With as many as a dozen freshmen and transfers expecting to get extensive playing time for the 2006 squad, Slater says that fall practice was extremely important for this team and he feels like the Tigers did what they needed to do during that time to be a solid baseball team this spring.
"It was a good time and now that we're back we've had four days of four-on-one here before we start team practice," Slater tells Inside the Auburn Tigers. "I have just been really impressed by the bullpens and the on-field hitting that we've been doing since we got back. The guys all look like they've worked really hard over the break with the programs we sent them home with. They're anxious and ready to get going."
While losses in the everyday lineup to proven performers such as Karl Amonite, Clete Thomas and Josh Bell will be tough to overcome, it is on the mound where the Tigers face their biggest challenge in 2006. Returning from surgery last season that kept him out the entire year, junior Chris Dennis is the only veteran on the staff for pitching coach Matt Myers with the losses of both Jared Shore and Cliff Mullins during the offseason.
Chris Dennis will be counted on to be the ace of the pitching staff despite coming off arm surgery last season.
He will attempt to mesh a talented group of newcomers into a cohesive unit this spring while also counting on sophomore Clarence Nicely to take a more prominent role out of the bullpen. While the names will be new to most Auburn baseball fans, Slater says that people will immediately see the talent level they possess on the mound.
"We've got some guys like Bryan Woodall who was the 6A Pitcher of the Year in Alabama," Slater says. "He's got an outstanding three-pitch mix. Evan Crawford was probably the highest rated pitcher in the state of Alabama last year, another freshman. He's a three-pitch mix guy and really good. Luke Greinke is a two-way guy, an infielder/outfielder who is also a very good pitcher. He really threw the ball well in the bullpen after the fall. He's got our best arm on the team. He's going to flash the highest radar gun times and he's also got a couple of plus pitches to go with it that are off speed. Those are three young guys right off the top of the head.
"Another guy is Paul Burnside. Coming off the injury in November he got a lot of quality work in with Coach Myers. I was really impressed by him. Very similar to last year going into it there's not a lot of quality returning depth on the mound. Bret Butts was the Georgia junior college pitcher of the year. He's got great stuff and I thought he really worked hard with Coach Myers and getting better command of his stuff in the last couple of months."
The rotation looks to be Dennis, Crawford and either Woodall or junior college transfer Peter Wiggins to begin the season. Everyone else will be looked at to fill a role out of the bullpen and also get some of the mid-week starts during the season. Throwing in the low to mid 90s late in the fall, Greinke looks like the first option as a closer after losing the shortstop battle to fellow freshman Justin Bristow.
The youth movement doesn't stop on the mound, however, as Bristow and fellow freshman Mike Bianucci are the frontrunners to man the left side of the infield for the Tigers. Both physical players who bring power to the Auburn lineup, they should be staples in the middle of the batting order for years to come at Plainsman Park.
Tyler Johnstone is the most experienced returning player for the Tigers and should be at the top of the batting order.
On the right side of the infield senior Tyler Johnstone returns at second base after a very solid junior season. Now healthy, he could also play third and short if needed. At first base transfers Andy Bennett from Miami and Ryan Stanley from Georgia Tech should share the duties and both also should add power to the lineup.
Catching will be sophomore Josh Donaldson, who moves behind the plate after starting at third base last season.
In the outfield Bruce Edwards returns to roam center field and had a very productive fall. He has the potential of a Javon Moran or a Mailon Kent in center field in that he can take away base hits because of his speed.
In left senior Jeff Boutwell returns and looks to be a more physical option at the plate. He was one of the leading power producers during fall practice and also took on the role of a team leader along with Dennis.
All in all it should be an interesting season for the Tigers as they hope to build onto last season's success with another NCAA Tournament berth. While the road will be a difficult one with series against Florida State at home and a road trip to face Arizona State, Slater says that he feels like the squad has a chance to do some good things this season because of the leadership present on and off the field.
"With one recruiting class under our belt I think we've addressed some positional player depth needs," Slater says. "I think that's definitely there and as we continue to get more recruiting classes in here we will continue to get deeper in all areas of the club.
"I think we've got a nice mix of athletic young players that we can put in with some of the returning guys," he adds. "I've got to give a lot of credit to our returning players. They have done a great job of really taking these young players under their wing and not only explaining to them how hard we work here and the work ethic we expect of them, but also helping them off the field with the mental part of the game."
"There are pieces there and now it's just a matter of those guys going out and performing. I have been fortunate enough to have coached several guys that were Freshman All-Americans," he adds. "They had their highs and lows and as you get older you get more consistent. We're going to have bumps in the road and the biggest thing is keeping those guys level, not letting them get too high when it's going good and not too low when there are bad days."
The Tigers open their season Feb. 3 with the first of three games against Virginia Military Institute at Plainsman Park. Game times for the weekend series are 4 p.m. on both Friday and Saturday with a 1 p.m. start on Sunday.