North Carolina Baseball: Five Questions to Answer Entering 2021
North Carolina went through a transformational offseason, as longtime coach Mike Fox retired, and Scott Forbes was promoted to head coach as his successor.
Forbes served as associate head coach and recruiting coordinator under Fox and played a big role in helping Fox build the Tar Heels into one of the most consistent programs in the 21st century. Now, he is tasked with keeping them among the elite programs both in the ACC and nationally.
UNC went 12-7 in 2020, a somewhat disappointing start that had dropped it from the Top 25. It lost its top two hitters to pro ball—first baseman Aaron Sabato and center fielder Dylan Harris—but returns several other key players around the diamond and added a top-20 recruiting class.
As North Carolina looks to 2021, here are five questions facing it this fall.
How has Forbes handled the transition to head coach?
Forbes is entering his 20th season on staff at UNC and spent the last nine seasons as associate head coach under Mike Fox. That experience prepared him well for the move to head coach.
The unique nature of this fall—the new protocols to follow, while also coming off a truncated spring season and a scattered summer—weren’t easy for any coach, much less a first-year head coach. But the continuity that UNC had through the coaching change was important this fall. Not only was Forbes promoted, he also promoted pitching coach Bryant Gaines to assistant head coach and Jesse Wierzbicki to a full-time role.
Forbes said the biggest difference was the additional responsibilities of a head coach.
“It wasn’t that much different except there are some things you have to do as a head coach that you didn’t previously do,” he said. “But you also get to decide what you want to accomplish that day and the practice plan and what you want to focus on.”
Because the NCAA extended the recruiting dead period through the end of the year, Forbes did not have to balance recruiting with his coaching duties for the first time in his career. He was UNC’s recruiting coordinator prior to taking over as head coach and said he plans to continue to play an active role in the process going forward.
It was unlike any other, but Forbes was pleased with the results in his first fall as head coach.
How will the Tar Heels replace Aaron Sabato’s power?
Sabato was UNC’s best hitter over the last two seasons and hit 25 home runs in 83 games during his career. But he was drafted in the first round, leaving a large hole in the middle of the Tar Heels’ lineup.
In addition to Sabato, UNC also lost Harris as a nondrafted free agent. That pair combined to hit 12 of the Tar Heels’ 20 home runs in 2020—Sabato hit seven and Harris had five. No other player hit more than two.
Replacing that production won’t be easy, but a few of UNC’s newcomers will help. It added slugger Brett Centracchio as a graduate transfer from Davidson, where he hit 23 home runs over the last three seasons. He could replace Sabato at first base and hit in the middle of the order. Outfielder Justice Thompson, a junior college transfer, also brings raw power potential to Chapel Hill. UNC’s true freshmen can add pop as well, especially its trio of infielders Johnny Castagnozzi, Mac Horvath and Jack Riedel.
UNC also brings back the rest of its lineup and with another year of experience and strength training, it could see a returner or two take a step forward offensively. If that happens combined with the additions of Centracchio and the other newcomers, the Tar Heels could produce a lineup that has more power top to bottom, even if it doesn’t have a star slugger like Sabato.
How will UNC line up its versatile pitching staff?
UNC didn’t in 2020 have the kind of frontline arms the program has often produced over the last two decades. Instead, the Tar Heels had a deep, versatile staff, which largely returns in 2021 and has been supplemented by a strong group of freshmen. That gives Forbes and Gaines a lot of options to work with as they set up their 2021 staff.
Forbes was pleased with the way the Tar Heels developed on the mound this fall. Gaines held the team’s pitchers back this summer to get them ready for fall ball and that decision seemed to pay off.
“The way coach Gaines structured it, it went perfectly,” Forbes said. “Everyone was rusty at first because they hadn’t pitched but as the fall progressed, velocity jumped, command jumped.
“Guys have improved and that gives us flexibility.”
Righthander Joey Lancellotti, UNC’s Opening Day starter, returns after going 2-1, 2.22, though he was the one returning pitcher not to pitch this fall due to hip surgery. Veterans Austin Love, Caden O’Brien and Will Sandy return as well and they all, including Lancellotti, have experience as both starters and relievers.
True freshmen Max Carlson, Cannon Pickell and Tanner Quick all made strong impressions in their first fall on campus and have put themselves in position to pitch important innings this spring. Carlson was rated the highest going into the 2020 draft and could push for a rotation spot.
With the newcomers now in the mix, there’s no shortage of options for UNC. Love took a step forward this fall, seeing his fastball sit in the low 90s and adding a curveball to his arsenal, and Sandy’s velocity ticked up.
If those gains equate to improved performance in the spring and the Tar Heels’ freshmen are ready for the rigors of ACC competition, this has the makings of an intriguing pitching staff.
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What will increased infield depth mean for the Tar Heels?
The Tar Heels last season had a clearly defined infield. In 19 games, Sabato started 18 times at first base, Mikey Madej did the same at second base, Patrick Alvarez started 14 times at third base and Danny Serretti started all 19 games at shortstop.
Alvarez, Madej and Serretti are all back, but they will face increased competition for their starting roles with the addition of Castagnozzi, Horvath, Riedell and Colby Wilkerson. Tyler Causey and Jake Holtzapple, who both made a few starts in 2020 as true freshmen, and Clemente Inclan, who has plenty of experience as a fourth-year junior, are also in the mix.
“We’re a little more athletic positionally,” Forbes said. “The young guys, they have power. That’s not easy to find at that age in college baseball. We have much, much more depth on the infield.”
How that depth shakes out still has to be sorted out and it’s not hard to imagine those position battles continuing past Opening Day. The most certain aspect of the UNC infield is that Serretti will again start at shortstop, as the third-year sophomore has throughout his career. He’s one of the better defensive shortstops in the country and will anchor the infield.
Horvath was the highest rated of UNC’s freshmen on the 2020 BA 500 and his athleticism, speed and power make for an intriguing all-around toolset. He likely fits best at third base in 2021, though he can play up the middle as well. Riedel and Castagnozzi both have a good feel for hitting and are advanced enough defensively to quickly find a way into the mix as well.
Alvarez and Madej both offer versatility, which UNC was unable to take advantage of in 2020 but could in 2021. Alvarez can play anywhere on the diamond and Madej has experience in the outfield as well.
Forbes can go in a number of ways when filling out his lineup card in 2021. Finding the right balance, especially with so many true freshmen in the mix, will be key, but the added depth and athleticism could be a boon for the Tar Heels.
Who will step up at catcher?
The Tar Heels split the catching duties in 2020 between freshmen Eric Grintz and Will Stewart. Both are back for 2021, as is third-year sophomore Caleb Roberts, who was limited to three games last season after breaking his hand on Opening Weekend.
To that mix, UNC adds true freshman Thomas Frick, who has a strong baseball IQ and got plenty of experience working with premium pitchers during his high school career, and junior college transfer Max Reimer, a physical lefthanded hitter who offers defensive versatility.
With all those options, UNC has good depth at the position. Frick and Grintz are the most advanced defensively, giving them a leg up in the competition. Roberts might be the best hitter, but he has previously seen most of his action in the outfield.
Whether they have Frick or Grintz or someone else behind the plate, the Tar Heels can feel good about what they’ll provide.
“We talk everyday about how impressive our catchers have been,” Forbes said. “Frick and Grintz can be first-team all-ACC defensively. I’m not saying they’ll hit .350, but we have two legit frontline catchers who control the game and really make our pitchers better. And we have other guys who can catch and are good.”