NC State Baseball: Five Questions to Answer Entering 2022
North Carolina State is coming off of having perhaps its best team in the modern era of the program and inarguably its best team since Carlos Rodon and Trea Turner helped the Wolfpack to the College World Series in 2012.
The roster looks quite a bit different as the program moves into 2022, but given the high-end recruiting class NC State just welcomed to campus, the drop-off in talent isn’t all that significant, it’s just that much of that talent doesn’t have any experience to speak of at the Division I level.
All of the accomplishments of last season, up to and including getting back to Omaha, are on the table for a team this talented, but these are five questions the Pack will have to answer along the way.
What position grouping should NC State have the most confidence in?
NC State always has good position player groups, and even in years when there is a lot of turnover on the roster, it always finds a way to cobble together a lineup that hits and plays defense at a high level.
Given that, it’s good news that the position group that the Wolfpack probably feel best about going into 2022 is their weekend rotation, which returns two pitchers from last season in third-year sophomore righthanders Sam Highfill and Matt Willadsen.
Highfill had a breakout season in 2021, going 9-3 with a 3.66 ERA, 84 strikeouts and 26 walks with a .224 opponent batting average in 93.1 innings. Over the summer, he pitched for USA Baseball’s Collegiate National Team alongside teammate Chris Villaman and under NC State coach Elliott Avent, who served as head coach of the CNT.
He was good all year, but late last season, it was easy to see Highfill really coming into his own as a frontline starting pitcher. Against Vanderbilt in NC State’s exhilarating 1-0 win in Omaha, he threw 7.1 scoreless innings and held the Commodores to two hits. With a fastball he can run into the mid 90s, plus a quality changeup and breaking ball, all of which he throws consistently for strikes, his stuff is what you want to see from a Friday guy in the ACC.
Willadsen entered the rotation more than a month into the season with an excellent start against Louisville and provided a steady hand the rest of the way, finishing with a 4.73 ERA in 83.2 innings. With a fastball that sits in the high 80s, he doesn’t have stuff as good as Highfill in a traditional sense, but he does have a standout changeup that induced a 41% whiff rate last season and two distinct breaking pitches.
The third spot on the weekend is open with the departure of Reid Johnston, but there are obvious contenders. One is Villaman, a third-year sophomore who started games last season before ultimately settling into a bullpen role down the stretch.
“With Willadsen, Villaman and Sam Highfill coming back, it does give you a sense of (having) three guys who have been out there before,” Avent said.
Among newcomers, College of Central Florida transfer righthander Logan Adams stands out. A physical 6-foot-6, 240 pounds, his fastball sits in the low 90s, complemented by a breaking ball and a changeup, both of which he commands well, with the changeup serving as a real swing-and-miss pitch for him.
It’s still early in the process of piecing the puzzle together, and plenty of pitchers will be evaluated for the role, but NC State is in an enviable position with the relative certainty it has in its rotation.
What is Chris Villaman’s role?
As mentioned above, lefthander Chris Villaman is an intriguing weapon at the disposal of the NC State coaching staff. In 60 innings in 2021, he had a 4.35 ERA and 71 strikeouts.
He could be a solution in the weekend rotation. He’s started 10 games over the last two seasons, after all. But last season, he also had shining moments as a reliever in both short and extended outings, giving the Wolfpack another bullpen arm to pair with fellow lefthander Evan Justice.
Given his flexibility, team needs are likely to play a big role here. If the starting rotation competition yields a couple of other viable options to place alongside Highfill and Willadsen, perhaps Villaman slides back into the bullpen, where it’s fairly easy to see him becoming the dominant reliever that Justice was for the Pack over the second half of last season.
On the other hand, if the coaching staff finds that the other starting options aren’t what they were hoping for, placing Villaman there would be an easy move. Last season as a starter, he very nearly threw a no-hitter against UNC Greensboro in late March. It ended up being merely a one-hit shutout with nine strikeouts.
Either way, he has good stuff that gets outs. His fastball is typically a low-90s offering, but it was as high as 96 mph last season, and certainly in a relief role, it would play up to the high end of that scale. His changeup emerged as his favorite secondary pitch last season, but he also uses a power breaking ball that sits in the high 70s and low 80s.
Having a Team USA-caliber arm and the flexibility to use him in a couple of different roles is yet another good problem to have for NC State.
How does the middle infield shake out?
