the Auburn Baseball guy, I wanted to do a look forward after the season was over. The staff then said, what about a State of the Program, which was much better than what I had. So with that said, in my opinion, to truly see the state of the program, you have to go back one year ago. Auburn had just wrapped up a very successful 2017 campaign, however it almost felt like the Tigers left some games on the table. Auburn raced through the Tallahassee regional, defeating UCF and Tennessee Tech to get to the Regional Final where the Tigers were a pitch away from host Auburn’s first ever Super Regional. The Seminoles, however, crushed those plans and ended the Tigers’ season in 2 games.

In the offseason the Tigers lost key contributors in Daniel Roberts, Jonah Todd and Keegan Thompson among others. Auburn did get some good news in the MLB draft when stars of the class Tanner Burns, Steven Williams, Edouard Julien and all but one member of the recruiting class, opted to head to Plainsman Park. Those decisions proved to pay huge dividends for the Tigers in the 2018 season. Prior to the start of the season, Jay Estes moved to replace Todd in Center Field and Williams, a natural catcher, would move to Left Field to get his bat into the lineup. Junior college transfer Brendan Venter would take over for Roberts at 1st while Auburn returned the rest of the infield while Auburn was poised to platoon behind the plate with Mike Rojas and Brett Wright. On the hill, Auburn had Casey Mize to take over for Thompson on Friday Nights followed by Davis Daniel and Tanner Burns to go on Sundays.

Casey Mize after no-hitting Northeastern in March

The early returns were fantastic as Auburn opened the season 15-0 before dropping their final weekend non-conference game of the year. The only concern was, what would the young Tigers do when they faced the rugged pitching that SEC play would hold. Early on the concerns were warranted as Auburn started conference play 4-8 including a home series loss to Missouri that would prove costly later in the season. Auburn turned it around however going 5-1 in the next two week, that includes a series win over College World Series semi-finalist Mississippi State, and 9-3 over that month of baseball. To finish the season, Auburn faced split series, getting swept by Ole Miss and taking two wins over an LSU team that was about to turn the corner in Hoover.

Auburn was able to make a bit of a run in Hoover for the first time in many seasons, making it to Friday in Hoover and getting big wins over Kentucky (a game in which the Tigers ended the Wildcats season) and Ole Miss before falling to a hot Texas A&M team and a deeper pitching staff in eventual Tournament winner Ole Miss. The Tigers were selected as a 2 seed in the Raleigh Regional, hosted by #16 overall seed NC State (meaning Auburn was probably the first team out of hosting (told ya that Missouri loss was costly)) where Auburn was able to avenge their first loss of the season to Northeastern followed by wins over Army and NC State to take the Regional and advance to the Super Regionals for the first time since 1999. The only bad news was, the Super was in Gainesville against the #1 overall seed, Florida. After dropping the first game, Auburn walked off the Gators and pushed them to the absolute limit in 11 innings before falling to the defending National Champions.

Luke Jarvis walks off the Gators

In the MLB Draft, the Detroit Tigers made Casey Mize the overall number 1 pick, making him Auburn’s highest drafted player ever, replacing Gregg Olsen selected 4th overall. Also selected and signed were Brendan Venter (13th round – Braves), Andrew Mitchell (14th round – Mets), Calvin Coker (15th round – A’s), Luke Jarvis (25th round – Marlins) and Brett Wright (26th round – Blue Jays) while Jay Estes signed a free agent deal with the White Sox. The Tigers did get some big return news from Davis Daniel who was selected in the 11th round by the Brewers as a draft eligible sophomore but announced he would return to Auburn.

As for the recruiting class for next season, Auburn did a repeat from the previous season, only losing one of their top prospects. This season, Blake Rivera from Wallace State CC went in the 4th round and couldn’t say no to the pros but the others drafted (Kason Howell, Garrett Wade, Ryan Bliss among others) all decided to stay with Auburn.

