The Jackets lost two key players in the left infield last season — Matt Skole at third base and Jacob Esch at shortstop. Both players were top-notch hitters, battting over .315 and being at the top of the lineup in number of home runs. With these two gone, Tech will need to fill some large holes in the lineup.
Sophomore Mott Hyde began last season playing at shortstop before being moved to second base. He will most likely return to short in 2012. Hyde posted a .275 batting average and was third on the team with 47 RBI last year. Senior Connor Winn will be competing with Hyde for playing time at shortstop and may see some action at second.
Tech has two potential starters at third base in sophomores Alex Cruz and Chase Butler. Both saw limited playing time as freshmen, but Head Coach Danny Hall thinks both are ready to begin the season as the starter. Butler was the better hitter last season and will most likely get the start on opening day. Hall is known for making changes if he thinks it will serve the team, so Cruz will most likely see playing time on base as well, depending on his performance.
Second base will also be seeing some changes this season, as junior Sam Dove will move there from the outfield. The team has significant depth at second this season, with Winn and senior Evan Martin possibly getting playing time there. Hall may also bring Martin in as a pinch-hitter or runner. While pinch-hitting last year, Martin hit two go-ahead home runs.
Senior Jake Davies will be returning to first base in the starting role. Sophomore Daniel Palka has some experience at first and may see some situational playing time there. Both Davies and Palka are among the strongest returning batters on the team. Last year, Palka posted a slugging percentage of .556, highest on the team. Davies recorded the best batting average at .347 and has the second-highest slugging percentage among returning players.
At catcher, sophomore Zane Evans will be the starter when he is not pitching. Evans batted .270 last season with a .327 OBP. Sophomore Mitch Earnest will have an expanded role after backing up Evans last year. Freshmen Connor Lynch and A.J. Murray will also see time as backups.
In the outfield, sophomore Kyle Wren and junior Brandon Thomas return from last year. Wren will return to his position in center field, where he recorded a fielding percentage of .993. At the plate, he brings a .340 batting average with a .412 OBP as Tech’s leadoff hitter.
Thomas also brings a strong bat to the team with his .307 average in 2011. Wren and Thomas responsible for the majority of the team’s stolen bases last year and will most likely be near the top of the order. Thomas spent most of 2011 in right field but will likely move to left this year.
The right field situation is not set yet, but sophomore Paul Kronenfeld appears to be the leading candidate. Kronenfeld started in only four games last year and played in 22, but he could be another left-handed power bat for Tech. The other main candidate in right is freshman Charles Sheffield, who was drafted by the Oakland Athletics but decided to come to Tech. Palka may play in right on occasion, but it will not be his primary role.
The role of designated hitter (DH) is still up for grabs and will most likely rotate throughout the season. Expect to see Palka, who led the team in home runs last year, bring his bat to the position. Martin may take the DH role if he is not playing at second. Kronenfeld, Sheffield, and Martin are all options for the role, depending on who is having a better game and the opposing pitching.
For the second straight year, the Jackets will have to replace two-thirds of their weekend rotation and several key pieces in the bullpen. Ace starters Mark Pope and Jed Bradley are gone, as are relievers Kevin Jacob and Taylor Wood. Plenty of talent returns, though, and junior right-handers Buck Farmer and Luke Bard will lead the way for a young pitching staff that will look to continue the team’s major recent success on the mound.
Farmer, the Sunday starter for the Jackets in 2011, steps into the Friday role and to the front of a very green weekend rotation. The junior was among the ACC’s top pitchers in several categories last year, going 11-3 with a 2.91 ERA and a 1.16 WHIP as opposing batters hit just .235 against him. He allowed more than three earned runs only three times and pitched eight shutout innings against then-No. 9 North Carolina.
Behind Farmer in the weekend rotation will be sophomore right-hander Matthew Grimes, Tech’s primary midweek starter as a freshman last season. Grimes was solid, but unspectacular, in 2011; his 4.15 ERA was highest among regular pitchers for Tech, but he did strike out 77 batters in 73.2 innings. At 6-foot-6 with good command of his two-seam and four-seam fastballs, Grimes projects as one of Tech’s best power arms in 2012.
To be successful in his new role, Grimes will need to increase his ability to last into games. Grimes made 12 starts in 2011 but did not pitch more than 6.2 innings in a game, often running up his pitch count quickly and forcing Hall to go to the bullpen.
The Sunday starter role remains undecided, but the two leading candidates are a pair of sophomore right-handers who figured prominently into Tech’s pitching staff last season: Dusty Isaacs and DeAndre Smelter.
Isaacs was stellar as a long reliever for Tech in 2011. Over 25 appearances—which tied for the team lead—Isaacs had a 2.72 ERA in 36.1 innings, striking out 40 and allowing 42 baserunners over that span. Opponents hit just .213 against him as he emerged as one of Hall’s most reliable bullpen options.
Smelter was the more highly touted prospect of the two and had an ERA of 0.52 over 17.1 innings pitched; however, a more telling stat was that while he gave up just one earned run, he also surrendered 11 unearned runs. Smelter’s 1.56 WHIP and his poor 8:11 strikeout-to-walk ratio do not bode well, but the fact remains that he was a freshman and should improve his command in 2012. Also in the mix for the Sunday role are sophomore right-hander Jonathan Roberts, who struggled in four relief appearances last season, and freshman right-hander Cole Pitts.
The anchor of the bullpen will be Bard, a polished right-hander who tied with Isaacs for the team lead with 25 appearances in 2011. After taking over Tech’s closer partway through the season, Bard emerged as one of the ACC’s top relievers. In 49.2 innings, he recorded a 2.72 ERA and a 1.21 WHIP, striking out 46 hitters while holding opponents to a .233 average.
Junior right-hander Clay Dalton and sophomore left-hander Devin Stanton should see plenty of innings this season. Dalton had a 0.79 ERA in 11.1 innings last year, allowing opponents to hit just .139 against him; his weak 9:7 strikeout-to-walk ratio was troubling though. Stanton was Tech’s main left-handed specialist in 2011, pitching just eight innings across 18 appearances. He pitched well in that limited span, allowing just five hits and striking out eight.
Three key position players will likely pitch out of the bullpen as well. Hall has frequently pointed to sophomore catcher Zane Evans as a candidate for a setup role; Evans, a right-hander, will bring an arsenal consisting of a fastball, slider, and curveball to the bullpen when he is not starting behind the plate.
Also seeing time on the mound will be Tech’s two main left-handed power hitters, senior first baseman Jake Davies and sophomore designated hitter Daniel Palka. Davies pitched a total of 43.1 innings in his first two seasons at Tech, recording a 3.53 ERA in that span, and he and Palka should give the Jackets more flexibility with three left-handed relievers available to spell a rotation consisting entirely of right-handers.