2011 AU Baseball Preview: Offense

Auburn opens the 2011 season this Friday against Arkansas State at Plainsman Park.

Auburn, Ala.--Coming off a 43-win season and a SEC Western Division Championship, coach John Pawlowski and the Auburn Tigers will get the 2011 season kicked off this weekend at Plainsman Park with a four-team tournament to open the new year. Facing off against Arkansas State, #13 Virginia and UAB on Friday-Sunday, Auburn will have a tough challenge to the new season.

The Tigers had one of the top offensive seasons in school history last year as a team and the numbers will just about be impossible to match in 2011 for a number of reasons. Hitting .348 as a team, Auburn set a school record with 131 home runs and scored 584 runs in 64 games.

Much of the reason for that was a powerful lineup featuring SEC Player of the Year Hunter Morris, Brian Fletcher, Ryan Jenkins and Trent Mummey. Those four players alone accounted for 69 home runs and 243 RBI in 2010 alone. Now without them for this year the Tigers will rely on a balanced lineup and a few players capable of hitting the long ball.

Hitting .315 with 16 home runs and 33 RBI in just 124 at-bats last spring, senior Kevin Patterson is back after earning All-SEC honors as the Tigers' designated hitter. Now challenging for the job at first base along with junior Dan Gamache, Patterson should be a fixture in Auburn's lineup this season.

A walk-on from Rhode Island, Gamache has turned into an offensive weapon for the Tigers. Playing mostly third base last season he hit .365 with eight home runs and 37 RBI. He brings experience to the lineup along with senior second baseman Justin Hargett and junior shortstop Casey McElroy.

The returning players will be challenged by several talented newcomers on the infield including shortstop Zach Alvord. An 18th round selection by the Atlanta Braves in the MLB Amateur Draft, Alvord hit .380 with 36 home runs and 80 RBI during his career at South Forsythe (Ga.) High. He was an AFLAC and Under Armour All-American.

Justin Hargett and Justin Fradejas

In the outfield senior Justin Fradejas is back after a solid first year for the Tigers in 2010. Alongside him should be junior Creede Simpson with the third spot still very much up for grabs. It could go to utility man Justin Bryant, who could also work his way into the closer's role this year. Also in the mix is freshman speedster Jay Gonzalez.

Fifth on the team last season with a .358 batting average, Fradejas had three home runs and 33 RBI and also added a team-high 14 stolen bases. Hitting .308 last year in part-time duty, Simpson had five home runs and 31 RBI in just 159 at-bats. His biggest blast came in the NCAA Regional win over Clemson at Plainsman Park. Coming out of nowhere last year to be a key component for the Tigers, Bryant hit .323 with five home runs, 32 RBI and scored 27 runs in just 99 at-bats.

Behind the plate senior Tony Caldwell returns after playing mostly right field last season in addition to his role as the designated hitter. Starting 49 games Caldwell hit .349 with 10 home runs and 41 RBI in 2010. Backing him up will be junior Caleb Bowen and freshman Blake Austin.

"I think we have a good lineup with depth," Jarrett said. "We did lose some guys that put up some really good numbers but I think we have a very versatile lineup. I think the players on our team understand the importance of using the pressure offense, the sac bunting, the base hit bunting, the hit and running, the ability to move runners. Top to bottom we have a better understanding of that this year than we did last year. I think that's going to play into our favor a little bit with the bats."

Senior catcher Tony Caldwell

Even with a ton of experience and production returning Auburn's numbers could still be way off from last season because of the difference in the bats for 2011. Trying to increase safety in the game the NCAA has taken much of the spring out of the bats this season, which should in turn make it more difficult to score runs in bunches. Instead, Jarrett said they'll depend on playing more small ball.

In an effort to take away some of the offense from college baseball and try to fit games into easier television windows, in addition to safety concerns, the NCAA has really changed the way the game of baseball will be playing this season on the collegiate level. Jarrett said he believes things will be much different in 2011 at the plate.

"The bat is going to be very different," Jarrett said. "There aren't balls that are flying out, especially to the opposite field. I haven't seen many in batting practice or in our scrimmage games that are driving out to the opposite field.

"I think it's going to make for cleaner, low scoring games," he added. "From an excitement standpoint I need to see us play against some other teams that are swinging the bat. We need to get into the season before we can determine what the new measurement for a good power hitting team will be. Before it was 100 home runs. I don't know what that's going to be now. I know it's not going to be 100. It might be 50, 60 or 70."

Game times for the opening weekend for the Tigers are 6 p.m. on Friday against Arkansas State, 1 p.m. Saturday against Virginia and 3 p.m. Sunday against UAB. All games are at Plainsman Park.

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