For one thing, the Crimson Tide has more numbers than they did a year ago. And, secondly, those numbers have produced more quality players, including some key freshman signees.
The Crimson Tide finished 38-24 last season and advanced to the eighth NCAA Regional under coach Wells, but not without a late-season turnaround that saw Alabama win its second straight SEC Tournament championship and sixth under Wells, to secure the league's automatic berth into the 64-team NCAA post-season field.
The fall workouts were much different than those in the past.
For one, Alabama used its three-week team period for more scrimmages, letting players play in game-type situations allowing for better evaluation by the coaching staff.
The individual sessions, which will continue through the first week of December, allows for more one-on-one instruction, more fundamentals and more evaluation.
"We changed the fall up a little bit than in years past," Wells said. "We had one less week to work with and we scrimmaged quite a bit more. We used the individual work period to work on mechanics and fundamentals.
"With the time we had, we scrimmaged four or five times a week and then practiced one or two times.
The main thing was to see how guys developed. You can do a lot in individual work, but you can tell a lot about a player more playing the game. So, it was more of an evaluation of who we felt could play in the game because some guys are better in games than in individual work and vice versa."
The 2004 baseball team returns nine position players, including three everyday starters, and seven pitchers off last year's team.
"We have more players than we did last year," Wells, who begins his 10th season at Alabama, said. That's obvious when you look at our roster. We have a lot of returning players when you think about a guy like Zac Welch (Jr., Wellington), who has really played a lot and is going into his third year in the program. So, we have an older club with some experience and I think we have added some good recruits."
Infield Sports More DepthThe bigger and better numbers begin in the infield where starters Welch, Allen Rice (Jr., Pelham), Carlos Sosa (Sr., Vera Cruz, Mexico) and Charlie Lyons (So., Tuscaloosa) return. Welch and Rice begin their third year in the program and are solid contributors, while Lyons is back for his second year behind the plate as a solid everyday catcher. Sosa, who missed the entire 2003 season with a torn ACL, is back and will be the third baseman and middle of the lineup hitter.
Junior college transfer Mark Haske (Jr., Midland, Michigan) is expected to fill the void left by the departed Adam Pavkovich. Pavkovich was taken in the 11th round of the Major League Draft by the Anaheim Angles last June and advanced to the Triple A level for the Angels this past summer.
Middle infielders Greg Paiml (Fr., Hoover) and Aaron Tennyson (Jr., Tuscaloosa) are also in the mix in the Crimson Tide infield giving Wells more numbers to work with during the 2004 campaign. Evan Bush (So., Rainbow City) and Matt Downs (So., Centreville) are expected to back up Sosa at third base. Chris McIlwain (Jr., Tuscaloosa), a walkon, is also an infield candidate, with third base being his best position.
Nathan Meiners (Sr., Baton Rouge, La.) worked at two positions this fall, first base and catcher. Meiners, who is an improved hitter, also improved his skills at first base and is a capable backup to Welch. Spencer Pennington (Jr., Fayette) and newcomer Matt Bentley (Fr., Hazel Green) are also in the mix at first base. Pennington missed fall workotus while serving as the backup quarterback on the Crimson Tide football team.
Bo Hannah (So., Tuscaloosa) and Nick Richardson (Sr., Tuscaloosa) are also working behind Lyons and Meiners behind the plate.
"We are looking to have good defense and trying to put together good defense without giving up much offense," Wells said. "A nice surprise was Aaron Tennyson, who is a second baseman. He is a guy with good speed and brings a lot to the table. There are four guys working in the middle infield that will battle for those positions. But I thought coming out of the fall that Haske really improved his status and showed to be a lot better player at the end than in the beginning."
Outfield ImprovedIf there is one place the numbers will really show up this year for the Crimson Tide it has to be the outfield. Last year, Alabama had only a handful of options in the outfield, but this year there are as many as eight quality players who will battle for time.
"One thing that we addressed that we have done a better job of is we have guys that can run and go get the ball in the outfield," Wells added. "We have added team speed, so the outfield has improved."
The starters are expected to be Matt Grooms (Jr., Montgomery), Michael McCallister (Fr., Green Cove Springs, Fla.) and either Brandon Belcher (Fr., Ruston, La.) or Emeel Salem (Fr., Birmingham), all quality players who had very good fall workouts.
"We brought in Matt Grooms to give us a guy that could be an everyday player and we see him being that," Wells said. "Michael McAllister improved tremendously and is a very good freshman. He brings to mind a Dustan Mohr-type player.
"We have some options in the outfield because Salem and Belcher are two guys that can run and are centerfield type players that are both in position to play centerfield. The one that plays will be the one that shows to hit more than the other."
The outfield will also have the services of Chad White (Jr., Prattville), Gabe Scott (Jr., Lake Charles, La.), Morrow Thomley (Jr., Tuscaloosa), Brandon Avalos (So., Tuscaloosa) and Ryan Beagle (Sr., Hueytown).
White was redshited last year after missing the season for disciplinary reasons. Avalos, the No. 3 quarterback on the football team who earned a start and win over Southern Miss (Oct. 11), missed the fall while playing football for coach Mike Shula.
"We have gone from having not much of an outfield with not depth to a pretty solid outfield with quality depth," Wells added.
Arms Appear StrongAt all levels of baseball teams win with pitching and defense. While the Crimson Tide seems to have shored up those defensive problems of the past with more quality numbers, the pitching depth is also improved.
Alabama returns four starters from last season and blends in a number of talented newcomers to make his a deeper pitching staff than ever before.
"I think we have some impact guys on the mound and some of them a very young," Wells said. "We also have some guys returning that have pitched alot the last two years. So, I like the experience level."
One of those returnees is preseason All-American left-hander Brent Carter (Jr., Americus, Ga.), who was clearly the ace of the staff last year, setting sophomore records for wins (10), innings pitched (122.2) and strikeouts (105).
"Brent Carter has picked up where he left off last year," Wells said. "He is a solid No. 1 weekend starter."
Also returning are three other left-handers Taylor Tankersley (Jr., Vicksburg, Miss.), Jeffrey Norris (Sr., Vestavia Hills) and Beagle, along with right-handers Seth Johnson (Sr., Sandy, Utah), Allen Ponder (So., Auburn) and Eric Mennen (Jr., Decatur).
Two freshman will also get serious consideration on the mound Wade LeBlanc (Fr., Lake Charles) and Belcher, who is one of three, two-way players.
Other candidates include Downs, Thomley, T.J. Large (Jr., Seminole, Fla.), Andrew Walker (RHP, Prague, Okla.), Doug Denson (Fr., Vestavia Hills) and Jason Elwell (Jr., Decatur).
Senior Martin LaRocca has decided to retire from baseball after batting arm problems the last 2 1/2 years.
Competition Makes Bama BetterThere is plenty of depth on the Alabama roster this season, which includes a wealth of experience and many talented newcomers.
"I think right now there is a lot of competition," Wells added. "The workouts have been good. There has to be a lot of volunteer work this time of the year. The guys are always hitting. Guys are always working on their game, so they work hard. There is good work ethic. I think when you have volunteer work and most everyone shows up, that says alot about your team."
That combination could give Coach Wells a bigger and better reason to celebrate his 10th anniversary with the Crimson Tide.