Wednesday, August 24, 2016

In Search Of Omaha, Redux

Fall baseball practice opens up soon, and for the second year in a row, NC State appears to be a prime candidate for high preseason expectations as we look ahead to 2017.

A year ago, the Wolfpack returned the bulk of a team that came within a few outs of running fourth-ranked TCU out of its own stadium in a regional finale that the Pack ultimately gave away amid a flurry of walks and wild pitches, two misplayed routine ground balls, and one of the most egregious balk calls in NCAA Tournament history.

Flash forward to the fall of 2016 and the Wolfpack returns to campus still licking its wounds from a regional finale that got away on its own home field, a devastating ninth-inning collapse to eventual national champion Coastal Carolina. That’s two heartbreaking regional finals that NC State let get away in as many years. And while it’s foolhardy to think the Wolfpack would have traversed the same path to a national championship that the Chanticleers did, the safe money here says that if you took a poll of the Coastal Carolina coaches and players as to which was their toughest postseason opponent, NC State would be the near-unanimous winner.

NC State was College World Series good in 2016, and the bulk of that team is back, and probably carrying a pretty big chip on its collective shoulder. First baseman Preston Palmeiro (.337 average/.412 on-base percentage/.539 slugging percentage/.951 OPS), catcher Andrew Knizner (.292/.359/.388/.747 OPS) and catcher/designated hitter Chance Shepard (.279/.384/.558/.942 OPS) must be replaced from the everyday lineup. On the mound, Ryan Williamson (7-2, 2.69) is gone from the weekend rotation, and bullpen magician Will Gilbert (5-1, 2.22, 6 saves) will be by far the most difficult of the departed to replace. Those are signifiant losses, but the returning nucleus is deep and dynamic, and there are multiple candidates available to replace most of the dearly departed.

For some historical perspective, the 2017 everyday lineup has a chance to be head coach Elliott Avent’s best since 2012, maybe his best since his extraordinary 2006 squad, which batted .333 as a team, scored 8.5 runs per game with a .976 team OPS, and was the best defensive team I’ve seen in 36 years working college baseball. Avent has been overheard in recent months touting the 2012 team as his best everyday squad, but the 2006 team was better by leaps and bounds. Aside from Trea Turner, who played third base in 2012, shortstop Chris Diaz and right fielder Ryan Mathews, no one on the 2012 team would have started in 2006. And Diaz and Mathews would have to change positions to crack the ’06 lineup.

So what does that mean for 2017? Simply that this year’s Wolfpack could be in that class, based on the returnees from 2016. Shane Shepard (.258/.396/.461/.857 OPS) should move in at first base, with Jack Conley (5-for-6 in limited action) taking over at catcher. Second baseman Stephen Pitarra (.291/.376/.347/.723 OPS), shortstop Joe Dunand (.297/.345/.424/.769 OPS), third baseman Evan Mendoza (.362/.417/.449/.866 OPS), left fielder Brett Kinneman (.296/.405/.526/.931 OPS), center fielder Josh McLain (.300/.359/.465/.824 OPS) and right fielder Brock Deatherage (.317/.395/.482/.877 OPS) all return from a team that batted .303 and scored 6.9 runs per game with an .836 team OPS. Kinneman and Conley are sophomores. The rest are juniors. It’s a talented, versatile and experienced group. As good as 2012? Probably. As good as 2006? Almost certainly not, but damned good by almost any measure you care to take.

The pitching will start with junior lefty Brian Brown (7-3, 3.70), with 14 wins and 167 innings under his belt through his first two college seasons. Joe O’Donnell (3-2, 4.02), assuming he’s recovered from the shoulder injury that sidelined him most of last season, and Cory Wilder (3-4, 4.61) bring a wealth of experience to the starting rotation.

Then there’s Cody Beckman (2-0, 6.05), who came back from injury a year ago and closed the season with a rush. Beckman was especially impressive out of the bullpen in May and June. In particular, he turned in a dominating performance in the regional final vs. Coastal Carolina, recording five vital outs, four of them strikeouts, before rain halted play in the top of the ninth inning with NC State holding a 5-3 lead. The New York Mets drafted Beckman in the 25th round last June but he opted to return to Raleigh. He could move into the rotation in 2017.

