Fall Report: NC StateFall Report
RALEIGH, N.C. — The COVID-19 pandemic robbed NC State of a very promising season — the Wolfpack was 14-3 and ranked No. 11 in the country when the season was canceled in March. But the pandemic-shortened draft was actually very kind to NC State, despite the expected losses of first-rounder Patrick Bailey and second-rounder Nick Swiney.
In a normal draft, the Wolfpack also would have likely lost Tyler McDonough as a draft-eligible sophomore, plus juniors Devonte Brown and Austin Murr, not to mention a host of key veteran arms that all went unselected in a five-round draft and returned to Raleigh for another go-round. As a result, NC State is extraordinarily deep in the lineup and on the mound, and the offense has far more star power than it otherwise would have in 2021.
Between McDonough, Brown, Murr, third-year sophomore Luca Tresh and second-year freshman shortstop Jose Torres, NC State might have one of the best lineup foundations in college baseball.
“The first four hitters in our lineup, I’m gonna have to think back to when we’ve had four better hitters in the first four of our lineup,” NC State coach Elliott Avent said. “I told Tresh and Devonte that I’m gonna have to give them a nickname. I kid about ‘Thunder and Lightning’ because of Will Clark and Rafael Palmeiro (at Mississippi State in the 1980s); they said they like that, but no you can’t have that, it’s already taken.
“But I talk about the first four, the first five — and then I’m thinking, ‘Shoot, I think one through nine we can hit.’”
McDonough, a versatile, switch-hitting center fielder and second baseman, is simply one of the best all-around players in the ACC, and maybe the entire country. He performed at a high level as a freshman in 2019 and got off to another strong start in 2020, hitting for average (.354) and power (.554 slugging), walking (14) more than he struck out (10), stealing seven bases in seven tries, and playing stellar defense in center field. After an intrasquad scrimmage this week, I overheard Avent telling his younger players to emulate McDonough, because the coach has never seen him take an at-bat off in three years since he stepped on campus. He’s just a natural born hitter, and he also looked great at second base this week, but he probably fits best in center field on this team, which has a defensive standout at second in veteran J.T. Jarrett.
“I thought Josh McLain was the best center fielder I’d ever had at NC State, unless it was Brett Williams,” Avent said. “I got to thinking when I was texting Josh, ‘Gosh, who’s better, him or McDonough?’ And I can’t make that call. But I still think McDonough is gonna play in the big leagues at second base. In scrimmages he makes plays that are just jaw-dropping. But our better team could be with J.T. at second, which puts McDonough in center.”
Jarrett, son of Notre Dame coach Link Jarrett, has gradually gotten better year after year. He has worked hard to add strength and is noticeably more physical this fall, and it showed in his at-bats, as he made repeated hard line-drive contact in the two scrimmages I caught. He also continued to dazzle defensively, showing off impressive range and body control.
Jarrett and Torres should form an elite defensive double-play tandem. Torres is a gifted natural shortstop whose athleticism, slick actions, premium range and strong arm have been well documented since he showed up on campus last fall. He also has serious bat speed, which he showcased Tuesday by ripping an RBI single off a 94 mph fastball that exited the bat at 102 mph, a day after turning on another fastball for an RBI double down the left-field line. Like Jarrett, he has gotten stronger, and he’s worked hard to do a better job maintaining his focus and becoming more consistent on defense. If he can refine his offensive approach a bit and improve against righthanded breaking balls, he has top-10-pick upside.
“It’s unbelievable how he’s grown as a player, it’s been so fabulous to watch,” Avent said. “That’s what happens to good players who come in and work. … He’s grown so much as a hitter since he’s been at NC State. He’s worked hard and gotten a lot stronger, like Trea Turner. If you looked at Trea’s body when he was at NC State or even now, he doesn’t favor Mark McGwire, but he has good strength. Same with Jose, he’s got more strength than you realize. He had all the tools coming in here, that’s why we were fortunate to get him here, we thought we would lose him to the draft. But what he has done is he’s just gotten more consistent. You can call it flash or you can call it skill, either one, but when you watch SportsCenter at night and they’re showing all these spin plays and dramatic plays, they’re not showing fundamentals. We get very talented kids who are able to do things on TV, and that’s fantastic. But he’s gotten so much better with his throwing and fundamentally.”
Brown, a fourth-year player like Jarrett, was one of the team’s most improved players last spring and has continued to make gains this fall. He’s a quality athlete who hits for power but has also learned to control the strike zone better and hit for average. With a slightly open stance, Brown has good balance and rhythm and a quiet setup, but he whips his barrel through the zone with force, as he demonstrated on a homer Tuesday that exited the bat at 106.4 mph. In a previous at-bat, he showed off advanced barrel skill, handling a good changeup down and away and lacing it down the left-field line for a double. Avent said he believes Brown has the ability to reach the big leagues as either a third baseman or a right fielder, and he could continue to see action at both positions in 2021, because he has worked hard to turn himself into a good defender at both spots. But Avent says he is “unbelievable” in right field, so look for him to see the most action there.
