Charlotte Baseball: Five Questions to Answer Entering 2022
Charlotte last season went 40-21 overall and 24-8 in Conference USA play, winning the league’s regular-season title, along the way earning the program’s first postseason appearance in a decade.
It doesn’t appear the 49ers are going anywhere anytime soon, either. A dynamic lineup returns, and despite some turnover on the mound, there is reason for optimism that this pitching staff could end up being better than last year’s unit in the end.
Conference USA ended up being one of the toughest leagues in the country last season, and on paper, it looks to be that way again in 2022. A tough conference slate will help Charlotte test itself against quality competition and can only help in metrics like RPI, but on the other hand, it does mean that even though it has more than enough talent to do so, it won’t necessarily be an easy road back to regionals.
How good will the lineup be?
Excitement about what Charlotte brings to the table has to start with what it returns in the lineup, which is impressive when you consider that it lost two of its better hitters in infielder LuJames Groover III and outfielder Dominic Pilolli via transfer to North Carolina State and several other key pieces like catcher Aaron McKeithan and utility player Carson Johnson via the draft and graduation.
After hitting .342 with 29 doubles and 11 home runs on the way to winning Conference USA player of the year honors, fourth-year junior Austin Knight returns to help lead the way again. He played a lot of third base last season, but in the 49ers’ best lineup next season, he might see more time at second base.
Part of his potential move to the keystone spot relies on the healthy return of third-year sophomore third baseman David McCabe, who led the team in home runs last season with 14 despite being limited to just 37 games due to injury. Simply put, Knight and McCabe are two of the best position players in C-USA.
“We’re really excited about (the lineup), honestly,” said Charlotte coach Robert Woodard. “To get David McCabe and Austin Knight back, once our season ended, we kind of recruited as if they were gone. So we added a Josh Madole from the transfer portal, we added some other players kind of thinking that those guys might be gone. And when the 20-round draft happens and they don’t sign and they come back here, it’s like ‘man, it’s exciting.’ ”
Beyond McCabe and Knight, third-year sophomore Will Butcher, who hit .328 with eight home runs last season, is another power hitter Charlotte will want to have in the lineup everyday. It’s just a matter of where he ends up defensively with an already crowded infield. The coaching staff is working with him in right field this fall in hopes that he can be an answer in the competition they have at both corner outfield spots.
Fourth-year junior shortstop Jack Dragum is a steady defender at his position and a catalyst on offense who hit .288 with seven home runs last season. Sophomore Jake Cunningham may have hit just .221 in part-time duty last season, but he’s a toolsy, physical center fielder with some pop in his bat. Sophomore infielder Nate Furman had a nice year in 2021, hitting .301 with more walks (22) than strikeouts (15) in 36 games and could be in line for a more prominent role.
Among newcomers, look for first baseman Josh Madole from UNC Greensboro and catcher Kaden Hopson from Arizona, two of the recruits Woodard alluded to, to be regulars right away. Madole is coming off of a career year at UNCG where he hit .304 with a .413 on-base percentage and he can really pick it at his position.
Hopson is being held out due to injury this fall but will be ready in plenty of time for opening day. He’s a solid defender who has already proven to be a student of the game in a short time in Charlotte, and as a result, he’s expected to help call games next season, an increasing rarity among college catchers.
What can we expect from David McCabe?
McCabe is healthy and in the lineup during scrimmages this fall, and as long as that continues to be the case as the season gets underway next year, we should probably expect him to have a monster year.
Frankly, he was on that kind of pace last season before he was derailed by injury. With 14 home runs in 37 games (34 starts), he was on pace to have well more than 20 homers over the course of Charlotte’s full 61-game season, even if you project his pace to slow a bit as the season wore on.
McCabe has continued to impress with his power already this fall. In the 49ers’ scrimmage Saturday against Florence-Darlington (S.C.) Technical College, he took a hanging breaking ball and crushed it for a home run to right-center field, with the ball leaving his bat at 105 mph and traveling 420 feet.
At 6-foot-4 and 230 pounds, McCabe’s stature matches his skill profile at the plate, but those measurables also probably serve to make observers underestimate what he can do defensively, especially given that he played a lot of first base last season. But he’s a better athlete than his size would suggest, and in a pinch back in 2020, Charlotte used him at shortstop.
Woodard certainly doesn’t mince words when discussing the potential of his lineup cornerstone.
“I think David McCabe has MLB all-star potential, so to get him back for another year with us is special,” Woodard said. “I’m all in on him. David McCabe’s a 4.0 student. He’s everything you want off the field (and) in the community. Obviously, you look at his offensive numbers, but if you really pay attention to him when he’s playing first or third, he’s a really good defender.”
What role will Christian Lothes hold?
Lothes emerged as Charlotte’s most effective pitcher last season. In 40.2 innings, with all but one appearance coming as a reliever, he had a 3.10 ERA with 54 strikeouts and a .175 opponent batting average.
With a need in the rotation after losing three-quarters of the pitchers who started a majority of games in Charlotte’s four-game weekends last season, however, the coaching staff is working to stretch Lothes out and transition him into a weekend starter as a third-year sophomore in 2022.
“We’re building him up as a starter,” Woodard said. “We’re going to really try to groom him to be an opening day starter-type (of) pitcher for us.”
