Thursday, July 2, 2015

A Look Ahead: NC State To Omaha In 2016?

For the second time in four years, Kendall Rogers — with Perfect Game USA in 2012 and now with D1Baseball — has looked into his crystal ball and chosen NC State as one of his “Eight For Omaha” for the upcoming college baseball season.

Rogers was right the first time, in July 2012, based in large part on the presence of All-Americans Carlos Rodon and Trea Turner, backed by a deep, talented and veteran supporting cast. Rogers didn’t venture too far out onto that proverbial limb to make that prediction, and the Wolfpack rode a razor’s edge for most of 2013 before ultimately advancing to the College World Series for the first time in 45 years.

Rogers’ prediction for 2016 is much more complex, much more nuanced, and much less of a sure thing. That’s not to say the 2013 Wolfpack was a sure thing, nor is it to say that Rogers is wrong about 2016. Let’s just say that if NC State wants to advance to Omaha next June, several key pieces will have to fall into place, all of them well within the realm of possibility but none of them a sure thing. Rogers briefly addressed three of them in his capsule look at the 2016 Pack.

First, he said that head coach Elliott Avent’s team will be stronger moving forward because of the 2015 team’s epic meltdown in the 2015 regional finals at TCU. Second, he noted that Avent will have to replace senior hitters Logan Ratledge and Jake Fincher. And finally, he assumed a major fact not yet in evidence (sorry, been watching too many Perry Mason reruns lately) when he asserted that a much more consistent Cory Wilder will team with rising sophomore lefthander Brian Brown to give NC State “two big-time arms in the weekend rotation.”

Let’s take these in reverse order of importance. As much as NC State will miss Ratledge and Fincher’s offensive production, it’s their leadership that Avent will have the most trouble replacing. This is especially true of Ratledge but it applies to Fincher as well. Together, they gave the Wolfpack its best team leadership since Tarran Senay, Grant Clyde, Bryan Adametz and Brett Williams led the 2013 team to the College World Series. It was Ratledge and Fincher who steered this year’s team through some tough early losses. It was Ratledge and Fincher who kept the team together through an awful losing stretch in April. And it was Ratledge and Fincher who kept the team between the ditches and barreling straight ahead as it gained momentum during its red-hot run through the month of May.

No question, Ratledge was NC State’s best player, an All-America-caliber middle infielder who got shafted by the coaches in his own conference, relegating him to third-team All-ACC. But the Wolfpack returns plenty of potent bats in 2016, led by catcher Andrew Knizner and first baseman Preston Palmeiro, but also including catcher/outfielder Chance Shepard, third baseman Joe Dunand and outfielders Tommy DeJuneas, Josh McLain and Brock Deatherage. Of that group, Shepard is a rising senior, and Knizner and Palmeiro are rising juniors. The rest will be sophomores. Add incoming freshman infielder Xavier LeGrant, an exceptional hitting prospect, to the mix and NC State should score its share of runs in 2016.

The unanswered question is who will assume the mantle of leadership, and the easy guess is Knizner and Palmeiro. Knizner was a 2014 Freshman All-America third baseman, then seamlessly moved behind the plate this year. His leadership of the pitching staff was a team strength. Palmeiro, meanwhile, grew up in major league clubhouses, tagging after his father, 20-year big leaguer Rafael Palmeiro, in late-career stops with the Texas Rangers and Baltimore Orioles. Preston Palmeiro may have the best baseball IQ on the NC State roster, and you would be hard-pressed to name one instance during his first two years with the Wolfpack when he let the game speed up on him. He and Knizner would appear to be 2016’s natural team leaders.

Next up the list is the pitching staff. I’ve earned a reputation as something of a scold on the subject of pitchers who don’t throw strikes, so I’ll try not to dwell too long on the subject here. It is an issue, however, and it’s not just about Wilder, whose upside is so off-the-charts that even an incremental improvement in his command could turn him into a potential All-American and first-round draft pick in 2016.

If this was a matter of one pitcher fighting to find the strike zone, then we wouldn’t even be having this discussion, but as a staff — as a staff! — NC State averaged 4.62 walks per nine innings in 2015. Five Wolfpack pitchers averaged more than 5.0 walks per nine innings. Pack pitchers walked six or more 20 times in 59 games. They walked five or more 30 times. Lack of command is usually, although not always, incurable, at least in college where winning matters and the leash is subsequently short. The light may turn on for one pitcher, but the odds of several figuring it out at once, well, that’s a long shot.

With all that said, there is hope for this staff, but also considerable work still to be done. The Wolfpack held opposing hitters to a .215 batting average, second best in the conference, but erratic control — 274 walks and an ACC-worst 79 hit batters — led to a .335 opponents on-base percentage. Sixty-four wild pitches, two shy of the league lead, led to at least that many free extra bases (probably somewhere in the neighborhood of 20 or more extra runs, but that’s an educated guess). Deep pitch counts by starting pitchers forced the bullpen to throw 35 more innings than the starters for the season.

Despite this wild ride, NC State finished the year with a remarkable 2.93 staff ERA, second in the ACC and a tribute to first-year pitching coach Scott Foxhall, who took over a young and inexperienced pitching staff and deftly guided it all the way to the finals of an NCAA regional. And despite the meltdown in the regional finals in Fort Worth, NC State still might have beaten TCU and advanced to a Super Regional except for one of the worst balk calls in the history of the game.

Speaking of the meltdown in Fort Worth, how NC State recovers from that has to rank at the top of any list of questions facing the Wolfpack in 2016. Rogers assumes that the Pack will be stronger for it, another fact not yet in evidence (objection overruled!), yet Rogers is likely right. One thing is for certain — the 2016 Wolfpack will either be defined by that meltdown or will return to campus in the fall with a steely resolve not to let that happen ever again. This goes back to the leadership issue discussed above. With a strong and deep nucleus of experienced position players back next year, it only stands to reason this team could be one of the best and mentally toughest late-inning teams in the country.

Does all of that add up to a trip to Omaha? Not necessarily, but it should put NC State on the short list of College World Series contenders.