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SEC Fall Check-in: Auburn

The Auburn Tigers returned to the SEC tournament for the third straight season last year, but were quickly bounced after dropping two of their three games in Hoover to the Florida Gators and South Carolina Gamecocks. There’s certainly no shame in losing to two of the more successful programs in the country in recent history, but Auburn has set higher goals for themselves after their fourth consecutive winning season under coach John Pawlowski.

Pawlowski’s group looks to build on the foundation that they’ve already set, and adding the 22nd-ranked recruiting class in the country should help Pawlowski’s bunch moving forward. The team returns a solid core, and the newcomers have a chance at pushing the Tigers past the precipice of “average” in the SEC.

“Our goals remain intact,” Pawlowski said. “We want to make the postseason and give ourselves a chance.”

 

Fall Camp

The Tigers appear poised to build on last year’s season, and Pawlowski thinks that the ceiling for this team is as high as any teams that Auburn has fielding in the recent past. Climbing through the ranks isn’t an easy task in the rugged SEC slate, but Pawlowski said that isn’t deterring his squad this season.

“Our team is excited about the challenge that lies ahead,” he said. “They’re ready for the challenge.”

As is usual in the Fall, teams are all about potential in the early running, and that’s something that’s hard to put a cap on. This Tigers team has a sound core and a promising future, but as for the present? That’s a bit less clear, as it is with most teams around the country. Pawlowski pointed to last season as proof that teams can outperform what you see on paper.

“Any team has set their bar extremely high,” he said regarding team goals for this upcoming season. “You look at last year and say ‘is Stony Brook a team that’s going to go to Omaha? Is Kent State a team that’s going to go to Omaha?'”

Fresh Faces

The class that ranked 22nd in the country is certainly deep with talent. The pool includes two Junior College All-Americans in Terrance Dedrick (second team) and Damek Tomscha (first team). Dedrick, a pitcher and outfielder at Shelton State Community College, hit .366 with 32 RBI last year in addition to posting a 2.80 ERA with six saves and a 6-0 record on the mound.

Tomscha, an infielder from Iowa Western Community College, won a national championship last season. He has already been drafted three times in the MLB Draft, and boasts a .417 average last year with 16 home runs and 25 doubles. Additionally, Coach Pawlowski can trust Tomscha as what he calls an “experienced guy” at third base this year for Auburn.

The incoming class also includes two immediate-impact pitchers in Trey Wingenter and Mike O’Neal. Wingenter was a 36th-round selection in last year’s draft by the Seattle Mariners, and he was ranked the 239th-best prospect out of high school in the country last season. In his senior year, he posted a 0.47 ERA and was undefeated on the mound, going 9-0.

O’Neal, a lefty out of junior college, struck out 79 batters in 91.1 innings last season. He is all over the Chattahoochee Valley CC record books, coming in as the school leader in innings pitched (212.1), third in career victories (15), fourth in strikeouts (189), and fourth in wins for one season (11). He also set a school record for complete games in a single season with 10 in 2011.

Key Returners

Auburn’s key returning core is what will make the Tigers dangerous once again this season. From last year, the SEC’s 10th-seeded squad returns Ryan Tella, Cullen Wacker, Garrett Cooper, Blake Austin, and pitcher Daniel Koger. These five will have to up their play from last year’s solid performance if the Tigers will improve on their 31-28 record on the 2012 season.

Tella led the SEC’s best offensive team (in average) by hitting at a .360 clip with 12 doubles, four triples, five home runs, and 34 RBI last season. He also can boast a .956 OPS from last year. In the field, Tella finished with a .973 fielding percentage and had five outfield assists. Coming off of an All-SEC season (second team), Tella passed up a shot at the MLB after being drafted in the 11th round, but he is poised to be drafted even higher with a big season.

Wacker was also drafted last year, but like Tella, he will provide offensive firepower to the Auburn lineup. The outfielder posted a .350 average in 2012 and slugged .503, just five points behind Tella. Wacker’s .985 fielding percentage was second-best on the squad, and he also registered an outfield assist. The outfielder finished eighth in on base percentage in the SEC last season at .403 and tied for third in triples with five.

Cooper started all 49 games in which he appeared last year for Auburn, and finished third in hitting on the team with a .324 average. The first baseman suffered through a strained oblique last year that held him out of some game action, but he still managed to post a .462 slugging percentage. Cooper stood out at the plate for his discipline, walking 30 times and striking out 30 times, the second-best walk-to-strikeout ratio on the team.

Austin spent the summer in the Cape Cod League after last season, posting a .225 average for the Hyannis Harbor Hawks. He appeared in 37 of his team’s 44 games on the Cape. Austin tallied 38 starts last year for the Tigers, and tallied 12 extra base hits with 21 RBI. The rising Junior should be drafted in the 2013 MLB draft if he has a big ¬†year this season.

Koger posted a 3.19 ERA as a freshman last year for the Tigers, and he tallied a team-high 15 starts for the squad. The pitcher flashes a plus fastball, and he threw 5.1 shutout innings against Georgia in last season’s SEC tournament.

Position Battles

The main position battles for Pawlowski’s squad will occur on the mound, as only Koger appears to have locked a place on the bump for Auburn. A strong freshman class should challenge a largely unproven group of veterans. Excluding Koger’s 15 starts, the Tigers return just 17 starts on the mound from last year, leaving almost half of the season unaccounted for. Plenty of pitchers should factor into the mix for Auburn, and Pawlowski may have to mix and match plenty in the early going.

Fall Traditions

The Auburn baseball team has an annual tradition of hosting a charity Home Run Derby at Plainsman Park. This year, the Home Run Derby will take place on Friday, Oct. 26, the night before the Tigers football team hosts new SEC rival, Texas A&M. Beginning in 2011, Auburn partnered with Tiger baseball alum Tim Hudson and his foundation as a primary philanthropic organization, and just as last year, most proceeds will go to the Hudson Family Foundation. The proceeds, which all come from a minimum donation of at least $2 at the gate for admission, will also benefit the Cancer Center of East Alabama.

“We’ve had a great turnout of stars who participate,” said Pawlowski about the celebrity Home Run Derby participants. “It’s a really fun event.”