Auburn, Ala.--Coach Tommy Slater and the Auburn Tigers almost escaped the Aug. 15 deadline for players to sign with professional teams unscathed but outfielder D. J. Jones from Gulf Shores signed with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays to essentially break up the perfect game for the Auburn coaching staff.
The 335th overall selection, Jones was a player that had told the coaches all along he would likely sign but actually was in Auburn and had gone through orientation in preparation for his Auburn career when the call came from the Devil Rays. Slater says even though they lost Jones at the last minute, holding on to players such as 84th overall selection Hunter Morris from Grissom High in Huntsville, 749th pick Kevin Patterson from Oak Mountain and 39th round selection Brian Fletcher from Starrs Mill High in Ga. has him feeling good about where his program stands looking down the road.
"Obviously we're very excited to be starting school today and with the deadline last night," Slater tells Inside The Auburn Tigers. "The really nice thing about this group of recruits is the families and the players were all 100 percent honest with us from day one. One young man, D.J. Jones, signed. He was very honest with us from the beginning and said signing is what he wanted to do. It was no surprise. The young men that did show up and go to class today, they had all told us a long time ago that they were coming to school. It wasn't as nerve wracking as people on the outside may think. We had every indication and trust everything would play out and it did."
Big Kevin Patterson is a player that could play the corner infield positions or even catcher for the Tigers.
While it's always nice to bring one of the top classes in the country into the fold, perhaps Auburn's biggest recruiting coup was keeping a pair of talented sophomores on campus for another season. Drafted by the Los Angeles Angels with the 718th pick, left fielder Mike Bianucci could have signed and with a strong summer in the Valley League, the same is true of outfielder/pitcher Luke Greinke. Slater says keeping those two was as big as anything that could have happened for his club this year.
"Everybody is excited because this is great and they are recruits but none of them have gotten a hit yet," Slater says. "Obviously it bodes well for the future of the program to land another good recruiting class. Even more important than these guys is the fact that Mike Bianucci and Luke Greinke returned to school as well, both of whom had offers and opportunities to sign this summer with professional clubs and that's two guys that have already done it here. While the recruiting class is very important, for this year's team it's even more important that Mike and Luke decided to return to school. I don't want that to be understated."
Mike Bianucci brings plenty of power to the Auburn lineup.
While the Tigers started the summer with Bianucci the player to most worry about, it became Greinke as the summer went on because of his play on the field. Leading the Valley League in hitting at .417, slugging at .642, and on-base percentage at .517 while adding five home runs, 12 doubles, and 32 RBI, Greinke was a one-man wrecking crew at the plate this season. He also added a 3-1 record with an ERA of 2.66 in eight appearances on the mound.
"The thing with him having that huge summer and actually being an undrafted guy, he was like a free agent for any of the clubs," Slater says. "There were some conversations. He was MVP of the Valley League. We had sat down and mapped out a plan for him at the end of the season about what he wanted to accomplish this summer and one was working as a starting pitcher and two was to continue to get his at-bats. He accomplished both of those goals. He had good pitching numbers and led the league in virtually every hitting category. He made one little adjustment at the plate with his hands and started driving the ball. He's always hit for average and been a great two-hole guy but he actually drove the ball."
In addition to the strong recruiting class coming in and the return of Bianucci and Greinke, the Tigers have also added transfer infielder Matt Hall from Arizona State for the 2008 season. A thorn in Auburn's side last year in the series at Plainsman Park when he went 8-11 in three games, Hall hit .313 for the Sun Devils last year with four home runs, 24 RBI and 10 doubles and started 45 games mostly at third base. Wanting a shot to play shortstop, Slater says Hall remembered his good times at Auburn and came calling on the Tigers.
"Matt wore us out last year here," Slater says. "He had about eight hits on the weekend and started all three games at third base. He was an eighth round pick out of high school as a shortstop. He was playing shortstop at the Cape (Cape Cod League) this summer and things just unfolded that he decided he wanted to leave Arizona State. When they played here he told me he was blown away by the atmosphere and how neat it was. That was a pretty neat weekend and obviously he had a lot of success against us. I called Coach (Pat) Murphy when he talked about leaving and he said ‘Tommy we're going to release him and I'll release him to you'. It just worked out. It really fell into our laps quite honestly."
Slater says the Tigers are scheduled to open fall practice on Thursday, Sept. 20 and will have a 45-day window to have practices, something that has been extended because of having less time to practice in the spring. Season practices have now been moved back to a mandatory NCAA start day of Feb. 1 with the first game at Feb. 22. Slater says while the changes will have some effect, he believes having more work in the fall is a good thing.
"This year our hitters should have anywhere from 130 to 150 at-bats," Slater says. "Our pitchers will have had multiple outings and a number of innings pitched. From a coaching standpoint we're really excited because we get to have a longer work with our team in a group setting. We're really excited about that."