They made it to the promised land last year, but came up just short. They overcame odds with late season injuries that limited key starters and forced others to step up together the program to levels that had been a long off dream.
Think I’m talking about Auburn Basketball? I could be but that was also the story of the 2019 Auburn Baseball team. The Tigers made it to Omaha, even with pitching staff ace Tanner Burns who was limited after slipping off a wet mound at Vanderbilt. Though the Tigers didn’t pick up a victory in Omaha, it marked the first time since 1997 that the program made an appearance in College Baseball heaven, which is a huge accomplishment for any program.
The Tigers lost some of the names from the CWS team, namely Will Holland, Edouard Julien and Elliott Anderson (Holland and Julien to the Twins and Anderson to the Royals) but outside of that, Auburn returns the rest of the contributors from the team. There are some familiar faces in different places so let’s dive in and get set for the 2020 season.
OUTFIELD AND DH
This will be pretty easy as Steven William, Kason Howell and Judd Ward (BAY-BAY) all return to patrol the outfield grass and that is a huge bonus for the Tigers. Both Ward and Howell will begin their second seasons in the outfield while Williams kicks off his very rare 3rd year in RF. The DH spot is going to be the interesting one for Auburn as Butch Thompson looks to move Conor Davis to the field to open up a bat in the line up, and there are plenty of options to choose from. Just a few of the names that will be given a shot are freshman Nate LaRue, Ryan Dyal, Johnny Ceccoli and junior John Samuel Shenker who also plays on the football team, just to name a few. Look for Auburn to give each player and others chances as the season begins before finding a solid answer at the DH position before the conference slate begins.
For the most part, the faces will be familiar but almost everyone will be in a new place. The exception will be Matt Scheffler, who returns at the stalwart behind the dish at catcher for the Tigers. The difference this season will be that Matt has some help behind him, namely Nate LaRue, who will definitely see time in the field to help Scheffler get a little rest during the season. Around the horn, Auburn will move Rankin Woley to 3rd, his natural position, and will throw Conor Davis at 1st to see if the big senior can take to the field and open up that DH spot for a left or right handed bat depending on the situation. Up the middle will be another fluid situation. Ryan Bliss came in last year and was solid at 2nd base all season long. However, he was one of the top SS prospects in the country out of High School and the plan all along was to move him to the spot once Will Holland moved to the pros. Auburn, though, finds itself with a great problem to have, a lot of talent that could go in either place. Do you move Bliss to SS and insert Garrett Farquhar to 2nd base or keep Bliss at 2nd and insert either Farquhar or Brody Moore in to SS. My best guess would be the first option and insert Moore into the DH race, as Bliss would be able to fill the leadership role that Holland had, not just as the SS but the locker room leader as well.
Saving the part I am most excited about for last. I have waited a long time to say this so just give me a moment cause this is a loaded message. This is the deepest pitching staff I have ever seen Auburn have in the 20ish years I have followed Auburn baseball. The amount of quality arms the Tigers have is really impressive, and if everything works out and everyone stays healthy, watch out. Your weekend starters are pretty much set as you will see Tanner Burns on Friday, Jack Owen on Saturday and more than likely Bailey Horn on Sunday to start out. For the midweek, I would bet a mixture of Brooks Fuller, Garrett Wade or newcomers Trace Bright or Jackson Reynolds will be the go to guys to try and get Auburn one time through he line up. Those guys will also be mixed in with Andrew Baker, a sophomore transfer from Chipola JC who has a fastball that lives in the mid-90s, who will be paired up with the “Bull” Cody Greenhill to help close the game for the Tigers.
Part of the problem for the Tigers last year was finding that bridge guy that could get those 5 or so outs to get the game from the starters to the Bull to get the Tigers a W. This year, Auburn will have more than enough serviceable options to do that. Along with Richard Fitts (who was an huge surprise last season, pitching big, meaningful innings and looked stronger as the season went on), Fuller, Wade, Bright and Reynolds, Auburn could also turn to Ryan Watson, Peyton Glavine, Will Morrison, Carson Skipper and newcomer Hayden Mullins, a freshman left hander from Hendersonville, TN. Mullins will more than likely be a starter for the Tigers next season but had some forearm tightness in the fall that limited his work, so watch for Auburn to sprinkle him in as the season goes along.
Any way you cut it, there’s a ton of promise for this Auburn team and as you can see, Butch Thompson and staff has well earned their across the board top 10 rankings in the multiple national polls. When people asked me before last year what Auburn baseball would look like, I said 2019 will be good, it could be real good, but 2020 is the year, that’s the year Auburn announces its presence with authority. 2019 ended just short of the finish line, but it finished in Omaha. In just 5 days, we find out if Auburn can finish the season in Omaha again, but this time, in a dog pile.