The Wolfpack are loaded in the middle infield. Returning is fifth-year senior second baseman J.T. Jarrett, an excellent defensive player who puts the ball in play at the plate. Sophomore Charlotte transfer LuJames Groover III, a .351 hitter last season, also has experience as a second baseman and you have to imagine his bat forces his way into the lineup somewhere.
At shortstop, fourth-year junior Pennsylvania transfer Josh Hood, who was a freshman All-American in 2019 and a 20th-round draft pick of the Red Sox this year, will certainly push for significant playing time, but so will true freshman Payton Green, the top recruit in NC State’s most recent recruiting class and the No. 112 player on the BA 500 going into the 2021 draft. Green has a solid frame at 6-foot-3 and 180 pounds, shows good bat speed that should lead to him hitting for some power and he flashes an above-average throwing arm at his position.
The reality is that those are four players NC State will probably want in the lineup at all times, but to do that, it will have to get a bit creative. With the departure of Austin Murr at first base, that position is open and Groover played a lot of first base for Charlotte last season, but there will undoubtedly be others in the mix, including sophomore Eddie Eisert.
Normally, third base would also be an easy place to slide someone, but freshman Tommy White, the No. 163 player on the BA 500 going into the draft, will have something to say about that after he turned down a lucrative opportunity to begin his pro career to instead head to NC State. At 6-foot-1, 220 pounds, he has a strong, physical presence at the plate and the raw power to match.
“That’s what we play all fall for and into the preseason,” Avent said. “Sometimes you don’t figure it out, (and) you really hope to have everything figured out by conference time. Last year, conference (games) came very early. This year it will come at a regular time.”
Maybe all of those infield options means that we see some platoons in Raleigh next season. Maybe it means someone from the middle infield logjam ends up getting some time in the outfield, which might provide more opportunity. But as Avent alludes to, it’s a virtual lock that it means there will be plenty of moving parts in that particular position group throughout the fall and into next spring.
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What are the early impressions of freshman catcher Jacob Cozart?
Catcher Jacob Cozart, the son of former High Point coach Craig Cozart, is another highly-regarded freshman who arrived at NC State this fall, and with every catcher on the roster last season now gone, there’s a real opportunity for him to start right away. So far, he’s impressed in fall practice.
“He’s going to be good,” Avent said. “He’s caught his whole life, comes from a great baseball family, so he’s been around the game his whole life. That’s such a premium and a tough position, so he’s just got to keep growing and getting better, as everybody does.”
Offensively, Cozart has a powerful swing from a 6-foot-3, 205-pound frame. He’s also shown improvement in his receiving and boasts a solid throwing arm.
In the event that Cozart isn’t ready to take over the starting role right away or needs the occasional day off as he adjusts to the rigors of playing every day at this level, NC State also brought in a couple of veteran catchers to help out.
Matt Oldham is a graduate transfer from Elon who played in 143 games over four seasons with the Phoenix. Jacob Godman is a fourth-year junior who spent his first two seasons at Nevada-Las Vegas before playing last season at College of Southern Nevada. He brings with him a plus throwing arm behind the plate.
Will this team be as good defensively as last year’s team?
NC State had elite defensive players all over the place and fielded the ball at a .982 clip last season. The Wolfpack had a powerful lineup and got clutch pitching down the stretch, but the secret sauce on the team’s path to Omaha was how well it played defense.
“I’ve been in college baseball for over 40 years, and I don’t think I’ve ever had a team that good defensively as a complementary group,” Avent said of last season’s team.
The obvious answer here, given the roster turnover, is that the 2022 team won’t play defense quite as well next season. There is reason to believe that this will still be a very good defensive club, though. For one, it’s just kind of the NC State way to play defense well. The Wolfpack have had a fielding percentage of .974 or better in five of the last six seasons, and they’ve been at .980 or better in two of the last three.
There are also plenty of talented defensive players to be found. Jarrett at second base is chief among them, but he’s not alone. Third-year sophomore Dominic Pilolli, who came over with Groover from Charlotte, is a plus athlete in the outfield. Groover himself has good hands defensively. Cozart won’t be a Patrick Bailey-level catcher right away, but the coaching staff is confident he’ll show plus catch-and-throw skills. Fifth-year senior Devonte Brown is a steady hand in right field.
NC State probably won’t be one of the elite defensive teams in college baseball again, but it would probably be foolhardy to think it will be an area of weakness in 2022.
“To say we’ll be as good defensively as last year’s team, that will not happen, but we’ll be good,” Avent said.