The other half of Avent’s “Thunder & Lightning” duo is Tresh, a third-year sophomore who spent the last two years learning the nuances of the catcher position behind Bailey, one of the nation’s best backstops. Avent said he has improved dramatically as a defensive catcher, but his righthanded power bat is his calling card. Avent isn’t shy about bold comparisons, and he says Tresh reminds him of Mike Piazza. “He’s got that strength, that raw strength in the hands and forearms,” Avent said. “He’s probably the most feared guy in our lineup.”
Juco transfer Danny Carnazzo also should see plenty of action behind the plate, where he has clean, simple mechanics and abundant energy. He also showed off good righthanded pop in batting practice, so the Wolfpack shouldn’t sacrifice much offense — if any — when it plays Carnazzo at catcher and Tresh at DH.
Murr will remain entrenched at first base, where he showed off excellent instincts and footwork in scrimmages this week, particularly on a gorgeous diving play on a hot shot down the line. But his bat is his calling card, and his bat is special. NC State pitching coach Clint Chrysler marveled after a Murr at-bat in Tuesday’s scrimmage that it seems like he gets five hits every scrimmage. He hit .306/.470/.629 with 16 walks against just eight strikeouts in the spring, and his barrel-to-ball instincts and strike zone awareness should make him one of the toughest outs in the ACC this spring. The lefthanded-hitting Murr particularly shines at wearing out the oppo gap.
“Murr is a special hitter,” Avent said. “I was asking some of our pitchers the other day, ‘Who’s our best two-strike hitter? And they all said in unison, ‘Murr.’”
That leaves two spots where competition will be particularly fierce, although Avent also has the luxury of sliding Brown and McDonough to the infield as needed, giving him enviable lineup flexibility. In left field, veteran Jonny Butler (a man who earned the nickname “Jonny Barrels” earlier in his NC State career) looks like the favorite for the everyday job. He’s been a regular for the last two years, bringing a nice contact bat, good speed and excellent defense to the outfield mix. But Avent said he looks better than ever right now — bigger, stronger and a tougher out at the plate. But fellow veteran Terrell Tatum has also made huge strides as he enters his fourth year in Raleigh, and Avent said he’s had a “great, great, great fall.” Like Butler, he has gotten stronger and more consistent, and he’s dramatically improved his outfield play as well as the quality of his at-bats. Tatum should definitely be a factor in the outfield, and it should be interesting to see how the competition for playing time turns out. The Wolfpack could certainly choose to put both Tatum and Butler in the outfield at the same time by sliding McDonough to second or Brown to third. Speedy second-year freshman Noah Soles, a lefthanded hitter who homered in Tuesday’s scrimmage, also should factor into the outfield mix.
The hot corner has even more competition. Assuming Brown spends more time in right field, third base boils down to a battle between veteran Vojtech Mensik and freshmen Eddie Eisert and Carson Falsken. Mensik is clearly the best defensive third baseman on the roster, and Avent continued to rave about his defense this fall, but he needs to continue to improve at the plate. Falsken is a polished California product with outstanding defensive instincts and skills that play at third base or shortstop — he’s likely the shortstop of the future after Torres leaves. He’s also a switch-hitter with good barrel skills from both sides of the plate. Eisert is also a switch-hitter, but he has a bigger, more projectable frame, and it’s easy to dream on his power potential as he matures. Like Falsken, he’s also a very good athlete who runs well and shows significant promise as a defender at the hot corner.
Finally, don’t forget about second-year freshman DeAngelo Giles, whose righthanded power could get him plenty of at-bats at DH, though whoever doesn’t win the competitions in left field and third base could also factor into the DH mix. Giles continued to flash exciting power potential in the Coastal Plain League this summer, and if his approach continues to mature, he could make a real impact this spring.
Mound Depth Stands Out Again
NC State has excelled in recent years at building deep pitching staffs and then mixing and matching with a lot of different arms. Swiney’s emergence as a bona fide ace last spring certainly was a nice luxury, but the game is moving away from workhorse starters and more toward specialization, and NC State has been at the vanguard of that trend.
Considering how many experienced pieces are back in the fold this year, expect Chrysler to make the most of his depth once again in 2021.
