Arkansas State coach Tommy Raffo has no problem with the Red Wolves landing in the No. 8 slot in the Sun Belt Conference preseason poll.
“We are fine right there,’’ he said. “Last year we were picked third and did not handle it well.”
The Red Wolves are coming off a 26-30 season where they did again finish strong in the SBC tournament (the semifinals for the fourth straight year) and lost a program-high four players to the professional draft.
The season begins Friday with a three-game weekend series at UA-Birmingham.
“I like how we finished and the mindset of where this team left off,’’ he said “Even though we went to the semifinals of the tournament, this team has picked up with the six seniors and they have taken to the incoming players more so than ever before.”
The coach said his favorite part of this team is a corp group of six seniors – outfielders Ty White and Austin Baker, infielders Matt Burgess and Tanner Ring and pitchers Adam Grantham and Cody Jackson -- and a big reason for optimism.
“When you look at the six, you look at White and Baker, you look at Burgess and Ring, and you look at Grantham and Jackson,’’ he said. “They have all had significant Sun Belt time and they are all playing significant roles this year. When you have seniors you are all playing significant roles with what you’re trying to accomplish it bodes well for your club.”
Ring, who could wind up in five positions this season, was selected to the Preseason All-Sun Belt Conference baseball team. His return to the backend of the bullpen could be one of the big pluses on this team.
Raffo said he likes the versatility of this team, its depth and a talented outfield. Junior transfer Garrett Rucker joins Baker and White in the outfield. All three could be all-league players.
“That is the interesting thing about it is no one has really talked about all three,’’ said Raffo. “Potentially they really could if it is really lights out for all three.”
He also likes the way this team will have “a lot of moving parts. We can move people around.” That starts are catcher where junior Joe Schrimpf, sophomore Dalton Lovell and junior college transfer Frankie Alvarez will all see playing time.
“I think the biggest thing we will figure out for this club will be the catcher position. You will see all three back there this year. It makes us different as a team; gives us more flexibility for things that we want to do during a game or during a three-game set. We saw the wear and tear what happened to Stuart last year. Lot of times tried to bunt him just to let him go rest.
“Dalton has gotten better. Alvarez has the tools to be a front level guy but jumped out there yet. Joe, all the intangibles are off the chart, so he makes up for anything he lacks with that. Probably better than Stuart with communication. That says a lot for Joe. He’s just a ballplayer.”
Raffo loves the depth of the pitching staff and said Friday night starter Tyler Zuber is “someone I would match up with anybody in the country” and the back end of the bullpen with Ring, sophomore transfer JD Miller and junior left-hander Coulton Lee is way under-rated.
Another big plus is the new indoor facility.
“We feel like we are ahead of the curve because of the indoor complex,’’ he said. “We have accomplished everything we wanted to going into the game. We spent the first five days in the SAC. It has been tremendous; we have not missed a beat. I did not realize how far behind we were in the past. We probably having those five days … ahead 3 or 4, 5 days easy. It’s a lot slower process not as much done. Losing on days of skill work and repetition. The SAC definitely a step, it jumps us to front of a lot of folks.
ULL was picked to win the league and South Alabama was second. Texas State and Troy followed along with Georgia Southern, Georgia State and Texas-Arlington.
“We are going to be tested,’’ he said. “There will be some adversity. This league I think is in an up year. And for us to go on the road the first two weekends then we have five on the next eight at home and you go on the road to Little Rock. If we don’t have a good first two weeks, then you are going upstream but at least you are at home. Last year and we were supposed to be at home and had 1 date and we were swimming upstream the rest of the year because we were on the road the rest of the time.”
The conference opener is March 11 at UT-Arlington. The next weekend is at Georgia State.