Sophomore pitcher Casey Mize (above) should be a fixture in the starting rotation for the Tigers
Auburn, Ala.--A team expected to built around pitching and defense after losing its top four hitters from a season ago, Coach Butch Thompson and the Auburn Tigers open full squad practices on Friday with a host of new faces expected to challenge for playing time on the diamond this season.
With 20 newcomers, many of whom will play key roles in 2017, Thompson will lean on what should be an improved pitching staff led by the return of junior Keegan Thompson following a redshirt season after having Tommy John surgery. With talented sophomore Casey Mize back along with improving senior Gabe Klobosits and talented incoming freshman Davis Daniel from Montgomery, the Tigers have four solid starting options heading into the spring.
Perhaps even more important than solidifying the starting roles on the team will be finding the next four or five guys in line out of the bullpen. Without much depth to speak of on the mound last year the Tigers only posted five saves as a team.
Thompson said figuring out the strengths of his bullpen and finding some much-needed arms from the left side will be a key in the preseason leading up to the opener against George Washington University on Feb. 17 at Plainsman Park.
“He (Coker) gives us such a different look that you want him to be ready to go,” Thompson said of Coker’s sidearm delivery. “You would like some variety to be filled out in those three or four other spots. Corey Herndon, Sprinkle, Mitchell, those are guys who have to get right and help define that bullpen so we feel good about that as well.”
Depth is the strength on the mound for Auburn, but at the plate and in the field it’s a different story. Losing Anfernee Grier, Josh Palacios, Niko Buentello and Jordan Ebert from last season along with guys such as Cody Nulph, Melvin Gray and Jackson Burgreen, the Tigers were looking at just a few key players to lead the team offensively heading into the year.
That plan has hit a snag already with senior catcher Kyler Deese dismissed from the team. Making matters worse starting catcher Blake Logan has battled an illness for much of the last two weeks that has him working to get back into playing shape, something that could take some time.
The good news is that the coaches say they are encouraged about the rest of the infield with senior Daniel Robert back at first base joined there by big freshman Conor Davis. Junior college transfers round out the rest of the infield with Jay Estes at second, Luke Jarvis at short and power hitting Joshua Anthony at third.
Joshua Anthony will be counted on to provide power in the middle of the lineup.
In the outfield seniors Bo Decker and Sam Gillikin should be keys for the Tigers in left and right after both sat out last season. In center field speedy Jeremy Johnson, junior college transfer Jonah Todd and senior J.J. Shaffer could all see action early in the season.
“Coach (Brad) Bohannon made an interesting point to me that at some points we feel like we’re deeper in terms of competitive hitters from top to bottom,” Thompson said. “Last year we were bragging on 1-4 in our lineup, and it was a high-level SEC top four or five hitters for our league. We think we might have a little more depth. I think we’ve got some strength at the top of our lineup like a Jarvis maybe in the three-hole.
“You could imagine that Anthony would be associated somewhere in there. Even in the bottom of the lineup, we thought if we could play defense with six good hitters but maybe more of top and bottom. I think it will be interesting to see the middle of the lineup. We feel good about the top and bottom.
"I think our question mark is the middle of the lineup," Thompson added. "Daniel Robert is capable. He’ll get the first shot. He’s been around a long time. Blake Logan with his RBI and now he’s got to catch more and Rojas has got to step up.”
The Tigers, who will scrimmage on Friday afternoon, will play a four-game series vs. George Washington to open Thompson's second season as AU's head coach.
Projected Auburn Lineup:
C Blake Logan/Mike Rojas/Damon Haecker
1B Daniel Robert/Conor Davis
2B Jay Estes
3B Josh Anthony/
SS Luke Jarvis/Will Holland
LF Bo Decker/Bowen McGuffin
CF Jeremy Johnson/Jonah Todd/J.J. Shaffer
RF Sam Gillikin/Daniel Robert
DH Dylan Ingram
Projected Starting Pitchers:
Projected Relief Pitchers:
RP Calvin Coker
RP Corey Herndon
RP Cole Lipscomb
RP Andrew Mitchell
RP Daniel Sprinkle