Tuesday, January 19, 2010

2010 Season Preview (Part 2)

Pitching, Pitching, Pitching. It will be what either keeps Auburn out of Hoover for another (dismal) season; or what propels the Tigers to the NCAAs. I honestly don’t know what to expect from the pitching staff. Last year, Auburn could show flashes of brilliance, then on other nights just completely implode. If I had to guess our weekend rotation would shake up with Jon Luke Jacobs, Grant Dayton, and Cory Luckie. However, pitching is definately one of our most fluid positions. It’s a position Coach John Palowski is known for refining and I know it was an emphasis this fall:

In this league you’ve got to have pitching. That’s one of the main things we’ve worked on this fall is putting a lot of emphasis on our pitching. I think we have more options this year.

Well, Auburn will have a ton of options. Auburn signed 2 JUCO guys who will compete right out of the gate in Cole Nelson and Stephen Kolscheen. Add to that returning starters in Grant Dayton, Jon Luke Jacobs, Dexter Price and spot starter Ty Kelley , sprinkle in Cory Luckie who is returning from injury, and then add Freshman Slade Smith from Fort Payne and you have 8 guys all battling for the 3 weekend spots. We might be able to eliminate Price and Kelley from that mix. Price was decent as a Freshman, but could probably use with a year in the bullpen and in a spot start here or there. In the recent Fall World Series, the matchups were: Jon Luke Jacobs vs. Cole Nelson Friday, Stephen Kohlscheen vs. Grant Dayton on Sunday and Cory Luckie vs. Slade Smith on Sunday. Those have to be front runners going in.



3 BIG QUESTIONS



1. WHO ARE THE NEW GUYS?

Kohlscheen, Smith, and Nelson are a bit of a mystery. You know they are good. SK and DN were highly regarded JUCO guys and Smith was one of the better pitchers in the state last year. How they factor into the rotation will be the biggest question mark for 2010.

Stephen Kolscheen: Both he and Nelson are towers of pitchers. Both stand 6’7 (The only difference: SK is an RHP, CN is a LHP)

Kohlscheen has spent the past two seasons at Cowley College, leading the team to the 2009 Junior College World Series in Grand Junction, Colo. In 72 1/3 innings this season spanning 16 appearances, he had a 3.86 ERA with 73 strikeouts against just 27 walks, going 9-2 along the way. That followed up a freshman season in which he was 4-4 with a 2.76 ERA with 42 Ks in 53 innings. While at Cowley, he was a member of Phi Beta Kappa, an academic honor society (via).

SK is also coveted by MLB scouts already being drafted by the Marlins out of High School and the Phillies just last year.

Cole Nelson (left): Another tall and talented pitcher. Nelson has a 4-2 Record last year and served mainly as a reliever for his JUCO team. The best part of his upside is that he keeps improving. Last year, he raised his fastball from 74 to 93 mph. A huge jump. With his size, that fastball, and a little bit of refinement, he could be a force. I don’t seem like I’m the only one who’s excited about Nelson:

“We are very excited that Cole chose Auburn. He has a chance to be a very good pitcher in the SEC, and there is no telling how good Cole will be before he gets on campus due to his tremendous work ethic and the job the staff does at DMACC. Cole’s upside is through the roof, and I think his best days are ahead of him.”(AU assistant Matt Heath via)

“When you’re looking at some of the new faces that you’ll see then Cole Nelson is one of the guys that comes to mind,” Pawlowski said. “He’s a big 6-8 left-handed pitcher who has done a good job for us. I think he’s really started to come into his own here in the fall (CJP via)

Slade Smith (right): A two sport star at Ft. Payne, Smith could have played football at a D2 or 1AA school, but instead chose baseball at Auburn. He already comes ready to play and can throw 3 pitches already. If he misses he seems to miss low. In his senior season he had an ERA of 1.53, 99k and threw 4 shutouts. If a guy who is a true freshman can come in and compete for a starting job then he must be doing something special.



2. WHAT DO WE HAVE?

The front end might be uncertain, but the back end is pretty shored up. Austin Hubbard is our closer. Having that stability is certain. Zach Blatt should serve as a competent set up man and may be groomed to close later in the season and possibly close later if Hubbard needs rest. Bradley Hendrix should remain our go to arm out of the pen for long relief (Last year, he was just one game behind closer Austin Hubbard in appearances). Price and Kelley should move to the pen full time to focus on their mechanics and compete their Senior seasons. Sprinkle in situational guys and our bullpen looks stocked depth wise.

That’s about it really. All of our starting pitchers have to be considered wild cards. Luckie hasn’t pitched in a year, Jacobs and Dayton were ineffective for most of last year (both started 13 games each, but could only muster 3 and 2 wins respectively).

Like I said before, this is the hardest position to nail down. We might have a better idea in February, but for now take everything with a grain of salt.



3. WHAT’S THE STRATEGY?

Basically the first two weeks of the season should serve as a good barometer of what to expect for the season. Thanks to the NCAA pushing for a universal start date, the season will start later and Auburn will lose 1 or 2 series that we’d normally have played in.

We’ll kick things off with SEMO on Feb 19. That first weekend should be our first look at the rotation, with the three guys who start that weekend having the inside track for SEC play.

The next weekend, in my opinion, should serve as an audition process for the three guys who didn’t start. Each team is pretty decent and would be a great early test.

Whittle it down with the midweek games vs Davidson, tweak it a bit with Miami (OH), and then go into the March series with Arizona State having your weekend rotation in place.

The X-Factor is Cory Luckie. He hasn’t pitched in a year, but looking at video and hearing him discuss his injuries it looks like he is back to 100%. However, I’d take a cautious approach to his return. I might hold off on him starting right away and instead let him get some relief work in during the SEMO series, start one of the Davidson games, the Capitol City Classic (vs Alabama) and then one of the midweek games against Alabama A&M. He’ll miss the opening series against UGA but after that he’ll be on a nice rest schedule and be completely acclimated to pitching again. Just a thought.

Bottom Line is this: The Pitching has to improve. I know, you know it, everyone knows it. Thankfully we’re at a point now where its become a priority. The biggest thing that killed the Auburn staff last year is that we were overtaxed. We have guys pitching on incredibly short rest, multiple days in a row, and being put into tough situations. We have the depth now where we can have 6 guys on the front end, and a bullpen with 3 spot starters. That’s a good thing to have. The main burden is on the starters though. They have to abandon this “5 and Fly” mentality. The best thing we can do is have our starters go into the 7th inning at the least. That will shorten the game and gives us the best chance to win. Last year we couldn’t do that. Our depth wouldn’t allow it.

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