It was March 12th. I had to look it up. That was the last time I wrote about Auburn baseball. The Tigers had just come off a lack luster mid week against Georgia Tech and Wofford where Auburn struggled offensively in two straight losses as they got ready to host Texas A&M to begin SEC play. Then the world stopped and we were left with no Conference season, no NCAA tournament and no College World Series. Since then, many things have changed. Tanner Burns is getting set for spring training with he Cleveland Indians and Conor Davis is in Tempe, AZ nursing a torn ACL and working to try and get back for his new squad at Arizona State. Despite the changes, many things have stayed the same. Many familiar faces are back both on the hill and in the field while Head Coach Butch Thompson has sprinkled in some highly talented newcomers to help bolster a roster that is still one of the last 8 squads in College Baseball to say they were in Omaha the last time the CWS was convened.
Before we take a look at this year’s edition of the Auburn Tigers, its important to point out that the Major League baseball draft was only 5 rounds this past season which limited the amount of talent syphoned from college squads across the country and all players were given an extra year of eligibility (much like in football this past fall) so if you think to yourself ‘geez, that guy has been here for a while’, you’re right, he has, and its awesome he can still play. Also, I am going to try and set up the starters for pitching and in the field. I am not going to even begin to pretend like I know the first out of the bullpen or the batting order but if there is something I think I know for sure, I will put it in the notes below. So let’s get to it.
- Richard Fitts, RHP, Sophomore
- Cody Greenhill, RHP, Junior
- Jack Owen, LHP, Junior
- Trace Bright, RHP, Sophomore -OR-
- Hayden Mullins, LHP, Sophomore -OR-
- Brooks Fuller, LHP, Junior
‘The Bull’ Cody Greenhill will make the move from the closer role that he has occupied for the past two seasons to what I think will be the Saturday night role of clincher (either finishing a series or looking to make Sunday a rubber game) for the Tigers this season. Greenhill is a flamethrower that normally hovers between 87-91 but can touch 93ish when he gets amped up which isn’t a rare thing for the ultra competitive Bull. He has worked on his slider and change up but lacked the control you would hope to see in the fall. Has that improved with one of the best pitching staffs in college baseball? We will find out soon enough.
Going into last season, Jack Owen was someone that figured to be going pro without question this time last year. With the way things turned out, Auburn gets the benefit of getting Jack back on the bump and I believe he holds on to his Saturday spot in the rotation as the most experienced starter on the Auburn roster. Constantly in the same velo as the Bull, Jack also has his knee buckling changeup that he can pinpoint pretty much anywhere he wants. I personally want to see if Butch and Tim Hudson have taught Jack another pitch to compliment his fast ball and change up this season. Could we get a Slider or a Curve?
Sunday should give us what could be a 1st round pick in this year or next year’s draft and that is saying a lot. Richard Fitts who has been a staple in big spots during Auburn’s run to Omaha. Fitts has wowed scouts this fall with his frame (6’3” and 200 lbs) but even more so that he can hit his fastball for strikes (that fastball getting constant at 92-95 and flirted with 96). Another thing to keep watch of is his slider and change up that he was able to get swing and misses on at a regular clip in the Orange and Blue World Series this past fall. To be honest, I could see this entire rotation be flipped all around. Bull-Fittsy-Owen, Bull-Owen-Fittsy or Owen-Fittsy-Bull...really and truly all options are solid, but I expect Auburn to have what they like and not mess with a good thing once it gets rolling.
Tuesday’s are where the fun really begins. I think Auburn will go with a 3 headed monster of Trace Bright, Hayden Mullins and Brooks Fuller depending on the team and how the weekend went. I think all 3 could see time early on the weekends until Auburn finds the right combination out of the bullpen but these are the three names I feel most comfortable with on a midweek. Fuller has the most experience out of the three with 10 starts over the past 2 campaigns but struggled his freshman year with control though he showed flashes of the talent he has. Coach Thompson has said his control has gotten better but the question of if he can stay healthy this season as he missed a start in the fall with arm soreness. Mullins was a high profile recruit last season and was able to make 5 relief appearances in the 1 month spring of 2020. With a fastball in the low 90s and the work that Hayden has done with his change in the off season, I expect Mullins to be a leading candidate for a weekend starter job next season. The leader in the clubhouse for the starting role at this point is Trace Bright. Both Bright and Mullins seem to be at the same point in their development as both have good change up and slider pitches that they can get across for strikes but neither have them as a ‘see ya’ pitch so far. The first that can do that will get the nod from here on out and have an early lead for the Race for an Ace in 2022.
