The N. C. State Nine have drawn unprecedented praise in the preseason, ranking #8 nationally according to Baseball America, which also tabbed rising sophomores Carlos Rodon and Trea Turner as first team all Americans. Led by Rodon, the Wolfpack have no shortage of experienced moundsmen, returning 88.2% of the team's innings pitched from 2012. But, for the Pack to compete in the difficult ACC, much less make a deep run in the NCAA tournament, they will have to successfully replace three of the top four batters from a lineup that scored nearly seven runs a game.
Let's look at the offense first.
- Ryan Mathews, whose 17 home runs were ninth best in the nation and over a third of the Pack's team total. Mathews was second in the ACC in slugging (.628) and RBI (62).
- Danny Canela, who likely would have been the starter at either 1B or DH before he abruptly transferred, posted an impressive .348/.457/.507 triple slash line. His average was fifth in the conference and his on base percentage was fourth.
- Chris Diaz, who skipped his senior season after being drafted in the 11th round by the Pittsburgh Pirates. Diaz, a solid defensive shortstop, batted second for the Pack and was sixth in the nation with 25 doubles.
- The blur that is Turner will move to shortstop after playing third base a year ago. Turner swiped an NCAA-high 57 bags during his freshman campaign. That total of course also led the ACC and was 35 steals better than league runner up Pat Blair of Wake Forest. Turner's 72 runs were sixth nationally and his five home runs are the second most among Pack returnees.
- Brett Austin, the former supplemental round draft pick who spurned a big bonus for college, returns and will likely spend most of his time behind the dish. Austin showed good situational hitting a year ago, finishing second in the nation with 10 sacrifice flies, but he is still searching for his first collegiate home run.
- Jake Fincher, another part of the strong freshman class that included Austin, Rodon, and Turner. The outfielder hit an even .300 last season and was third in the ACC with six triples.
- Brett Williams, who had a disastrous 2012, tearing his ACL and making a pair of errors in his lone game of the season. Williams led a relatively light hitting Pack team in runs (46) and home runs (six) in 2011 and should, if fully recovered from his injury, man centerfield and hit in the middle of the order.
- Matt Bergquist, the second baseman who slumped to .222 last season after hitting .289 and leading the team in RBI in 2011. Despite a late-season surge that saw him hit .381 with six runs and 10 RBI in his last 7 games, Bergquist will likely have to fight to retain his starting spot.
The old adage is that you build a baseball team up the middle, and the Pack look to be in good shape up the middle with Austin at catcher, a deep, experienced staff, Turner and Bergquist as the keystone combo, and either Williams or Fincher in centerfield. But with Turner's move to short and the departure of the steady if not spectacular Andrew Ciencin at first base, the corners are a huge question mark.
Jake Armstrong, who played his prep ball at Permian High of Friday Night Lights fame, hit .444 with 22 doubles, six round trippers, and 50 RBI as a freshman at Cisco College, leading the Wranglers to their first ever JUCO World Series appearance. A high school shortstop, he could see time at the hot corner for the Pack. Another third base option is senior Grant Clyde, the nephew of David Clyde (who famously went straight from high school to the major leagues after being drafted first overall in 1973), who hit .316/.381/.421 last season but in just 19 at bats.
Tarran Senay, who showed promise in his freshman campaign with a .313/.459/.589 triple slash line but has slumped since the NCAA went to a more pitcher-friendly bat, is a good bet to see time at first base. With 14 career home runs as a part-time player over three seasons, he is the Pack's top returning power threat. Despite hitting just .222 last season, Senay came up huge against Vanderbilt, bringing the Pack to within a run with a three-run bomb in the regional championship game. His two-run single later in the game gave State a lead it would not relinquish. Though veteran Pack skipper Elliott Avent may find it too risky, Rodon, who was 2-for-6 with a pair of doubles as a pinch hitter last season, may see time at first base or designated hitter when he is not toeing the rubber.
Rodon , who led the ACC and was fourth in the nation with a 1.57 ERA, solidifies a rotation that returns all of its weekend starters. Rodon also finished third in the nation in strikeouts (135) and batting average against (.176). Rodon's batting average against led the conference, as did his 114 2/3 innings pitched, though that is not necessarily a good thing. Hopefully that workload will not hamper his performance going forward.
The steady Ethan Ogburn (5-4, 3.38 ERA) will take a weekend turn in the rotation, and Logan Jernigan (5-1, 5.71) has the inside track on the third spot. Jernigan is nasty: he allowed just 39 hits and struck out 57 in 53 innings, but he is also wild. He walked 35 and uncorked 12 wild pitches during his freshman campaign. If Jernigan stumbles, Anthony Tzamtzis (5-5, 4.38) may get a shot to see if he can find the plate. Like Jernigan, Tzamtzis has dominant stuff. He allowed just 50 hits and struck out 63 in 63 1/3 innings last season, but he also walked 39, hit 10 batters, and threw 11 balls to the backstop.
Chris Overman, who is fourth all time in Pack history with 13 career saves but seemed to lose Avent's confidence down the stretch last season, returns to a deep bullpen that features six guys who made at least 13 appearances last season. Add to that eight incoming freshperson hurlers, a JUCO arm, and the return of Josh Easley and Grant Sasser, both of whom missed last season with an injury, and Avent and pitching coach Tom Holiday have an unprecedented level of depth and talent on the mound. It will be hard to find all those guys innings, but, if nothing else, newcomers Johnny Piedmonte (6-foot-8) and Karl Keglovits (6-foot-6) can look intimidating during the national anthem.
One player who does not appear to be in the mix for work on the mound is former two-sport athlete Brian Taylor. Despite great success on the mound at Harnett Central, the former backup QB is listed as an outfielder on the 2013 roster. Taylor also displayed excellent power as a prep, hitting 18 home runs combined over his junior and senior campaigns. Perhaps the 6-3, 213-pounder will step up to fill the power void in Mathews' absence.
Turner should again be a lethal table setter and Fincher or Austin would both make excellent two-hole hitters, but if no one steps up to drive them in, this team will only go as far as pitching and defense carry them. Hopefully what the old timers say is true: pitching and defense win championships.
First pitch of the season is Friday at 3 p.m. as the Pack host SoCon power Appalachian State.