Auburn Baseball: Five Questions to Answer Entering 2021
Two seasons ago, Auburn reached the College World Series for the first time since 1997, and the talent was in place to challenge to get there again in 2020.
The season cancellation robbed the Tigers of the chance to get there with a pitching-centric team led by Tanner Burns. The good news is despite the departure of Burns and a couple of key pieces from the lineup, Auburn looks to have another excellent team ready for the 2021 season.
Here are five questions it will look to answer as next season approaches.
Who will lead the rotation?
Auburn has been spoiled the last several years as it went from Casey Mize leading the rotation right into Tanner Burns doing so. Now, with Burns gone, and with lefthander Bailey Horn also out of the mix after being drafted in the fifth round, who is the next man up?
One obvious contender is fourth-year junior lefthander Jack Owen, who has a 3.76 career ERA at Auburn in 32 appearances, which includes 21 starts. He’s been a weekend starter for each of the last two years, and in a more normal draft, Auburn likely doesn’t get him back for another year.
A wild card entry into this competition is third-year sophomore Richard Fitts. With 27 appearances and six starts in his two seasons at Auburn, the righthander has done a little bit of everything, but perhaps he’s now ready to move into a starring role.
One thing Fitts has in common with guys like Mize and Burns is the ability to light up a radar gun, and that could be a differentiator for him. After returning from the extended break, he’s been up to 98 mph with his fastball this fall, a big jump from where his velocity was just a couple of years ago.
“Somebody like Richard Fitts, his brain was wired like ‘how do I capture this moment here, this break and what can I figure out to continue to grow?’ " coach Butch Thompson said. "So I think him touching 98 in an intrasquad was a perfect example of how somebody took full advantage of this time, was able to self motivate, be creative, figure things out."
No matter who ends up throwing on Fridays, they’ll have big shoes to fill, but Auburn is in the enviable position of having talented, experienced reinforcements ready to go.
Will Cody Greenhill have the same role?
Maybe he’s not quite ready to take on a role like serving as Auburn’s Friday starter, but it’s quite possible we see fourth-year junior righthander Cody Greenhill in a role different than the one he’s held the last few years.
Since arriving on campus, Greenhill has served as a reliever who can throw starter innings. In three seasons, he has thrown 128.2 innings over 53 appearances without a single starting assignment in the bunch.
But that might change in 2021. Thompson and his staff are working with Greenhill this fall to prepare him to start games. Given how valuable Greenhill is, the goal all along has been to maximize his innings. In past years, that’s mostly meant Greenhill pitching in relief on Friday and Sunday during SEC play, but now, Thompson wants to avoid having to ask one of his best arms to bounce back so quickly.
“We became convicted that this is the right way to go after not feeling great in a Friday, Saturday, Sunday series bouncing him back a second time,” Thompson said. “To me, it’s just a gradual evolution is the way I would explain it, to get him to this point, and he’s definitely not been like the traditional closer. In all these 50-plus appearances, this is a guy that’s thrown three innings, four innings, five innings, six innings at different times.”
At this point, the move to work Greenhill out as a starter seems less like a guarantee that we’ll see him in that role and more like a move to try to give the team options, and it’s hard to blame them for trying to get the most out of a pitcher as accomplished as this one.
Who will earn the bulk of the playing time at catcher?
Matt Scheffler signed as a free agent with his hometown Mariners this offseason, so Auburn is starting from scratch at catcher.
At this juncture, a pair of second-year freshmen seem to have the inside track on playing time at the position, which Scheffler monopolized the last two seasons thanks to his durability.
One is Ryan Dyal, who sat out the 2020 season recovering from Tommy John surgery. His bat is impactful enough that the coaching staff considered for a brief period of time the possibility of having him put off the surgery for the sake of being able to DH during the 2020 season before ultimately deciding to have him move forward with the procedure.
The other primary option is Nate LaRue, who appeared in eight games last season with three starts. Thompson reports that he’s come out of his shell a little bit this fall and is much more comfortable being vocal and taking charge on the field.
Thompson describes those two as being the most ready to take over the position, and they will have to be, because they’ll both likely have a role, if for no other reason than Dyal won’t be ready to catch at the start of the season due to his Tommy John recovery timetable. The other two catchers on the roster are true freshmen in Ben Schorr and Peyton Sybrandt. They’ll be brought along more slowly.
When you combine replacing a starter in Scheffler with the amplified importance of the position for a pitching-first program like Auburn, it’s tough to overstate the significance of the coaching staff finding someone they’re comfortable with back there.
“Why it looks so big is (that) Nate LaRue’s the only catcher that’s returning that caught an inning last year,” Thompson said. “And we lost a good one (in Scheffler). We lost a catcher that blocked every ball and basically caught every pitch and played every inning to take us to Omaha and really make that a strength position.”
What type of lineup will Auburn have in 2021?
In 2018, the Auburn lineup could really spook an opposing pitcher. Edouard Julien had 17 home runs, Will Holland, Brendan Venter and Steven Williams each had 12 homers, and Brett Wright had 11. That’s to say nothing of Jay Estes, who led the team in hitting at .329, and Josh Anthony, who hit .301.
It was a different story in 2019, when the Tigers got to the CWS without that same type of dynamic offense. No regular in the lineup hit better than .290, and with 10 home runs, Julien was the team’s leader in that category.
Allowing for the possibility that someone like hard-hitting junior college transfer outfielder Bobby Peirce has a breakout season or that Williams, a fourth-year junior outfielder, returns to his 2018 form after an inconsistent 2019 season, it seems most likely that Auburn’s lineup will be one less reliant on a handful of boppers and more reliant on quality depth. This is particularly true with the transfer of first baseman Conor Davis to Arizona State.
Fifth-year senior third baseman Rankin Woley can be relied on to perform, as can the third-year sophomore middle infield duo of shortstop Ryan Bliss and second baseman Brody Moore, and fourth-year junior outfielder Judd Ward. It’s also true that even if he was inconsistent in 2019, Williams was still a productive player and he was off to a better start in 2020.
The differentiators for the lineup will be what the Tigers get from guys new to the roster, like Peirce, true freshman infielder Cole Foster and junior college transfer infielder Bryson Ware, or players stepping up into bigger roles, like the catching duo of Dyal and LaRue. If several of these players become stars in 2021, it will give the Auburn lineup dangerous depth.
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Foster, a true freshman shortstop, and Ware, a junior college transfer shortstop who is still only a second-year freshman, were the two top position players in Auburn’s most recent recruiting class, but they arrive at a time when things are pretty crowded in the Tigers’ middle infield, what with the return of Bliss and Moore.
Still, each is the type of player that Thompson and his staff will look to get on the field quickly. Foster is ready to hit at this level right now from both sides of the plate, and Ware is a toolsy athlete who projects to hit with some power, and he hit well in a small sample at Pearl River (Miss.) CC last season.
Ware could factor into the mix to replace Davis at first base, where Thompson admitted that just about everything is in play in terms of finding the right guy. Foster may end up having to bide his time behind Bliss in 2021, but he still looks the part of the shortstop of the future in the program, and his presence could be beneficial as it pushes both he and Bliss to compete and become better players.
Most importantly for the Tigers next season, no matter what role this duo, along with fellow newcomer Peirce, end up taking on, Thompson thinks they’re ready to contribute right away.
“If you really believe in the narrative (that) iron sharpens iron, we’re really in a great place,” Thompson said. “So I’m looking for the advantage of having more depth. I’m looking to the advantage of the lineup not being as easy to make out as it has been maybe the last couple of years.”