Johnny Piedmonte (1-3, 5.56), Austin Staley (3-1, 3.16), Evan Brabrand (1-1, 7.23), Sean Adler (0-1. 6.94) and Tommy DeJuneas (2-3, 6.23, 6 saves) should make for an experienced bullpen nucleus, but one with a history of hiccups. Staley was impressive in a support role most of last season. Piedmonte struggled going through a lineup twice as a starter but flourished as a reliever in May and June. His dominance of Georgia Tech in the ACC Championship was an eye-opener. Brabrand, a former walk-on, has shown steady improvement in his first two seasons with the Wolfpack. Adler, a transfer from Southern Cal, has big upside but struggled with his command.

DeJuneas was a revelation as a freshman in 2015, going 3-3 with a 1.82 ERA and six saves. Blessed with a blistering fastball and plus raw stuff overall, he entered 2016 as a potential All-American but never really got untracked. His 6.37 ERA fails to do justice to just how badly his season ended. Command has been DeJuneas’s downfall. He’s worked 69 1/3 innings in two seasons, striking out 84 but walking 44. At his best, he’s nearly unhittable. At less than his best, he can be a mess. After the unceremonious end to his 2016 campaign, DeJuneas headed to Harwich of the Cape Cod League, where he saw little game action — 12 appearances, 15 1/3 innings — but no doubt got plenty of bullpen work with respected Harwich pitching coach Steve Gruenberg. DeJuneas has 12 career saves, tied for fourth most in school history. He has as much upside as just about any pitcher in the country. It’s unfair to say he’s the key to success in 2017 because that’s just not the case. If he could start to fulfill some of that promise, however, that would make a huge difference.

With that kind of experience back, as erratic as some of the pitching might be, Avent is in the enviable position of bringing his recruiting class along at its own speed without having to rely on any newcomers who aren’t ready for prime time. Several of this year’s recruits, however, could well play significant roles in 2017.

In particular, Brad Debo, from Durham and Orange High School, is an elite-level hitter and catcher, a top-100 national recruit who will push Conley for time behind the plate. Righthander Dalton Feeney, another top-100-caliber recruit, brings some health concerns, with whispers of a partially torn UCL following him, but if healthy Feeney is the Wolfpack’s best pitching prospect since Carlos Rodon arrived in the fall of 2011. Nolan Clenney, a two-way performer who helped lead Brunswick Community College to the 2016 NJCAA World Series, has the potential to be at least a midweek starter, not a high-end prospect but a strike-thrower capable of eating innings.

Several other newcomers could earn roles of varying importance in 2017, but again, Avent will have the luxury of not depending on any freshmen to carry the team.

So what does it all mean for 2017? At first glance, this team probably has the best chance of reaching the College World Series of any Wolfpack team since the 2013 squad went to Omaha. This team’s everyday lineup is light years better than the 2013 team, which struggled to score runs much of the season and finished with a team OPS of just .742. The 2013 team made up for a lack of pop by stealing a school-record 110 bases, but overall that club’s offense was Turner, Jake Fincher and a carload of unheralded seniors who provided guile, guts and tremendous leadership, but not much in the way of actual offense.

On the mound, this year’s team has no Carlos Rodon, but it should have a deeper rotation than the 2013 club, which struggled when Rodon wasn’t on the hill. The remainder of the 2013 rotation — Ethan Ogburn, Brad Stone and Logan Jernigan — averaged 3 2/3 innings per start, putting immense pressure on a bullpen that was up to each and every challenge.

Grant Sasser (3-0, 1.03, 8 saves, 33 appearances, 43.2 IP), Chris Overman (1-1, 0.33, 6 saves, 21 appearances, 27.1 IP) and Josh Easley (7-2, 1.38, 25 appearances, 45.2 IP) were the bellwethers of what was arguably the best bullpen in the country and almost certainly the best bullpen in NC State history. As much as anyone on the team, the troika of Sasser, Overman and Easley was responsible for NC State’s 2013 march to Omaha.

So the question that must be asked is: Does a solid and deep rotation, an erratic but promising bullpen, and a talented and dynamic everyday lineup add up to a College World Series berth? Clearly, that remains to be seen. There’s a lot of work to do and a lot of games to play between now and then. All kinds of things can happen. Luck and injuries will play a role.

What we do know, however, is that, based on all available evidence, this team has a chance to be special, and in late August that’s the best you can ask for, a chance.