The complete list of signees Auburn is expecting on campus this season are:

  • LHP-Garrett Wade
  • LHP-Carson Skipper
  • LHP-Brooks Fuller
  • LHP-Dawson Sweatt
  • LHP-Bailey Horn
  • LHP-Kyle Gray (Junior College)
  • RHP-Richard Fitts
  • RHP- Will Morrison
  • SS-Ryan Bliss
  • SS-Ed Johnson
  • SS-Brody Moore
  • UT-Jarret Eaton
  • 2B/3B-Rankin Woley (Junior College)
  • 3B-Devin Warner
  • OF-Kason Howell
  • C/1B-Troy Beardon

That’s where Auburn stands today, and with one last glance over the shoulder, the state of Auburn’s baseball program is strong. Very strong. Stronger than it has been since post 2002 season, going into 2003. However, if you look at the roster, this is unprecedented territory for Auburn as a program, as the 2020 season may be a scary good Auburn baseball team. But I digress, we will do that one next year.

In 2019, Auburn will have some key holes to fill, including in Center, 3 of the 4 infield positions, and breaking in a new catcher. Wow, that’s a lot. Let me make you feel better though. Steven Williams will move from Right Field and play Catcher (his natural position) with Rojas. Julien will leave the DH role and move to the outfield (probably Right), I wouldn’t be shocked if Kason Howell gets the nod in Center while Jud Ward and Conor Davis will duke it out over Left Field, with Jeremy Johnson transferring to Cincinnati. Around the horn….well….Will Holland will be at either Short or 2nd. After that it will be a fall ball decision. You can bet Rankin Woley will be in the mix though. Last season, Woley hit .460 with 11 bombs at Chattahoochee Valley CC playing mostly at 2B but if anything, he could slide over and hold down 1B if the Tigers decide to go young and play one of the talented freshmen at the 4.

Rankin Woley

As far as the mound goes for the Tigers, whooo boy, settle in. Tanner Burns will headline the staff as he will in 2020 as well (I was so excited, I couldn’t help myself but type that out). Burns currently is tearing it up for Team USA in North Carolina so expect him to be just as dominate as he was at in the last 2 months of the season now that he knows the schedule and has his collegiate routine down. Saturday is the interesting spot, as Auburn could go with Davis Daniel to start in game 2s or could flip Davis and Cody Greenhill in the pen. Both have PLUS arms with a lot of talent so it’s more of a question of preference than need. On Sundays, I expect Garrett Wade to get the nod and sort of work as an ’18 version of Tanner Burns, getting a chance to see the lineup for the opposition twice before toeing the rubber for game 3. Tuesday night will be Jack Owen as he grew to embrace the midweek starter role and began to flourish late in the season. The bullpen is where the questions will be as names like Welby Malczewski, Elliott Anderson, Ryan Hoerter, Blake Schilleci and others currently on staff along with newcomers like Carson Skipper, Will Morrison, Kyle Gray, Bailey Horn and the rest of the recruiting class will have to step up to give the Tigers quality innings if Auburn looks to take that next step they were oh so close to getting this season.

Last year my goal and hope for the 2018 Auburn baseball team was for them to get to the Super Regionals. Put a check mark by that one. As we sit a good 7 months from first pitch, my personal goal for this version of the Auburn Tigers is to host a regional for just the 4th time in program history. That seems like a small statement for a team coming off of a strong Super Regional performance but to host a regional you have to show that you are one of the top 16 teams in the country during the entire regular season. It also gives you a chance to host a Super Regional without any questions if you can nab one of those top 8 seeds. The next obvious goal is Omaha but that really goes without saying at this point. Auburn was fingernails away from getting to the pinnacle of College Baseball and I for one completely believe that Auburn will be playing June baseball on the banks of the Missouri River sooner rather than later, if not next season then the following. So, to answer the question, the state of the Auburn baseball program is strong…perhaps stronger than ever. And it’s only getting stronger.