“We’ve been pretty deep my last two years here, but I think this one is probably even deeper just because you’re getting guys like Evan Justice and David Harrison and Reid Johnston back, and getting Dalton Feeney and Kent Klyman back as COVID seniors,” Chrysler said. “In 17 games last year I think we had already used 14 different guys, so we recruit to it, we manage to it as far as the depth in the pen, and it’s good to have. Sure, you have to do some evaluating and figure out who’s gonna do what, but at the end of the day if you have 15 guys who can help you win games in the league, that’s a good problem to have.”
As Chrysler implied, all five of the veterans listed above would likely have gone to pro ball in a normal year — not necessarily as elite prospects, but they all would have gotten a shot to sign. Instead all of them are back in Raleigh, helping to form the backbone of the Wolfpack pitching staff.
Johnston, of course, is a proven commodity who has been a workhorse for three years and figures to remain a key innings-eating starter in 2021. Harrison was second on the team with 19.2 innings last spring (with three starts among his five appearances), and he posted a 2.75 ERA, a year after posting a 2.67 ERA in 33.2 innings working primarily in relief. He remains a changeup specialist — and his tumbling, fading 80-82 changeup looked dirty as ever on Tuesday, helping his 88-90 fastball play up. The key for him has always been improving his breaking ball, a 71-74 mph sweeper, and that remains a work in progress, though he flashed a serviceable one on Tuesday. Harrison and the wily Klyman give NC State two very seasoned strike-throwers from the left side.
Fellow southpaw Justice still has some of the best stuff on the staff, and he attacked at 93-95 with a high-spin fastball in the 2500-2600 rpm range on Tuesday. With a short arm action from a low three-quarters slot and some front-side funk in his delivery, Justice has good deception, and his 83-84 slider and 84 mph changeup have both become quality pitches for him, giving him a chance to compete for a starting role this spring, though his pro future is in the bullpen.
Feeney was a highly regarded prospect before Tommy John surgery cost him all of 2018, and he has continued to perform at a high level over the last two years even though his stuff did not return to where it was before his surgery. But in Monday’s scrimmage, his stuff was better than I’d seen it since the fall of 2017. His fastball was up to the 91-93 range and his slider had more power at 82-85. His feel for his changeup wasn’t as good on this day, but that is a third quality offering for him. That three-pitch mix should give Feeney a chance to work in a starting role as well, though the Wolfpack also might opt to keep him at the back of the bullpen.
“The kid’s as good as gold, and all he wants to do is be good. The personal stuff as far as draft and all that, the kid never says a word about it. All he wants to do is get back to being who he was prior to TJ,” Chrysler said. “It’s been a long road but he’s never hung his head, never been like, ‘Well, I guess I’m just an 89-91 guy.’ He’s so coachable, and he’s up to work on a lot of different things to try to get it to click. I think finally this fall we found a couple key points that work for him that enable him to be better than he has been. The slider — his is a true slider, it’s hard, it’s short. It’s almost like 6-by-6, it’s six inches to the lateral and six inches of depth, and it looks like a fastball for a long time.”
Another veteran who has worked incredibly hard and turned himself into a prospect is fourth-year sophomore Cameron Cotter, another Tommy John survivor. Cotter’s fastball velocity has climbed to the point that he’s working in the 92-95 mph range just about every time out this fall, according to Chrysler. On Monday, he also showed a filthy sharp breaking ball at 80-81 mph — call it a power slurve if you like, with hard downer action at times and more lateral tilt at others. His changeup remains a work in progress, but Chrysler said it can be a really good pitch when it’s on, giving Cotter a chance to compete for a multiple-inning role as well.
“It’s just a testament to who he is — that kid is tough as nails and determined, works his tail off, he’s out here every single day,” Chrysler said. “That kid has given everything he’s got to this program. He had Tommy John initially and has worked his way back, now it can be pretty elite stuff as well.”
If you’re looking for a potential ace to succeed Swiney, the best candidate might be second-year freshman righthander Sam Highfill (3-1, 3.21 with 15-2 K-BB in 14 IP last year). A physical 6-foot-3, 211-pound athlete who came in as a two-way player, Highfill is now focusing exclusively on pitching, which has helped his development take a big jump this fall. He’s always had a good changeup, and Chrysler said he has run his heater up to 95 mph in bullpen sessions and 94 mph in scrimmage action. He’s also developed a power slurve at 80-82 that he can throw in the zone or use as a chase pitch.
“That’s probably his biggest improvement, because I think he’ll get swing-and-misses with it. Last year it was 75 miles an hour and he could flip it in there for strikes but didn’t have the threat of getting swing-and-misses late in the count,” Chrysler said. “Part of that is he’s gotten stronger and shored up some things in his delivery. As the fastball starts to rise, there’s a reason: arm speed’s better, and velocity of breaking ball follows accordingly. His go-to thing last year, the reason we were able to use him in such a prominent role last yer was he just had really good fastball command. This year his secondary stuff will allow him to separate himself as a potential top-of-the-rotation guy.”