- Closer – Mason Barnett, RHP, Sophomore
Auburn feels fine moving The Bull out of the pen because of Barnett. The Sophomore from Cartersville looked every part of a closer last season with a 16-3 K to BB ratio in 7 2/3 innings of work. He has up his velo on his fastball, getting it regularly at 93-96 while flirting with 97 mph and a devastating curve that is in the high 70s along with a compliment slider that could improve as the season goes along.
Other names to know out of the pen will be Carson Skipper, who Tiger fans are familiar with. Skipper has a fastball that lives in the lower 90s but also has a big curve ball that he pairs with a change up that consistently gets across for a strike. A newer name for fans to get use to would be Blake Burkhalter. Burkhalter is a ¾ arm that will somewhat take fans back to ‘The Cobra’ Calvin Coker, though Coker was a true side arm thrower. Burkhalter has a solid fastball in the low 90s with a slider that has some dirty to it. Also, don’t be surprised if Peyton Glavine gets into the mix this spring as he has worked on his change up and his control that could allow him to work in long relief should Auburn get into a jam. Also keep an eye on Joseph Gonzalez who was a 2019 Under Armor All American from Puerto Rico. Gonalez’s has a slider that sits in the low 90s as his calling card and a nasty slurve that is in the high 70s/low 80s.
C – Nate LaRue, Freshman -OR- Ryan Dyal, Freshman
1B – Bryson Ware, Freshman
2B – Cole Foster, Freshman
SS – Ryan Bliss, Sophomore
3B – Rankin Woley, Senior
LF – Judd Ward, Junior
CF – Kason Howell, Sophomore
RF – Steven Williams, Junior
DH – Ryan Dyal, Freshman
Talk about a blessing in disguise. When the season was called in March, many Auburn fans were concerned that Auburn may have missed a chance on back-to-back CWS trips. While Auburn lost a key leader on the roster from the shortened 2020 campaign, almost everyone else returns for another shot at glory. The main spots for the Tigers that will see fresh faces are the back stop and the right side of the infield. Quickly we will touch on the things we know. The outfield will be the same for the 3rd season in a row. Ward, Howell and Williams will patrol the green grass and Auburn seems set to go there. Rankin Woley and Bliss seem pretty well settled on the left side of the infield though both could flip to 1st and 2nd respectively if absolutely forced to do so as those are both player’s natural positions. Moving to the newer faces, look for Nate LaRue to take over for Matt Scheffler who is now playing for the Mariners on a free agent deal. LaRue spend the offseason working on his work behind the plate so look for him to let it rip on runners trying to steal and has worked to take over the ‘field general’ role that Schefty left open. Another player that could spell LaRue is Ryan Dyal who is coming off of Tommy John Surgery. The new face I am so excited to see take the field and the bat for that matter is Cole Foster. The freshman from Plano, TX was the 3rd highest ranked position player in the 2020 high school class according to Prep Baseball Report and has a quick twitch from both sides of the plate which will make him dangerous from the right side with the Monster. Brody Moore and Garrett Farquhar could also see time as Foster figures out 2nd base if the defense starts to dip and you could move Foster to DH to keep that bat in the lineup. At 1st base, Auburn will turn to Junior College transfer Bryson Ware who will likely take over exactly where Conor Davis left off as a 5 or 6 hole hitter that can keep things going after the Ward-Bliss-Williams-Woley part of the order gets things started.
Other names to know, should the Tigers need a pinch runner at any point this season, it will be Josh Hall who transferred in from Ole Miss this season and could be one of the fastest players in college baseball. Do not be shocked if you see this guy bunt on for a single at least once this year. Hall also could play CF for Howell should something happen. Bobby Pierce from Scottsdale, AZ could be a name you see if the staff wants to give either Williams or Ward a few innings off as he has some nice pop in his bat as well. And finally, don’t sleep on Tyler Miller as he could help out at 3rd should Woley need to be spelled for a little bit as he was consistent in his work this fall both at the plate and in the field.
Overall, this is an immensely talented team that could make big waves in the SEC this season. The bad news is that everyone else is too. Auburn comes into the season ranked 23rd in the D1Baseball poll, good enough for 9th in the SEC and 6th in the West. Freaking insane. That said, I believe this is a team that could host, which is something that Butch Thompson has wanted to do since he got to Auburn, maybe more so than even winning a regional, which is has done 2 seasons in a row (when they actually had regionals at least). I see no reason why this Auburn team can’t do the same thing again. Do some questions need to be answered, sure, what season doesn’t have those. The over riding part is how those questions are answered and that, at least for the past 4-5 years, has been the fun part on the diamond for Auburn.