This weekend will be the first weekend without football of any sort since August. Football withdrawals are going to kick in when we turn on the television and realize the games are absent from the guide for another six months.
Assuming the majority of people reading Dawg Post are also linked to the Atlanta Falcons, most of us are still licking our wounds from the disastrous results of Sunday’s big game. The pain makes us wonder if we can ever love sports again, and cautious of investing in another team that might break our hearts. But I’m here to tell you that you can love again, and why you should invest the time to follow Georgia baseball in 2017.
The Dawgs season gets underway tomorrow night with the “1st Pitch Banquet” at the Classic Center before next Friday’s season opener. Former UGA All-American shortstop Gordon Beckham is the guest speaker and manager Scott Stricklin will introduce his 35-man roster to the Dawg faithful.
After the 2015 recruiting class finished 24th, Stricklin followed it up with 2016’s third ranked recruiting class. The second stage in rebuilding the program is underway in Athens with 25 of 35 players entering their freshman or sophomore season.
For as much excitement Kirby Smart has generated for the youth overhaul in Sanford Stadium, Stricklin should receive the same for his overhaul on Foley Field.
In recent seasons, UGA hasn’t dominated the state of Georgia the way it should. Letting recruits slip to Mercer, Georgia Southern and Kennesaw State has hurt, but Stricklin has righted the ship by recruiting the top in-state talent two years in a row.
While the 2015 class didn’t feature any top-100 players and lost three to the MLB Draft, the 2016 class landed four recruits from the top-100 and convinced the three MLB draftees to stay.
Parallel with college football, recruiting is the lifeblood of any program. UGA is the outlier among top recruiting classes as the only team in the top 10 that isn’t also featured in preseason top-25 poll.
Most pundits project the Dawgs to finish below .500 this season, finishing at the bottom of the conference. Even though the projections aren’t favorable, the biggest compelling interest in UGA baseball is the bright future beyond this season.
The SEC features seven teams in USA Today’s top 25 poll, four of which stack the top-10. As is ritual in football, the SEC is also a baseball power – giving you more ammunition when sticking it to your out-of-conference coworkers at the water cooler. Unfortunately, preseason previews have Georgia dwelling at the bottom of SEC standings. This projection has more to do with the unknowns of a young roster than actual expectations.
Compared to the rest of the conference that averages roughly 10 freshmen and nine sophomores, UGA’s roster lists 14 freshmen and 11 sophomores. They aren’t the youngest team in the conference, but the expectations are low due to the lack of success achieved by the juniors and seniors on the team. Other young teams that are highly ranked, like Ole Miss and Vanderbilt, compliment their inexperience with upperclassmen that have played in the postseason.
Stricklin made clear after the Fall Classic back in October that he “won’t be checking birth certificates at the door” when deciding on starters. Because the team is young, they will need freshmen to mature quickly in a conference schedule that shows little mercy.
Freshmen to keep an eye on this season:
Drafted in the 37th round of the MLB Draft by the Atlanta Braves, what the 5’11 pitcher lacks in stature he makes up for in strikeouts with velocity. In the Fall Classic, Kristofak served as a closer and late relief option, coming out of the bullpen to strike out the side on 10 pitches.
Locey is another aggressive hurler who attacks hitters with heat around the strike zone. Locey finished high school as the top pitching recruit in Georgia and named 1st team All-American, with a 2.04 ERA and 120 strikeouts in 77 innings. In his lone appearance during the Fall Classic, he completed four innings in his start, striking out seven of the 13 batters faced.
Drafted in the 29th round of last year’s draft by the Boston Red Sox, Shephard figures to be among the handful of freshman that litter the starting lineup. Showing a knack for driving in runs during the Fall Classic with some RBIs and a two-run homerun, the high school 2nd-team All American is the favorite to start at shortstop.
The 6’1 lefty drafted by the Tampa Bay Rays in the 26th round will likely crack the starting rotation for balance. Glover recorded an impeccable 10-0 record with a 1.52 ERA and 94 strikeouts and roughly 64 innings pitched as a starter for Buford High School last season. Glover will most likely see regular action in the starting rotation with Tony Locey.
If you plan watching the youth movement on TV, UGA baseball is on the SEC Network for eight games this season. The most important games receiving national broadcast are against Clemson, Georgia Tech, South Carolina and Vanderbilt. With three of the four opponents ranked preseason top 15, UGA’s young squad will get a chance to play spoiler on national TV and possibly build confidence and recognition.
Not only will UGA get exposure on national television, but they will also have the honor of breaking in the brand-new SunTrust park against Missouri on Saturday, April 8th. The game will be SunTrust Park’s first public event, a week before the Braves open the gates. The Dawgs will revisit the ballpark to face in-state rival Georgia Tech on May 9th.
The Dawgs aren't scheduled to be title contenders in 2017, but investing in this young team should pay dividends when they are title contenders in the near future. The youngins' probably won’t produce runs consistently or always field the ball cleanly. But for just as much as they struggle, they should develop and show flashes of brilliance thorughout the season.
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