Fellow second-year freshman Chris Villaman is another obvious rotation candidate with star potential. The lefthander won’t light up the radar gun the way Highfill can, but his high-80s fastball simply jumps on hitters and he can pitch off it very effectively. The key for Villaman to make a jump is to become more consistent with his breaking ball; sometimes he’ll snap off a good one with some power around 78 mph, but other times he’ll roll one in at 72. Chrysler said he simply needs to learn to trust to throw it hard and avoid backing off the pitch.
Then there’s second-year freshman righty Austin Pace, a towering 6-foot-10, 237-pounder who posted a 1.23 ERA in 7.1 innings last spring, particularly shining in a hitless thee-inning midweek start against Coastal Carolina. In the spring he showed 90-93 heat and a good changeup, but he’s working his way through some lower back tightness right now. Assuming he’s back to 100 percent by the spring, Pace could also find himself in a starting role, especially if he can continue to improve his breaking ball, which he can throw for a strike but is not an out pitch right now.
Yet another second-year freshman who should occupy a prominent role is righthander Matt Willadsen, who came in as a two-way player like Highfill and is now concentrating on pitching. A wiry 6-foot-3, 177-pounder with a high arm slot, Willadsen worked at 88-89 and touched 90 on Tuesday, and he showed the makings of three useful secondary pitches in his sweeping 77 mph slurve, good overhand curveball at 69-73, and excellent sinking, deceptive changeup at 77-78. Chrysler said he thinks Willadsen could make another velocity jump and start sitting in the low 90s if he can learn to stay more connected in his delivery, so that’s an area of focus this fall.
Low three-quarters righty Baker Nelson is back as a third-year sophomore to occupy a key role in the bullpen, and he looked great on Monday, attacking at 92-93 with a high-spin fastball (up to 2531 rpm), a quality 77-79 slider and a serviceable power changeup at 87. The aptly named Logan Bender is back to miss bats with a 78-79 mph slider in the 2800 to 3000 rpm range. That’s his go-to pitch, but his 87-88 fastball has just enough juice to keep hitters honest. Third-year sophomore righty Andrew Tillery worked at 89-92 on Monday with good carry through the zone and mixed in a sweeping slurve at 74-78 and a solid changeup. If he can become more consistent with his fastball location, he could work his way into the top 10 or 12 arms on the staff as well.
Freshman lefty Cameron Arnold looks like the newcomer who could make the biggest impact on the mound. He’s a compact 5-foot-11 southpaw with a clean delivery from a high slot, and he can locate his 85-87 mph fastball effectively, but his best weapon is a tight, sharp downer curveball at 73-75. That pitch could give lefthanded hitters fits, and his aggressive mentality should play well if the Wolfpack need to summon him out of the bullpen for a key matchup in the late innings. Chrysler is also excited about his other freshman arms, who add additional depth to this year’s staff and should be key building blocks for the future: righties Coby Ingle, Cooper King, Connor Monroe and Garrett Payne plus lefties John Miralia and Tristan Sipple.
So this team is loaded with pitching, and Chrysler’s job is to determine how best to deploy all of his different mound weapons.
“The biggest challenge is to find the best positions to put these guys in to be successful. We’re just running guys out there right now in some different spots to perform in different circumstances to give us an idea of who they are,” Chrysler said. “It’s been a fun fall, an exciting fall, because the energy level is a little higher than normal, even for some of the older guys, because the game got taken away from them for six or seven months.
“The Feeneys and Cotters and Justices — I think you’re seeing the best versions of themselves right now. That’s a testament to their work and changes they’ve made and striving to be great. It makes it fun to come to the ballpark every day when you’ve got the right kind of kids in the program that are selfless and are hard workers.”
A Note On Classifications: After the 2020 season was canceled, the NCAA granted all players another year of eligibility, leading to some confusion and inconsistency over how refer to a player’s class. At D1Baseball, we have decided to handle it by denoting the number of years a player has been in college, followed by his year of NCAA eligibility. For example:
• A freshman who is new to Division I this fall shall be known as a “true freshman” or just a “freshman.”
• A player who was a freshman in 2020 shall be known as a “second-year freshman,” reflecting both the player’s experience level and his class for eligibility purposes. Likewise, a player who was a sophomore in 2020 shall be known as a “third-year sophomore,” and so on.
• A player who was a redshirt freshman in 2020 shall be known as a “third-year freshman,” and a player who was a redshirt sophomore shall be known as a “fourth-year sophomore,” and so on.