2008 Auburn Baseball Season Preview

FROM PRESS RELEASE
AUBURN, Ala. – The start of the baseball season is nearly upon us as the Auburn baseball team will hold its first team practice of the spring on Friday, Feb. 1. All Friday, Saturday and Sunday practices are open to the public while the weekday practices will be closed. The Tigers will play host to East Tennessee State in a four-game series, beginning at 3pm on Friday, Feb. 22, opening day for college baseball across the country.

The following is a preview of the Tigers heading into the 2008 season.

2008 AUBURN BASEBALL SEASON PREVIEW

The goal for the 2008 Auburn baseball team is a simple one. Play in the postseason. Having been shutout of postseason action since reaching the NCAA Tallahassee Regional Championship game in 2005, Tom Slater’s first year as the head man at Auburn, the Tigers are poised to make a run back to Regions Park in Hoover, Ala. (sight of the SEC Baseball Tournament) and beyond with a team that is, by all accounts, a good combination of talent and experience.

“I am as excited for this season to start as any that I have ever coached,” Slater said. “The coaching staff likes the make-up of this club. It is really neat to see the juniors, who came in here three years ago as freshman, welcome the leadership roles that they have taken on. They are really doing a nice job in the clubhouse and on the field.”

Production on the field will come from a myriad of sources and classes as the Tigers will mix a handful of upper-tier freshmen from the third straight top-20 ranked recruiting class with a core group from the first two classes signed by Slater and recruiting coordinator Butch Thompson.

With Slater, pitching, defense and aggression on the base paths and at the plate has always been his road to team success.

PITCHING STAFF & CATCHING

On the mound, Auburn looks to feature a deeper pitching staff, but one that will be putting experienced people in new places. Coming out of the fall, Thompson, also the pitching coach, will focus in on five pitchers competing for starting roles (junior Luke Greinke, sophomores Austin Hubbard, Scott Shuman and Taylor Thompson and freshman Cory Luckie).

“Our coaches wanted our pitchers to enter January with specific training depending on their potential role while keeping competition in place. Starters prepare with starters, relievers with relievers and closers with closers,” Thompson said. “The number one, two and three starters along with top relief spots will be roles decided during preseason practice. This group of pitchers has thrived on competition from within and have physically prepared as well as any staff I’ve been associated with.”

Greinke, a Freshman All-America in 2006, has a career ERA of 3.44 with seven saves in 23 appearances, making just one start, meaning he will have to adjust to a new mentality of taking the ball from the start. Auburn’s closer his freshman season, he was limited to just 10.0 innings last year, but took the ball over the summer in the Valley League and came out as the league MVP and Baseball America’s Player of the Summer after going 3-1 with a 2.66 ERA with 48 strikeouts in 51.0 innings to go along with some big offensive numbers.

“If we had a debate over who has the best fastball, breaking ball and change-up, Luke would enter each conversation,” Thompson said. “Luke has a really solid arsenal.”

Austin Hubbard, a sophomore righty, threw over 30 innings in five starts for the Tigers in 2007 and had a very positive summer as a starter in Newport, Rhode Island in the New England Collegiate Baseball League. Used mostly as a midweek starter and a weekend two-inning reliever as a freshman, he has quickly worked his way into competing for a weekend starters role this fall.

“Austin’s mental approach and focus has risen to another level over the past few months,” Thompson said. “He’s taking a lot of momentum and solid secondary pitches into the season.”

Scott Shuman, a side-arming right-hander, has trained as a starter since the beginning of the fall after going 4-1 with three saves and a team-leading 2.00 ERA in his freshman campaign.

“Scott throws from a great slot that is capable of producing a ton of ground balls and soft contact. Repeating his delivery and trusting his stuff are keys to his success,” Thompson said.

Sophomore Taylor Thompson logged 62 innings with 14 starts as a freshman, battling his way into the Saturday spot in the SEC rotation when Auburn was in need of a dependable arm. Working off of a 6’5″, 220 lbs. frame, he finished the season with a team-best 54 strikeouts while going 5-2.

“Taylor earned a lot of time on the mound last season by competing with his fastball. It has been a treat to see his growth in other areas as a pitcher,” Thompson said.

Cory Luckie looks to be the one potential lefty starter going into the season. Luckie went 13-0 with a 1.29 ERA last season as a senior at Prattville High before pitching 20 scoreless innings to start the fall.

