The specter of entering a season with a completely overhauled pitching rotation would be daunting for any college baseball coach, let alone one in his first year leading a program.
That's where Kentucky's Nick Mingione finds himself as the Wildcats open the season Friday at No. 17 North Carolina with equal parts optimism and trepidation.
First, the scary part: UK must replace all 42 of its weekend starts and 65 percent of its total innings pitched from last season.
Now, the silver lining: The Cats are turning those starts over to a group of talented arms that includes three of the SEC's top 35 draft prospects -- Sean Hjelle, Justin Lewis (pictured above) and Zach Logue -- and one of the league's top incoming freshmen in the form of Zack Thompson.
"I couldn't be more impressed with our pitching staff," Mingione said during UK Baseball Media Day. "When you have 18- to 22-year-olds and you present them with a challenge, then there's tremendous opportunity, and it's like a carrot dangling in their face. They all want it. They've been awesome."
Hjelle and Lewis are in new roles after earning Freshman All-American honors out of the UK bullpen last season. It's fitting that they'll make their debuts as starters in a matchup between UK and UNC as they could pass for players on John Calipari or Roy Williams' basketball teams. Hjelle towers on the mound at 6-foot-11, while Lewis checks in at 6-foot-7. And they have big arms to match.
As a freshman, Hjelle served as the Cats' closer, going 4-1 with eight saves and a 3.74 ERA. The wiry right-hander from Minnesota struck out 29 batters in 21.2 innings pitched and is currently rated the No. 9 prospect in the SEC by D1 Baseball.
Lewis, also a right-hander, worked in middle relief as a freshman, compiling a 2-0 record with a 2.08 ERA in 21 appearances. The Georgia native fanned 25 batters in 30.1 innings pitched.
"You start talking about Justin Lewis at 6-foot-7 and Sean Hjelle at 6-foot-11 - I think we've got some uniqueness," Mingione said. "Hjelle, his breaking ball is an above-average SEC pitch... I've been so impressed with his competitive nature and his ability to attack hitters.
"(Lewis) is stronger. His slider has improved and his change-up is absolutely one of the best change-ups that I've been a part of in my coaching career. Sometimes it even acts like a screwball."
The sophomores will be joined by junior left-hander Zach Logue (3-2, 2.68) in the opening rotation of the season. The Ohio native was a solid mid-week starter and bullpen specialist last season. He is coming off an impressive summer in the competitive Cape Cod League where he posted a 1.97 ERA.
"When we talk about student-person-player, the guy exemplifies it," Mingione said. "He is the epitome of student-person-player. His slider has gotten better. His fastball command has improved."
Another player to keep a close eye on is freshman Zack Thompson (above). The left-hander from Indiana showed tremendous potential in fall scrimmages and, according to some of UK's hitters, may boast some of the best stuff on the entire staff.
"He's got a plus fastball," Mingione said. "He's beyond his years, as far as a freshman goes, when it comes to his poise and fastball command."
The inexperienced UK staff will be tested early by the Tar Heels, who boast a pair of pre-season All-Americans in Friday night starter J.B. Bukauskas and outfielder Brian Miller.
The Cats counter with an All-American of their own in the form of junior first baseman Evan White, who led the team with a .376 batting average, 40 RBI and 10 stolen bases while also winning a Rawlings Gold Glove for his stellar defensive work.
It will mark only the second meeting between the Cats and Heels on the baseball diamond and the first in 100 years.
WEEKEND PITCHING ROTATION:
UK – Sean Hjelle (So., RHP): 4-1, 3.74 ERA, 8 saves
UNC – J.B. Bukauskas (Jr., RHP): 7-2, 3.10 ERA, 111 strikeouts
UK – Zach Logue (Jr., LHP): 3-2, 2.68 ERA
UNC – Jason Morgan (Jr., RHP): 3-3, 4.10 ERA
UK – Justin Lewis (So., RHP): 2-0, 2.08 ERA, 4 saves
UNC – Luca Dalatri (Fr., RHP): N/A
Date/Time: Feb. 17 (3 p.m.); Feb. 18 (2 p.m.); Feb. 19 (1 p.m.)
Location (Facility): Chapel Hill, N.C. (Boshamer Stadium)
Radio: UK Radio Network; 98.5 FM-Lexington (Dick Gabriel); ukathletics.com