Fall Report: Auburn
Auburn would love nothing more than to finish the job in 2019.
The Tigers have made steady progress during the Butch Thompson era, and another step up the ladder was taken last season. Not only did the Tigers hit the road and win the Raleigh Regional, they also tripped to the super regional round, where their season came to an end in dramatic fashion to stalwart Florida, despite the fact righthander Davis Daniel was brilliant out of the bullpen.
Sure, the Tigers were disappointed not to finish the job and get to Omaha for the first time since 1997, but the foundation for more and the expectation for this program was set in emphatic fashion.
Fresh off that wild postseason run, the Tigers entered fall workouts with more question marks than this time last season.
Last fall, the Tigers had multiple veteran players on the roster, and also returned a premier Friday night starting pitcher in Casey Mize. They also had some unknowns. For instance, was Brett Wright going to be a solid backstop? Would Brendan Venter be the instant impact bat the Tigers thought he could be?
Those two questions were answered in a big way throughout the spring, so there’s hope for the Tigers despite the presence of question marks this fall.
Once again, AU will usher in a new backstop with junior Matt Scheffler leading the charge after fall workouts. And yes, the Tigers no longer have Mize in the weekend rotation, but Tanner Burns had an amazing freshman campaign and Davis Daniel finished last season on an incredible note. Should Daniel move back to the weekend rotation in the spring, the Tigers obviously would have a question mark at the back-end of games. However, there are plenty of high-quality options, which we dissect below.
“I think what we have right now is a team that will only get better as the season progresses,” Thompson said. “Today, we’re just asking two freshmen to step in and play in the field right away. If you remember back to last year, we relied heavily on four freshmen, and each of those guys were Freshmen All-Americans.
“Are we ready today? No, we’re not,” he continued. “But I do think we have the makings of a pretty good club moving forward.”
Let’s take an in-depth look at Auburn’s fall workouts:
Casey Mize put together one of the more memorable campaigns in SEC history last season and was the top pick in the MLB draft as the result of his success. Now, the Tigers have the tough chore of replacing his production and leadership.
One thing is for certain: Despite not pitching much this fall, the Tigers will lead off the weekend with sophomore righthander Tanner Burns. Burns, a 6-foot, 215-pounder, showed electric stuff last season with a fastball up to 94-95 mph, along with a constantly developing slider. His secondary stuff has gotten better since last season, and he’s read to build on that freshman All-American campaign.
Another option for the weekend rotation is sophomore righthander Cody Greenhill. Greenhill, a 6-foot-4, 216-pounder, had a solid 2018 campaign, but his stuff wasn’t as advanced as some others. He had some velocity on his fastball, and the slider was a quality pitch. Much like Burns, he’s refined his stuff, and Thompson said Greenhill’s slider has really improved.
The final spot in the weekend rotation will go to Daniel, and that’ll cause some to raise their eyebrows.
Daniel, a 6-foot-1, 190-pounder, has one of the nation’s most electric arms with a fastball up to 96-97 mph. That velocity is most often seen out of the bullpen and not as a starter, though Daniel will hit the mid-90s routinely as a starter. While he succeeded at a high level out of the pen last season, Daniel’s previous attempts as a starter were unsuccessful. Two seasons ago, the righty had a 5.89 ERA before being relegated to the bullpen last season after struggling on the weekend. Daniel’s stuff is undeniable. It’s explosive, and frankly, he showed a part of himself the last two weeks of the season last year that we hadn’t seen before. But it’ll be interesting to see how he handles a move back to the rotation.
It’ll be an audition the first four weeks of the 2019 campaign.
“We’re going to try him as a starter again,” Thompson said. “We’re going to look at pitch counts and we’re going to have him as a starter the first four weeks of the non-conference schedule. We’re going to see how things are going and He and I are going to sit down and decide what’s best for him and the team entering conference play.
“As for the rest of the rotation, Greenhill has really been working on his secondary stuff. He has a real secondary pitch now,” he continued. “And we obviously have a lot of confidence in what Tanner can do out there. His secondary stuff has gotten better, too.”
Sophomore lefthander Jack Owen is another starting option. Owen, a 6-foot-2, 174-pounder, struggled much of last season, tallying a 5.97 ERA. However, he’s one of several AU arms Thompson said improved during fall workouts. Owen has good command of an 89-91 mph fastball (up from mid-80s) and his feel for secondary stuff has improved.
“He is going to sit in that 89-91 mph range, but he threw a lot of 90s this fall,” Thompson said. “He had a pedestrian summer, only logging something like 12-13 innings before shutting it down. He was worn out a little bit, I think.
“I really like his pitchability and the fact he can throw the fastball for strikes on both sides of the plate,” he continued. “The first half of last year, I thought he was a little unsure and uncomfortable. Then, the second half of the season, he started attacking the zone a bit more and showing a lot more confidence. I’m hoping he picks up where he left off last season.”
The return of Burns and Daniel gives the Tigers a nice place to start when it comes to the rotation, and there’s plenty of upside with Greenhill and Owen as well.
SIZING UP THE BULLPEN
Should Daniel stay in the bullpen for the duration of the 2019 campaign, the obvious question is this: Who will occupy the closer role?
For now, that role is open, and Thompson isn’t sure what he would do if the season began today. However, there are plenty of solid options.
Freshman lefthander Garrett Wade is a prime candidate to have a huge role in 2019. Wade, a 6-foot-2, 195-pounder, was a touted high school prospect and has huge upside. He sat 93-94 mph with his fastball throughout the fall, while also showing a wipeout slider.