Setting college baseball pitching staffs is all about maximizing the number of important innings thrown by your best pitchers. Through that lens, this move makes a ton of sense, because Lothes was electric last season. His fastball averaged over 91 mph and touched as high as 97, and his slider induced a 43% whiff rate.
If he can overcome all of the typical challenges of a transition from reliever to starter, the lefthander has the stuff to be just as good an ace as Bryce McGowan was last season for the 49ers, or perhaps even better.
One other important reason Charlotte is comfortable shifting how it uses its best arm is that it feels good about what it has at the back end of the bullpen with Lothes vacating that role.
Specifically, it returns sixth-year senior righthander Colby Bruce, who had a 2.63 ERA and eight saves as the team’s closer in 2019, and brought in righthander Evan Michelson from the junior college ranks. Michelson was 91-94 mph with his fastball on Saturday against Florence-Darlington, with a devastating split-changeup that should be a swing-and-miss pitch for him next season.
Having those two closing games will certainly make it easier to swallow pulling last season’s most reliable reliever out of the bullpen.
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Who will start games?
We’ve established that Lothes is slated to hold down one spot in the weekend rotation, but who holds down the other two spots is still a question to be answered.
Charlotte has a lot of newcomers on the mound this fall, so a good number of pitchers will be evaluated as potential starters, but Woodard says there are five who lead the pack for those final two spots at this early stage.
The incumbent candidate for a spot is sixth-year senior righthander Matt Brooks, who started 11 games last season and threw eight innings of four-hit, one-run baseball against Maryland in the regional. With a 5.93 ERA a season ago, it wasn’t an easy go for Brooks in 2021, but he’s a steady, reliable option. In 210.1 career innings, he has a 4.62 ERA and 190 strikeouts.
Sophomore lefthander Spencer Giesting is another starting option among returners. He had a 5.47 ERA and 73 strikeouts last season in 52.2 innings. Over the summer, Giesting pitched for Harwich in the Cape Cod League and put up a 4.79 ERA and 22 strikeouts in 20.2 innings. He works with a fastball that touched as high as 95 last season and a slider that serves as his best secondary offering.
Fifth-year senior lefthander Quinton Martinez brings weekend starting experience to the table, but it came at Appalachian State, where he had a 5.63 ERA in 13 starts as a member of the Mountaineers’ weekend rotation last season. He can run his fastball up to 94 mph and his changeup was his preferred secondary pitch last season.
Third-year sophomore lefthander A.J. Wilson was a short reliever at East Carolina last season, with a 4.22 ERA in 10.2 innings spread out over 21 appearances, but Charlotte would like to see what he can do as a starting pitcher. As a reliever, he was a slider specialist, throwing that pitch nearly 80% of the time, but given that it’s a 3,000 rpm offering coming from a low slot, it’s hard to fault that usage pattern. His fastball is also plenty firm, averaging just under 90 mph last season and getting up as high as 93.
Righthander Cam Hansen, a transfer from Chattanooga State (Tenn.) CC, who Woodard lauds for the way he attacks hitters, will also be in the mix. His stuff is certainly trending in the right direction to be a quality starter. His fastball was more in the 88-91 mph range during the recruiting process but already this fall he’s been up to 93 with the pitch and there is confidence among the coaching staff that there is more in the tank.
It’s fair to call the weekend rotation a question mark for Charlotte until we see what it looks like come next season, but there is clearly no shortage of interesting candidates in the fold, including no fewer than four lefthanders vying for those coveted spots.
“We could potentially have three or four lefties in our rotation, which would be cool,” Woodard said.
Which newcomers will break through into major roles?
Already, we’ve highlighted plenty of newcomers expected to carve out roles from day one, including Madole and Hopson in the lineup and Michelson, Martinez, Wilson and Hansen on the mound, but there are others.
Woodard sees the corner outfield spots as his team’s biggest question mark on the position player side, and several new faces could get in the mix there, including Blake Jackson, a junior college transfer from McLennan (TX) CC who began his career at Missouri, Cam Fisher, a transfer from Walters State (TN) CC who began his career at Mississippi, and freshman Andrew Grande, a lanky 6-foot-5 athlete who certainly looks the part physically.
Grande was originally a Rice commit who flipped to Charlotte late in the process when the Owls underwent a coaching change over the offseason. He laced a two-RBI double in the scrimmage against Florence-Darlington, but he had already made quite the impression before that.
“On Friday, in our intrasquad, he hit a bomb into the left-center trees and then hit a bomb over the right field scoreboard,” Woodard said. “He’s got a chance to be a special player for us.”
Also trying to elbow his way into the lineup is freshman infielder J.D Suarez, a local product from Charlotte Christian who is a slick defender with the ability to play all over the infield. Woodard notes that he and his staff are in a position of having more guys they would like to get regular playing time than they will have spots in the lineup come next season, so getting Suarez more involved as part of a crowded infield is a challenge.
There are also 15 new pitchers on this roster, which means a whole host of those guys will find their way into significant innings next season. Two of the more experienced options are graduate transfers in righthander Michael Oh from North Carolina and lefthander Will Lancaster from USC Upstate.
One thing is for certain at this early stage of the process, and that’s that nothing is for certain when it comes to how the pitching staff will shake out.
“It’s so early (that) we definitely don’t have anything set in stone yet,” Woodard said.