So it’s that time of year again. Yep, I know it’s probably snuck up on most of you seeing how it’s still all wintry and stuff, but in only a couple of days the Pack9 kicks off the 2016 season.
And 2016 has the potential to be a pretty darned good year for baseball in Raleigh.
A year ago the Pack struggled at times, but still managed to come on strong down the stretch and ended up coming up just one game short of an ACC title. And while we will NOT discuss what happened in Fort Worth the following week (up yours, TCU), I will say that I’m confident the players have not forgotten how that felt either.
Onward and upward to 2016.
The Pack9 enters 2016 with a top ten pre-season ranking (#10). But as always, the ACC is not without a bevy of teams with high expectations. By division, this is a reasonable projected preseason expectation of pecking order coming into the season, with ranked teams shown in parenthesis:
- (10)NC State
- (20)Florida State
- *Notre Dame
- *Wake Forest
- Boston College
- (16)North Carolina
- *Georgia Tech
- Virginia Tech
*In addition to those with preseason rankings, ND and GT are likely strong enough in ’16 to dip in and out (at least) of the rankings as the season goes along, with Wake and Clemson likely in the hunt for NCAA Regional bids as well. In other words, as always, the Atlantic Division will be tough. It will be interesting to see who sneaks up and who fails miserably.
State kicks things off on the road this Friday in the Baseball at the Beach event hosted by Coastal Carolina each year. The Pack opens up against Old Dominion on Friday, faces the host Chanticleers on Saturday, and wraps things up against Kent State on Sunday.
Next week, the Pack will stay busy, weather permitting, as they welcome Morehead State and St John’s to Raleigh for midweek single games on Tuesday and Wednesday, before welcoming Wright State to town for a weekend three gamer February 26-28.
Looking down the road to the ’16 conference season, the Pack will have their work cut out for them on the road this year as they will have to travel to face all of (2)Louisville, (13)UVa, (20)FSU, Clemson, and GT. On the other hand, the Pack’s home conference slate includes all of the fellow Big Four schools coming to Raleigh, along with ND and BC.
It’s no secret what the Pack needs from the pitching staff in ’16…better control. Throw strikes, limit the freebies. Often in ’15 they weren’t so good at doing that in crucial moments. But when they had command they were really good, and most of the pieces return for ’16. Joe O’Donnell(#42,JR,RHP) and Brian Brown(#38,SO,LHP) are expected to anchor the starting rotation. Both had great years last year, with the frosh Brown garnering 1st team Freshman All-America honors.
The other regular spots are a little less clear. While big Johnny Piedmonte(#33,R-JR,RHP), whose fastball was up to the mid 90’s in fall ball, and Corey Wilder(#35,JR,RHP), whose control escaped him all too often last year (but he was nearly untouchable when he was on) will undoubtedly be in the mix, Evan Mendoza(#18,SO,RHP) or Austin Staley(#20,R-FR,RHP) might have something to say about it as well. Any of the four may also end up as important pieces in the bullpen.
In the bullpen, Tommy DeJuneas(#42,SO,RHP) will look to improve his command and build on his impressive frosh season. Always steady and reliable, Travis Orwig(#39,R-SR,LHP) and Will Gilbert(#51,SR,LHP) are both back as well. The Pack also welcomes lefty Sean Adler(#29,R-JR,LHP) to the pen this year, a USC transfer.
Logan Ratledge, who finally realized his potential and came on strong in ’16, is gone. And while just about everybody else of note is back, it will be no small feat to replace Ratledge, both offensively and defensively.
Andrew Knizner(#11,JR,C), who not only made the move from 3B to Catcher in ’15, but absolutely killed it in the process, is probably the Pack’s biggest key in ’16. But it’s not as if the rest of the Pack’s infield can be overlooked.
Preston Palmeiro(#12,JR,1B), Joe Dunand(#3,SO,INF) and Ryne Willard(#8,SR,INF), who came on nicely last year, all look to build on strong seasons at the plate. The defacto replacement of Ratledge, on the other hand, appears likely to fall on true freshman Xavier LeGrant(#2,FR,INF), a speedy middle infielder from Charlotte. One of the top recruits in the country, LeGrant has the potential to step in and make an impact from day 1.
Aside from Palmeiro anchoring first base, exactly where and how the other three will piece together on defense will probably be somewhat fluid, at least initially. Dunand manned 3B well last year, but he is more the natural SS. LeGrant is a natural 2B, but his skills may slot him to 3B, with Willard, who spent most of ’15 at SS, falling into 2B by default.
Confused? Me too.
Like I said, it might be somewhat fluid for a while more than likely. LeGrant’s arm, and who is comfortable with whom in the middle infield DP combo will settle the issue eventually.
(hat tip to theCOWDOG for this suggestion)
State returns an outfield full of speed, and hopefully a year better experienced. Brock Deatherage(#13,SO,OF), Josh McLain(#15,SO,OF) and Shane Shepard(#16,SO,OF), all sophomores, should hopefully be a year better defensively as a result. Where the outfield really needs to improve however, is at the plate.
While Deatherage was more than respectable in ’15, with a more favorable spot in the order he should be able to up his production considerably.
McLain and Shepard, on the other hand….well, if they can combine to approach the Mendoza line it will be a distinct improvement. Hoping for a happy surprise here because McLain especially, with his speed, could be a game changer much the same way Trea Turner was when he got on base.
But Josh…first you gotta get on base. If you don’t, Garrett Suggs(#10,R-SO,OF) is just waiting to take your job, son.
And lest I forget, Shane’s big brother Chance Shepard(#24,SR,C/DH). Toward the end of the year he settled in nicely in his DH role, and I know of no reason why that will change, while spelling Knizner behind the plate at times.
Hopefully he’s gotten used to the hero role as well.
So, it’s baseball. Potentially some really good baseball. It’s too early to talk Omaha of course, but the pieces are there. In any case, you should get your butts out to the Doak and take in some games either way. It’s always a good time.