Auburn, Ala.--Just over a week into preseason practices for Butch Thompson and the Auburn Tigers, the smoke is starting to clear for the coaching staff as they try to find their best players heading into the season opener against Sacramento State on Feb. 19. Hoping to settle on the roles for his pitching staff while also finding the best combination of position players, Thompson said he’s seen his team take some strides forward on the field in the first week of practices.
“I thought we communicated more,” Thompson said. “We got to game seven today and I’m seeing our guys communicate between pitches, on and off the field, picking each other up. I’m starting to see more of our players coach one another between at-bats or when situations come up. I feel like last weekend everybody was trying to feel each other out and the coaches were trying to direct traffic. I thought our players bought into that this week.”
With veterans such as Cole Lipscomb and Justin Camp expected to have a great shot to start the season in the starting rotation, Thompson doesn’t have much more experience to count on this season. A big right-hander, 6-7, 260 Gabe Klobosits has been impressive his first two outings and could be in the rotation as well.
With junior college left-hander Ben Braymer a possible guy on the back end of games along with true freshman Casey Mize, Thompson said at the moment it’s just about finding the right guys for the right time in games. That’s something that only comes with defining roles and letting the players settle in, a goal in the next two weeks.
“We’re going to meet and talk about what we think the identity of each player is,” Thompson said. “No. 2, what else do we need to see in these last two remaining weeks of squad games about where to put people in different roles. We split our pitchers on two different teams for at-bats and for competitive to develop pitches.
“Now we’ve got to go to the next level, which is who is going to pitch better behind somebody or who is going to get into those little microscopic roles of being a left-handed specialist or right-handed specialist? Who is going to close? We’ve had trouble at the end of our squad games so I’m always looking for the next place to go. You feel good about the starters,now we’ve got to put some guys in that frame before we get to game one.”
Thompson will have one less arm at his disposal this season, however. Already without Keegan Thompson and Kevin Davis after both had surgery that will force them to redshirt, the Tigers won't have Dalton Rentz in 2016 after he was dismissed because of a violation of team rules. Last season he was 3-4 with a 2.60 ERA in his first year at Auburn after transferring in from a junior college.
While the pitching staff is a work in progress as Thompson looks to make the most of his options on the mound, in the field the Tigers are a deep and experienced team with multiple guys at every position. Perhaps the deepest is in the outfield where center fielder Anfernee Grier is without question the leader of the group, but with guys like Jordan Ebert and newcomer Josh Palacios trying to hold off a determined group of experienced players Thompson said in this case the more the merrier.
“Currently I think everybody wants to know who is doing well and who is working hard and who is sticking out,” Thompson said. “Jackson Burgreen has had a great week for us. Bo Decker has had a great week, their BP, the work that they’re doing is really good. J.J. Shaffer has just been so competitive and consistent with his speed and defense. Those three guys have had a good week. I have been talking about the middle of our defense so much, but these guys have swung the bat well this week and played great.
“I know that we’re going to have some good players that aren’t playing as much as they want and are going to be on the bench at times” he added. “We’re starting to feel more depth from that position standpoint. There are going to be some good players not getting to play every day, but everything is going to be a positive mindset. That’s a positive thing. That shows some strength in a ballclub.”