Fellow youngsters Richard Fitts and Will Morrison also made strong impressions this fall.
Fitts is a 6-foot-3, 185-pounder, who got up to 94-95 with his fastball from the right side this fall, while Morrison attacks hitters from a lower slot and sits in the middle 80s. He’s a unique pitcher who Thompson believes can make an immediate and sizable impact.
More options include JC transfers Kyle Gray and Bailey Horn. Gray 5-foot-10, 180-pound, lefthander who had a strong 2018 season at Blinn (Texas) College. He struck out over 100 batters and showed a fastball in the 88-90 range this fall, along with a good breaking ball. Meanwhile, Horn missed the fall because of surgery but should be ready to throw in January.
“Gray has a really good breaking ball. He has a fastball he likes, but the breaking ball — that’s where he can do some serious damage,” he said. “Bailey is another beautiful-bodied kind of guy. He really didn’t get to pitch much in the spring because of an injury, but he’ll be ready for us in January. We’re excited to see what he brings to the table.”
Thompson isn’t one to mince words. Depth is definitely a concern for the bullpen, but the options they do have creates some cautious optimism.
POSITION PLAYERS — FROM A TO Z
Thompson is always a fun coach to talk to, and as usual, he unloaded a plethora of information on us. He went position by position and broke down where the Tigers stand after fall workouts. So, that’s what we’re going to do, too.
The Tigers had some uncertainty here last season. After all, no one knew what to expect from JC transfer Brett Wright. Wright wasn’t an overly potent hitter, but he was a strong defender and receiver, which was important with premier talents like Mize on the roster. The Tigers will likely turn to another JC transfer, Matt Scheffler, to do the honors in the spring, though athletic Steven Williams also is in the mix should Scheffler not work out. Scheffler has a strong and accurate arm and does a great job behind the plate. Thompson had high praise for the 6-foot-2, 190 pounder.
“He did just a phenomenal job during the fall,” he said. “He earned the spot. He might be the best thrower I’ve had at Auburn and I think he’ll be as good as anyone in the league in the spring. He’s a defensive guy first, sure, but he can get down the line and run a little, too. I still need to see more at bats, but there’s a lot of potential here.
Venter was an immediate impact JC transfer last season with power. Well, the Tigers have a new plan this spring with Venter since departed. That plan includes moving designated hitter Edouard Julien to the position. Julien served as the designated hitter last season, and it would be optimal if he could make a smooth transition to the hot corner. Another option is former LSU player and JC transfer Rankin Woley. Woley is a powerful and thick 6-foot, 210-pounder, who could play the hot corner as well, though his forte is his offensive potential. Woley also could play first or serve as the designated hitter.
“We’re going to do everything we can to put Julien over there,” he said. “If it’s not Julien, it’s probably a guy like Woley. He was an RBI machine at his JC and he has something that I really value — SEC experience. He has a lot of those same attributes that Venter had for us last season.”
The Tigers will have one of the nation’s premier middle infielders in ’19 in Will Holland. Holland was putting together a solid 2019 campaign before exploding into the draft scene late in the year, particularly at the SEC tournament. There, Holland showed incredible defensive instincts, while also showing a consistent offensive approach and power potential. Holland will be a first-round pick next summer barring a shift in stock between now and then.
If not for Holland, the Tigers might be starting a true freshman at short in Ryan Bliss. Bliss is an electric 5-foot-9, 165-pounder, who might have been the MVP of the fall. He showed a consistent offensive approach and could bat in the one or two spots in the lineup come February.
“He’s going to have a chance to play every day for us,” he said. “He can really play short and he’s adapting well at second base, too. He’ll figure it all out. He handles the bat really well, and while he’s not the fastest guy out there, he does everything well and consistent, and he’s very mature.”
Junior Conor Davis is making the move from the outfield to first base. Davis, a 6-foot-3, 227-pounder, was solid there this fall and likely will occupy that position in the spring. However, also keep an eye on Woley, who has big-time power potential.
• Sophomore Judd Ward appears to be the guy in left field. He possesses a strong arm and is a highly competitive guy. But also keep an eye on California JC product Everett Lau. Lau is a 5-foot-10, 185-pounder, who hits from the left side and who had a strong fall with the bat. He’s going to get some playing time for sure — he could play in the outfield, or at second base backing up Bliss.
• Freshman Kason Howell looks like the starter in center field as of right now. Howell is an advanced 6-foot, 185-pounder, who had a great fall. Howell showed a solid bat during the fall, but defense is his forte, which is obviously important given the center field position. He runs very well and showed good instincts out there.
• Sophomore Steven Williams, following a productive freshman season, will start in right field. Williams also could play catcher at times, giving Scheffler a rest. Williams has some athleticism and big-time power potential.
WHAT HE SAID
Auburn HC Butch Thompson
“I remember we didn’t know what we had after the fall last year even with some older guys on the roster. This team just feels different from that one. Last year, we were good and steady and kind of knew what we were going to get once the season started. Having no more Casey Mize would be a challenge for any club, so I get the feeling we’re going to go whichever direction the starting rotation goes in the spring.”
“The complexion of this year’s club is definitely different. We have 18 new players. Our fall started a little slow. It’s a tough thing to have a lot of new players. I do like how we finished, though. We had kind of a journey this fall. That’s really the best way to put it. I hope we pick up where we left off come January.”
“We’ve moved so many new pieces around. I almost feel like we moved too many people around in the fall. But if you’re going to do that, the fall is the time to do it. That led to some defensive challenges at time this fall, but I think it’ll make us more ready for the spring. We’ll find out.”