If there was ever a program that needed to be built with methodical steps and a patient eye, it was the Auburn Baseball program. In October of 2015, the program resembled something left by Sherman’s Army as it marched out of Atlanta. Tattered, torn, left burning after Sonny Galloway was fired for cause just before fall practice of that year. In the previous 10 years, the program had seen 3 different coaches that each had a successful season before fizzling out. Enter Butch Thompson. Fans of the sport in Auburn rejoiced. I remember texting a buddy of mine who loves Auburn baseball like I do, and he said what I felt. “This is the best news since David Ross hit a home run in Tallahassee.” Thompson is set to enter his 4th season at the helm of Auburn baseball and his step by step approach is starting to show. The first season was learning the ropes. Season Two saw Auburn a strike away from reaching a Super Regional (and hosting by the way). The Third edition saw Auburn make a Super Regional, get its first win in Super Regional play, and only being ousted on the flukiest way possible. So, what will this 4th version look like for Thompson? There are plenty of questions to go around, but there are some talented answers, a lot of potential and some interesting options.
We will start on the bump, where all the Tigers must do is replace the #1 overall draft pick, Casey Mize. While that is near impossible, Auburn does have a young man named Tanner Burns (which by the way, Tanner turned in his old #7 for #32, Casey’s old number, for this season) that will take over Friday nights. The best news that comes here is, SPOILER ALERT, he will be the 2020 starter on Friday’s as well (I just smiled as I typed that out). Behind Burns is where the fun options begin. The Tigers could very well go with Davis Daniel, who was drafted in the 11th round by the Brewers but decided to turn down some solid cash for his Junior year. With Davis’s ability to consistently throw 97 and how he looked getting it low in the zone late in the season, this would be a solid option for a Saturday afternoon. OR the Tigers could take the closer from last season, Cody Greenhill, and convert him to a starter on either Saturday or Sunday. He can handle the load, want proof? Check out game 3 of the Super Regional where he shut down the Gators on 80+ pitches. OR Auburn could look to Jack Owen, who was the Tuesday starter and was marvelous in the role, to take a spot, should a hiccup happen during the first four (audition) weeks of the season. One last word on the starters, just keep an eye on #40 Garrett Wade. The true freshman from Hartselle was a top 100 MLB prospect before the draft last year but told the pros that he wanted to wear the Orange and Blue, with the urging of Tanner and a couple of other Tigers. It will be a work in progress with Wade but the pitching staff is at the point where they can lead him along and get him in when he is ready. This is called pitching depth and it make me so happy to have this feeling.
As far as the pen goes, this is where I’m most interested to watch. A lot of the staff had solid summer pitching performances in the Cape Cod League and others. Ryan Watson, Blake Schilleci, Elliott Anderson and Ryan Hoerter all received favorable remarks from staff and reporters in their leagues and they are joined by Wade and a host of others from this season’s recruiting class. While it sounds like the plan is to give Wade a shot at the Closer spot, that is a position that will remain open until it’s won outright. Other fresh faces that will help the effort this season will be Richard Fitts and Will Morrison, who are both freshmen, along with JC transfers Bailey Horn and Kyle Gray. This may be the biggest question mark for Auburn as far as proven depth, but if the potential for these arms can match what the returning staff started this summer, this could become a strength for the Tigers as the season moves along.
To the field we go now and let’s get the familiar faces out of the way. Will Holland will captain the defense at Short Stop and that is a very good thing. Enjoy every game he plays Auburn fans, cause ya boy is getting paaaaaaid after this season. At first base, replacing the Venter/Anthony tag team will be Conor Davis, to begin the season at least. This could go to JC transfer and former LSU Tiger Rankin Woley, but we will touch on him in a bit. In the outfield, Steven Williams and Judd Ward will man the corners. Both were great in their work and should do well. As for the new faces, lets start with the man that will be at short stop next season for Auburn, Ryan Bliss. Bliss will be making the start at 2nd and that is a FAN-FREAKING-TASTIC thing for Auburn fans. Prepare yourself for some excellent turns this season. Even more fun, his bat matches his defensive play. Over at 3rd, it seems the Tigers could go with Edouard Julien, who played a little outfield but mainly DH’ed last season.
Another option is Rankin Woley, who stands 6-foot tall and is 210 pounds of pure muscle. If its my call, I have Conor and Rankin trade at first and DH because I like both of their bats and they both pretty much have the same body type. I want someone a bit quicker and agile to grab stuff at 3rd, but this is why Butch gets the pay check (ps, AD Greene….pay this man…now…). To wrap up our introductions, I may have saved the best for last. In Center, Auburn will start True Freshman Kason Howell. Howell, who was drafted by the Red Sox in the 20th round this past summer, is a defender by nature but showed a nice bat in the fall as well, which Auburn would love to have in the bottom half of the line-up. Another name to familiarize yourself with would be JC transfer Everett Lau in the outfield, who had a strong fall at the plate as a lefty. Also, don’t forget Steven Williams is an excellent catcher and could spell Scheffler should he need a day off.
As far as how the schedule lays out, it’s another fun season to be sure. Auburn opens at home against GA Southern and Alabama A&M before the non-conference series of the year hits. Auburn takes to the road to battle UCF, who was this close to getting into the tournament last year and Auburn faced to open the 2017 tournament in Tallahassee. This will be the series to watch, for a couple of reasons, to see how this Auburn team will be as SEC play starts in a couple of weeks. This year in SEC play, Auburn will host Tennessee, Arkansas, Ole Miss, Alabama and Georgia and go on the road to Mississippi State, South Carolina, Texas A&M, Vanderbilt and LSU. Don’t get me wrong, the SEC is going to be tough no matter who you draw out of the East, but you avoid Florida, Kentucky and Missouri. If you could trade Vandy or Carolina for the Tigers, that’s the only change I would advise making. We will hit on how the conference will look in a few weeks but I like the schedule as Auburn plays 6 of their last 9 conference games at home against their biggest rivals, however those last three will come at the Box…..guh. All in all, the schedule sets up nicely but the question is, how will the depth stand up and the pitching staff respond through the grind that is college baseball.
Coming up in a few weeks, we will dive in to the conference as baseball season is just a month away!!