"I feel like we're moving right along," Pawlowski said. "I feel like we've got the type of players that we feel comfortable with in the recruiting process. With the way the bats have changed there is more emphasis on pitching and defense and speed. That's the direction we have tried to recruit in. I feel good about what we're doing and I'm anxious to see how these guys stack up, especially at this level in the SEC."
With the season one week away we take a look at how the Tigers stack up position-by-position heading into the 2012 season with analysis from Pawlowski.
Senior Derek Varnadore is back after turning down the Florida Marlins and should be the anchor of what has the potential to be a very good Auburn pitching staff. Last season he was 6-3 with a 3.68 ERA to lead the Tigers. Expected to join him in the starting rotation is junior Slade Smith. Better than his 2-2 record and 5.83 ERA showed last season, Smith is coming off an impressive summer and should be a solid option for the Tigers. In the mix for the final spot is senior Jon Luke Jacobs and true freshman Daniel Koger. Auburn's most experience pitcher with 30 career starts, Jacobs will have his work cut out for him holding off Alabama's Mr. Baseball in Koger. The 6-5 lefty won 27 games in his career at Huntsville High and was 11-3 as a senior.
"We've got three or possibly four scrimmages this weekend depending on what happens on Sunday," Pawlowski said. "We're fortunate that Varney (Varnadore) decided to come back. He turned the Marlins down last year. Most likely he's going to be our guy that will be out there on a Friday night. Slade Smith, who pitched great last year down the stretch, he's a guy that will have an opportunity to be out there. The third guy is between a couple of guys. Jon Luke Jacobs has done a great job and one of the freshmen, Daniel Koger. Those are the four guys that we're trying to get into the mix."
Mid-Week and Relievers One of the keys to Auburn's season will be how the Tigers are able to play in mid-week games. That should be a strength of the 2012 team with a large pitching staff ready to handle the duty. Freshmen Trey Cochran-Gill and Rocky McCord should get plenty of work early in the season with senior Cory Luckie and sophomore Will Kendall also capable of handling the duties. In relief the Tigers have plenty of options with seniors Zach Blatt, Justin Bryant and Ethan Wallen all short relievers along with sophomores Dillon Ortman and Jay Wade.
Junior college transfer Garrett Cooper is the favorite to win the job and will have his hands full taking over for Kevin Patterson. A strong fielder and solid gap-to-gap hitter, the 6-6 Cooper is in a battle for the job along with senior Justin Bryant, sophomore Patrick Savage and junior collge transfer Kody Ortman. Coming from El Camino (Cal.) Community College, Cooper hit .330 with four home runs and 33 RBI as a sophomore. Pawlowski said Cooper gives the Tigers a big target at first base and his defense is one of his strengths.
This looks to be the home of senior Creede Simpson. An infielder for much of his life, Simpson has been a mainstay in the outfield for the Tigers the last two seasons. His move should allow the outfield to become a strength and make Auburn's offense much better. Also in the mix at second base is true freshman Tanner Cimo. Interestingly enough both Simpson and Cimo are Auburn High products. Starting 55 games last season Simpson hit .254 with three home runs and 17 RBI. A three-year starter for his father, the 5-7 Cimo hit .383 for his career with 16 home runs.
"He was a shortstop in high school and did a really good job," Pawlowski said of Simpson. "He's played third base, and last summer when he went to the Cape (Cape Cod League) he played some second base. He's such a versatile and athletic person, he's done a good job. What it allows us to do is to get more speed in the outfield.
"He's done a good job," he added. "The more reps he's taken, he's settled in. That's the plan right now is to let him play there and see how it plays out. He's done a good job there. He's a confident player and not fazed by any of this."
Despite being one of the highest-rated recruits signed by Pawlowski while at Auburn, sophomore Zach Alvord isn't a shoo-in to win the position as he's being challenged by sophomore transfer Dan Glevenyak. A physical player that has all the tools to be successful, Alvord hit just .197 in 71 at-bats last year playing behind All-SEC shortstop Casey McElroy. Playing at Palm Beach Community College, Glevenyak hit .322 with 10 doubles, 31 RBI and 14 stolen bases in 2011.
An infielder his entire life, freshman Jarred Smith from Lake Wales, Fla., has been impressive throughout the fall and spring and is expected to get the start at the hot corner for the Tigers. A 6-0, 187-pounder, Smith hit .443 with a pair of home runs and 35 RBI as a senior and hit .467 as a junior. Glevenyak can also play third base along with the versatile Bryant.
Perhaps the toughest position to fill is behind the plate where Tony Caldwell turned into one of the top catchers in the country last year. Fortunately Auburn has a pair of players with some experience returning in senior Caleb Bowen and sophomore Blake Austin. Bowen has 10 starts in his career with the Tigers while Austin hit .300 in 20 at-bats as a true freshman. Also in the mix at the position is Ortman.
With Simpson moving to second base it opens the door for newcomer Ryan Tella to move into the starting role in center field. The California Junior College Player of the Year in 2011, the 6-0, 175 Tella hit .430 with three home runs and stole 27 bases as a sophomore. Joining him will be sophomore speedsters Bobby Andrews in left field and Jay Gonzalez in right. Last season Andrews was one of the bright spots before an injury cut his year short. Playing in 35 games with 11 starts he hit .396 with six stolen bases. Gonzalez hit just .171 in 35 at-bats last season, but had a big summer and has carried that over into the preseason. Also back is senior Cullen Wacker. He hit .287 with a home run last year and could play left field or even some first base.
"Creede's move to the infield creates some openings for guys like Bobby Andrews and Ryan Tella and Jay Gonzalez," Pawlowski said. "Those are three of the elite runners on our team. It allows us to get those three guys, and Creede, four guys that can run in the lineup. That's the thinking behind that, we can bring more speed to the table.
"He (Tella) fouled a ball off his shin in the fall and missed most of the fall," he added. "He's a player that played at a high level behind the California Junior College Player of the Year. He faced some really good pitching out there. He's done a good job. He's going to get the opportunity to start in center field for us. He's healthy and handles the bat well. He can do multiple things from the offensive side."
Auburn will open the season on Feb. 17 as the Tigers play the Missouri Tigers at Plainsman Park in the first of three games the opening weekend. Game times are scheduled for 3 p.m. on both Friday and Saturday and 1 p.m. on Sunday.