Pack Nine Preview: Part 4

USA TODAY Sports

Elliot Avent's bullpen may not be as experienced as last year's senior-led group, but it should be as deep.

According to his coach at Seminole College, Gianni Zayas can get his fastball up to 94 mph and has a chance to be drafted in June with a strong spring. The fact that Zayas could barely get on the mound for N.C. State last year (did you even recognize the name?) is a testament to the depth of a pitching staff that finished the season with a 3.08 team ERA. The big four seniors from the Pack pen--Chris Overman, Grant Sasser, Josh Easley, and Ryan Wilkins--combined to go 17-5 with 17 saves in 163.1 innings. Losing that quartet is akin to taking Carlos Rodon off the team (plus 30 more innings).

Despite graduations and transfers, Elliott Avent has 17 arms at his disposal. Just 11 guys worked 20 or more innings a year ago, so there is more than enough depth, and D.J. Thomas and presumed closer Andrew Woeck give the club a lefty and righty who have toed the rubber in big games. Still, N.C. starters, none of whom after Rodon averaged even close to five innings a start, could help what will be an inexperienced pen by working deeper into games. You hope Avent is handing the ball to the pen because he wants to, not because he has to.

Who's gone:

  • Conor O'Brien: 0-0, 0.00 ERA, 0/2 K/BB ratio, .000 opponents' batting average in 2.1 IP (left program after freshman season, apparently to pursue career in hurling)
  • Overman: 1-1, 0.33 ERA, 6 saves, 26/9 K/BB ratio, .110 opponents' batting average in 27 IP
  • Sasser: 3-0, 1.03 ERA, 8 saves, 44/13 K/BB ratio, .193 opponents' batting average in 43.2 IP
  • Easley: 7-2, 1.38 ERA, 1 save, 42/13 K/BB ratio, .224 opponents' batting average in 45.2 IP
  • Wilkins: 6-2, 4.21 ERA, 2 saves, 47/12 K/BB ratio, .233 opponents' batting average in 47 IP
  • Anthony Tzamtzis: 2-1, 5.40 ERA, 25/30 K/BB ratio, .231 opponents' batting average in 28.1 IP
  • Dillon Frye: 0-0, 8.53 ERA, 4/2 K/BB ratio, .360 opponents' batting average in 6.1 IP (showed some promise as a freshman when he went 3-0 with a 2.70 ERA but got lost in the shuffle last year; Frye transferred to Nova Southeastern University)
  • Danny Healey: 0-0, 11.57 ERA, 4/3 K/BB ratio, .400 opponents' batting average in 2.1 IP
  • Gianni Zayas: 0-0, 13.50 ERA, 1/3 K/BB ratio, .333 opponents' batting average in 2 IP (transferred to Seminole State College)

I mentioned Zayas in the intro, but Frye and Healey are worth noting as well. The two combined to go 7-0 in 27 appearances in 2012 but got buried on the depth chart last year. As I pointed out in the previous preview series entry, this is a pen that combined for 31 wins. Maybe that doesn't stand out like individual performances from stars Rodon and Trea Turner, but that collective performance was as responsible for the Omaha run as anything.

Who's back:

  • Brian Donovan: 0-0, 0.00 ERA, 1/2 K/BB ratio, .167 opponents' batting average in 1.2 IP
  • Travis Orwig: 3-0, 1.50 ERA, 1 save, 16/5 K/BB ratio, .197 opponents' batting average in 18 IP (recovering from TJS; may not pitch in 2014)
  • Will Gilbert: 0-0, 2.70 ERA, 6/7 K/BB ratio, .250 opponents' batting average in 6.2 IP
  • Thomas: 2-0, 2.89 ERA, 17/10 K/BB ratio, .271 opponents' batting average in 28 IP
  • Woeck: 6-1, 3.09 ERA, 45/10 K/BB ratio, .225 opponents' batting average in 46.2 IP
  • Karl Keglovits: 1-0, 4.05 ERA, 6/6 K/BB ratio, .260 opponents' batting average in 13.1 IP
  • John Olczak: 0-0, 7.00 ERA, 5/3 K/BB ratio, .242 opponents' batting average in 9 IP
  • Chris Williams: younger brother of former Pack standout Vance; redshirted last season after pitching just 1.1 innings as a freshman

One of the strengths of last season's team was Avent's ability to go Tony Larussa in his bullpen management due to having three southpaws at his disposal in Sasser, Orwig, and Thomas. That's a lot of LOOGYs, all three of whom could buckle the toughest lefty bats with breaking stuff. With Sasser gone and Orwig a question mark after surgery, Donovan, Gilbert, or one of three lefty newcomers needs to step up to join Thomas and hopefully fill the void. Speaking of the newbies...

Who's got next?

  • Eric Patterson: 6-3, 3.03 ERA, 69/15 K/BB ratio, .236 opponents' batting average in 74.1 IP (@ Temple)
  • Patrick Patterson: 2-7, 4.43 ERA, 51/23 K/BB ratio, .248 opponents' batting average in 69 IP (@ Temple)
  • Lots of freshpersons, the Lake Norman Needle

If the above list looks like it was cut and pasted from the piece on the starters, that's because it was. (Dadgum snow day...you try writing on the couch with a two-year-old who is watching Calliou).

The Patterson twins had a lot of success in the A-10, but comparing baseball in the A-10 to baseball in the ACC is kind of like comparing the rigors of a UNC class on naval weapons systems to the rigors of attending the actual Naval Academy. (Well, presumably, there is at least some work done by A-10 baseball players, but you get my point.) Patrick, the lefty, may be more likely to fill a LOOGY-ish bullpen role than start at this level, and Eric is probably as good a bet to be a middle innings guy as a starter. But I'm glad to have both aboard.

The freshman trio of Joe O'Donnell, Cory Wilder, and Ryan Williamson are all next-level prospects who should get plenty of chances from the pen if they can't break into the rotation. Cody Beckman, another freshman, has a big arm but struggled to find the plate as a prep (24 walks in 31 innings as a senior) and is probably best suited for short stints from the pen. Really tall righty Johnny Piedmonte, the Lake Norman Needle, figures in the picture as well after missing last season due to TJS.

Associate Head Coach Tom Holliday, who handles the pitchers, should be able to mold a solid pen from the talent available. Remember, of the big four pen arms of a year ago, only Easley was drafted (and absolutely killed it over three levels of the minor leagues). This year's group may lack for experience but arguably has even more talent.

The season gets underway on Valentine's Day in sunny California, where the Pack play Corvallis regional participant Santa Barbara, a team that won 35 games last year. The Gauchos return the core of their first team to make the tournament in 10 years, including closer Dylan Hecht, who struck out nearly 12 batters per nine innings en route to notching nine saves. On his official roster bio, Hecht lists alleged terrorist funder Yusuf Islam (nee Cat Stevens) as his favorite singer, which is apropos of absolutely nothing. Still, let's win this series for Merca!

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