“Cory is the perfect example of high character and low maintenance,” Thompson said. “On the field you tell him once and the adjustment is made. Off the field he had a 4.0 GPA in his first semester.”

Missing from the equation is junior Paul Burnside, who led the team in wins with a 7-1 mark last season to go along with his 3.06 ERA. The right-hander went down with a shoulder injury just prior to the start of the spring semester and his return date is not yet known.

The Tigers will look to veterans Evan Crawford and Bryan Woodall to secure the role of closer. Both have been used as starters and relievers during their careers but both have been training all summer to be the go-to-guy in the final innings this season. Combined, the two should benefit from the switch in roles as it allows both of them to focus on one inning, allowing each to simplify and throw to their strengths.

Crawford, a left-hander, came to Auburn as a starter but when given the opportunity to close games this past summer in the prestigious Cape Cod League, he shined. An All-Star at the Cape, he compiled a 0.67 ERA with 41 strikeouts and five saves in 27.0 innings. Woodall, a righty, has pitched in more roles than any other Tiger due to his resiliency over the past two seasons. In 2007, he appeared in 18 games with 11 starts and seven relief outings, going 2-3 with a 4.84 ERA and 38 strikeouts.

“This role seems to match both Bryan and Evan. Closing allows both guys to challenge hitters with their best pitches and not be as concerned about pacing,” Thompson said. “Evan is 90-plus from the left-side while Woodall works off of a very good slider, giving us two very different options late in games.”

The pitching staff will look to several candidates in the middle relief category. Michael Hurst will bring his 6’6″ frame and a low right-handed slot to the mound after joining the program as a walk-on in 2006. Joining him in the pen will be freshmen Bradley Hendrix, another side-arming righty, and two staff holdovers in red-shirt freshmen lefties Grant Dayton and Sean Ray, both of whom had solid summer seasons. All four bring very different looks and repertoires to the mound, giving Thompson options when he needs to fill a spot behind a starter before handing the ball over to the closers.

“Michael has worked and improved as much as any pitcher. Everyone has noticed and feel that he’s ready to contribute,” Thompson said. “Bradley Hendrix is another true freshman that has hit the ground running. He has demonstrated a great ability to throw strikes with very mature presence on the mound.

“Grant Dayton and Sean Ray both have worked extremely hard and hopefully provide a couple of sincere left-handed options out of the pen that our staff lacked last season,” Thompson said.

The biggest addition to the pitching staff may not be a player with any eligibility left but rather a former letterwinner at Auburn and a 1993 second-round draft pick in Scott Sullivan. A nine-year veteran of Major League Baseball, he has provided an enormous amount of insight for the Auburn pitching staff.

“Scott Sullivan has been invaluable to me as a friend, a mentor and a teacher,” Thompson said. “For our players, he has set a great example of professionalism and work ethic. He is sincere and humble in how he communicates with our players. Every player on our roster has been positively impacted by Scott’s commitment to give back to Auburn University.”

Completing the battery will be Ryan Jenkins, a junior that takes over the role of starter after having spent two seasons sharing duties with Josh Donaldson. Noted for his defensive skills, he was one of Auburn’s top hitters off the bench last season, hitting .319 in limited action.

“Ryan displays the attributes of a great catcher. One, he has developed into a potential leader, two, he has the respect of each and every pitcher and three, he can receive a baseball at a high level. A pitching staff cannot fully reach its potential without a dependable catcher. Ryan possesses the qualities to hopefully make a positive impact,” Thompson said.

Three freshmen join Jenkins to make up the catching corps in Tony Caldwell, Wes Gilmer and Kevin Patterson.

“Tony is the newest member of our program. He looks to have all the tools and we are impressed with his potential to be a great teammate,” Thompson said. “Wes and Kevin bring huge potential as hitters to our program. Both have been diligent on defense, working at several positions.”

OFFENSE & DEFENSE
Auburn’s infield will be completely revamped for the 2008 season with sophomore Joseph Sanders being the lone holdover from last season, but he will be playing a new position this year. Also changing will be the man in charge of running Auburn’s offense and defense as newly hired assistant coach Bill Mosiello, a former manager in the New York Yankees farm system and a proven assistant at the collegiate level, takes over the defensive alignments and offensive strategy.

“I think we have a chance to be a really solid defensive club that plays with both athleticism and intelligence,” Mosiello said. “Every guy will play a huge role for us and it starts in the middle. We have two good middle infielders in Matt (Hall) and Joseph who we feel good about building our defense around.”

