North Carolina State Baseball: Five Questions to Answer Entering 2021
North Carolina State continues on as one of the most consistent programs in college baseball. Each year, the Wolfpack spends most or all of the season comfortably in the Top 25 and in position to advance to a regional.
Things were shaping up that way again in 2020, as NC State jumped out to a 14-3 start before the season was canceled. Ahead of the 2021 season, it has another team that should live up to the program’s standards, and led by an outstanding core group of position players, there is potential for a deep run in June.
The following are five questions NC State will look to answer as next season moves closer by the day.
Who steps up into the weekend rotation?
NC State looks to have a free-for-all competition for spots in the weekend rotation on its hands going into the 2021 season. Last season, six different pitchers started games, and all of them except 2020 breakout star Nick Swiney are back in the fold. Those returners will all be in the mix to start games once again, but they’ll be joined by a whole host of others who have elbowed their way into the conversation.
The returning pitchers who started games a year ago, either on the weekend or in the midweek, are fourth-year junior lefthander David Harrison, second-year freshman lefthander Chris Villaman, fourth-year junior righthander Reid Johnston and second-year freshmen righthanders Austin Pace and Matt Willadsen.
Johnston, with 42 career appearances and 27 starts, is the most accomplished of the bunch and should be considered likely to hold a vital role on the staff. Harrison doesn’t have quite the track record, but he’s experienced in his own right, with 40 career appearances and 15 starts. He appeared to take a big step forward in 2020 and ended the season with a 2.75 ERA and a 23-to-4 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 19.2 innings.
Also joining the competition are fifth-year senior righthander Dalton Feeney, who has significant experience closing games, second-year freshman righthander Sam Highfill, who can run his fastball into the mid 90s, fourth-year sophomore righthander Cameron Cotter, who is back after missing all of last season due to injury, and fourth-year junior lefthander Evan Justice, who NC State coach Elliott Avent described as the breakout pitcher of fall practice.
“Evan Justice had such a tremendous fall,” Avent said. “That’s probably the one thing from a pitching standpoint is the development and the hard work of Evan Justice, and what it’s (led to) is a guy who is going to open a lot of eyes this spring professionally and (he) also has a chance to do some great things for us on the mound.”
With this many pitchers vying for precious few opportunities, this is a competition that seems destined to run all the way through preseason practice and well into the season.
Will NC State even deploy a traditional rotation?
It’s entirely likely that the 2021 season schedule is a little bit wonky, and that’s where it could pay off that the Wolfpack have so many starting options. In fact, one of the most commonly-cited scheduling possibilities, both within and outside of the ACC, is playing four games each conference weekend, which would obviously require more arms in each series.
That means, at a bare minimum, you need four starting pitchers. With the distinct chance that at least one of those starts ends up being relatively short, you probably need one or two more pitchers stretched out to throw extended innings.
Fortunately for NC State, it has lots of practice setting up a pitching staff this way. In 2019, for example, it had just one pitcher, Jason Parker, start every game in which he appeared. Everyone else did some starting and relieving, and in total, 11 different pitchers ended up starting games for the Pack that season. No pitcher threw more than 77.2 innings, but 14 pitchers appeared in 10 or more games, with 11 of those throwing 29 or more innings.
Long story short, a lot of pitchers got a lot of different opportunities by design, and that could be the case again in 2021.
“I think what coach (Clint) Chrysler has done with our staff is make a lot of guys flexible,” Avent said. “You talk about Dalton Feeney, Cam Cotter, Reid Johnston, David Harrison. They can start or they can also come in in the third inning and give you quality innings or they can come in late in the game to try to cement the work that you’ve done for the past two hours.”
Who will do the catching?
Patrick Bailey, a three-year starter at NC State, was a first-round pick this year, and that leaves a big hole at catcher. Not only was Bailey an elite defensive catcher, but he was also one of the most consistent run producers on the team for his entire career.
The leader in the clubhouse for the job is third-year sophomore Luca Tresh, who spent the last couple of years fighting for time in the outfield in deference to Bailey behind the plate and as a way to get his powerful righthanded bat in the lineup.
He’s spent the fall hitting rockets with exit velocities over 100 mph, and his bat will probably always be what he’s known for, but Avent says that he’s surprised some people with his abilities as a defender.
“We were really, really, really pleased,” Avent said of what the coaching staff saw from Tresh. “As a matter of fact, a lot of scouts were at our games this fall and saw our team play and I would get a lot of texts from scouts commenting on the defensive play of Luca Tresh.”
Most catchers do need the occasional day off, and furthermore, if it does end up being the case that the ACC plays four-game weekends that include a doubleheader, the backup catcher position will be more important than ever. NC State feels like it’s in good shape with junior college transfer Danny Carnazzo in that role. Freshman Bryce Behmer has also impressed in his first fall in the program and could fight his way into playing time come spring.
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Where will Tyler McDonough play?
McDonough, a third-year sophomore, is probably the most important piece of the defensive alignment for the Wolfpack, as he can do a lot of different things and where he plays will end up having a cascading effect on the rest of the roster.
One option is second base, where he spent some time during the 2020 season and is very likely the position where he has the brightest future at the next level. But he’ll have stiff competition there from fourth-year junior J.T. Jarrett, an experienced second baseman who is solid defensively and was in the midst of a breakout season at the plate in 2020.
The other obvious option for McDonough is center field, where he’s played most often for NC State, including in 2019, when he started 60 games at the position. Defensively, Avent sees him as being right up there with the better defensive center fielders he’s had.
“We were having a conversation one day about who’s better in center field, Tyler McDonough or Josh McLain, and Josh McLain, I thought, was the most consistent, best outfielder I’ve seen in college sports in a long time in center field, (with) the way he played it defensively," Avent said.
The complicating thing about McDonough in center field, though, is that it does create quite the logjam in the outfield with the return of fourth-year juniors Terrell Tatum, Jonny Butler and Devonte Brown, and second-year freshman Noah Soles. Brown could alleviate some of the logjam if he gets the nod at third base over third-year sophomore Vojtech Mensik, but even then, it would still be a fierce competition for time at those three spots.
Having a player as versatile defensively as McDonough, especially when he’s also a career .327/.407/.473 hitter, is a luxury, as is having logjams at key positions like second base and in the outfield. But those are things that will have to be worked out before and during the 2021 season.
What’s next for Jose Torres?
Even with the small sample of what we’ve seen from the second-year freshman Torres in an NC State uniform, there’s a lot to be excited about.
He flashed the defensive tools that made him a prospect coming out of high school. At the plate, by hitting .333/.369/.533 during the 2020 season, he showed off better offensive ability than many expected from him, at least in his first season on campus. The NC State staff and evaluators alike would undoubtedly like to see him take more walks and cut down on strikeouts after putting up a 20-to-3 strikeout-to-walk ratio in his first season.
By age, Torres is eligible for the 2021 draft, so it’s likely that he has just one more season left with the Wolfpack, and for Avent, the key to Torres taking another step is something that’s mostly universal for young players still getting accustomed to college baseball, and that’s consistency.
“He has a great skill set, he has a great love for the game, he has a great work ethic, and I think the thing that every player tries to do, which he has tried to do in the last two years, is just improve his consistency defensively and improve his consistency at the plate,” Avent said.
NC State annually has an impressive group of position players, and they always put up outstanding offensive numbers, but Torres brings potential and an electricity that takes the lineup to a new level.