A transfer from Arizona State where he was the starting third baseman for most of the year, Hall will anchor the defense at short. At 6’3″ and 190 lbs., Mosiello describes Hall as a rangy, sure-handed infielder who has helped stabilize the infield with his maturity and leadership skills.

On the other side of the second-base bag will be Sanders, who will be making the transition after playing third a year ago. Last year he hit .333, had a slugging percentage of .508 and drove in 33 runs, all of which ranked in the top five in their respective categories from the 2007 team.

“I don’t know if people realize how good of an athlete Joseph really is,” Mosiello said. “That middle infield spot will be a good transition for him because he can run and do a lot of things. His aptitude is incredible.”

Backing up the middle infielders will be a pair of talented freshmen in Chezz McCann, an athletic all-around performer, and Justin Hargett, a talented left-handed hitter.

Handling the hot corner will be red-shirt freshman David Cunningham. Having missed the 2007 season after successful back surgery, he possesses great hands with an outstanding accurate throwing arm.

Rounding out the infield will be first baseman Hunter Morris, a second-round pick who turned down the opportunity to play in the Boston Red Sox organization for a chance to get an education at Auburn. A converted third baseman that was a career .470 hitter in high school and the 2007 Sony PlayStation Offensive Player of the Year, he played on Team USA’s silver medal-winning team in the World Games in Cuba.

“Hunter is a very good athlete. He has an opportunity to be an impact player due to his advanced hitting approach,” Mosiello said.

Highly regarded offensive players Patterson and Gilmer could also see some action behind Morris. Patterson, from Birmingham, Ala., hit .392 for his high school career and was a Gatorade National Player of the Year finalist before being drafted in the 24th-round by the Chicago White Sox in the `07 Draft.

“Wes Gilmer is a really good switch-hitting bat that we have while Kevin Patterson, a left-handed bat, will also play some first base, some outfield and has a great chance to be an everyday DH for us” Mosiello said.

Led by junior Mike Bianucci, who has already garnered national recognition by being placed on the 2008 Wallace Watch List as a Player of the Year candidate, outfield depth should be one of Auburn’s strengths heading into the season.

After being selected in the 23rd round by the Los Angeles Angels, Bianucci, who has twice been an All-SEC performer, will shift over to rightfield this season after hitting .326 with a team-high 14 home runs and 51 RBI last season playing mostly in left. Playing his third position in as many seasons, Bianucci is a versatile player that can be relied upon heavily this season.

“We have all seen what Mike has done the past few years. The biggest goal is if he can stay healthy, everything else will take care of itself. It’s that simple. He is that kind of player,” Mosiello said. “Mike has really worked hard to improve all of his skills to become a complete player.”

Trent Mummey and Brian Fletcher are two freshmen who have a great chance to be in the starting lineup from opening day and beyond. Mummey, a 5’11″, 170 lbs. left-handed hitting top-of-the-order type of player, possesses great defensive skills while Fletcher, a 6’1″, 190 lbs. right-handed stick that was a 39th-round pick of the Houston Astros, has a chance to be a dynamic offensive threat.

Greinke, who has the chance to become the most heralded two-way player at Auburn since Tim Hudson laced them up on the Plains in the late 90′s and helped lead the Tigers to the 1997 College World Series garnering National Player of the Year awards, will see plenty of time in the outfield when he is not pitching.

“Luke is one of the most versatile players in the country,” Mosiello said. “He can pitch, he can play first, he can play the outfield or he can DH. No matter where he is on the field, Luke can impact a game.”

Ben Jones, a junior left-handed hitter who has seen spot starts and has been a dependable late-innings defensive replacement in his first two seasons, is also in the mix after a strong fall showing. Mosiello describes Jones as a very dependable player who excels in all aspects of the game.

Mosiello has taken over the daily running of the offense from Slater but works inside of the same framework, preaching the need for a complete offense.

“Offensively, our goals are very simple: to become a complete offensive club that can beat our opponents in a variety of ways,” Mosiello said. “We want to be the kind of club that consistently puts pressure on the defense in all facets; through the bunting game, aggressive base running and an absolute commitment to situational hitting. Our goals are to continually improve on forming our offensive identity that understands the importance of on-base percentage and playing unselfish team offense as one unit.

“The neat thing about this league is if you are one of the top in the SEC in anything, you know you are one of the top in the country. It’s a real exciting time to be an Auburn Tiger in my mind,” Mosiello said.