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2021 NC State Baseball Preview - Part II: Who’s Back

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We’re closing in on the start of the college baseball season, so let’s take a look at the team

NCAA BASEBALL: JUN 02 Div 1 Championship Greenville Regional - East Carolina v North Carolina State Photo by Greg Thompson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

With the calendar turning over to February and the 2021 baseball season quickly approaching, let’s take a look at the NC State Wolfpack team that will take the field this season.

  • In Part I of this series, we took a look back at the 2020 season and the players who are no longer with the program.
  • In Part II, we will look at the returnees from that 2020 team.
  • Part III will look at the newcomers for 2021.
  • Part IV will take a look at the schedule and opponents for the Wolfpack this season.

So let’s get started!

Who’s back

While the 2020 MLB Draft took two studs off the NC State roster, the shortened format of the draft last year meant that more talent would return for the Wolfpack in 2021 than would have in a normal draft year. Had the 2020 MLB Draft not been restricted to just five rounds, the Pack could have seen double-digit players drafted a year ago - not to mention a few incoming freshman that may not have made it to campus. Instead, we get a stacked roster in 2021.

Below are the players returning in 2021 from the 2020 team:

  • Logan Bender (RHP - Jr)
  • Devonte Brown (3B/OF - Jr)
  • Jonny Butler (OF - Jr)
  • Cameron Cotter (RHP - rSo)
  • Dalton Feeney (RHP - rJr)
  • DeAngelo Giles (3B - Fr)
  • David Harrison (LHP - Jr)
  • Sam Highfill (RHP - Fr)
  • J.T. Jarrett (2B/3B - Jr)
  • Reid Johnston (RHP - Jr)
  • Evan Justice (LHP - Jr)
  • Kent Klyman (LHP - Sr)
  • Tyler McDonough (2B/OF - So)
  • Vojtech Mensik (3B - So)
  • Austin Murr (1B - Jr)
  • Baker Nelson (RHP - So)
  • Austin Pace (RHP - Fr)
  • Canaan Silver (LHP - Jr)
  • Noah Soles (OF - Fr)
  • Terrell Tatum (OF - Jr)
  • Thayer Thomas (OF/WR - rSo)
  • Andrew Tillery (RHP - So)
  • Jose Torres (SS - Fr)
  • Luca Tresh (C - So)
  • Chris Villaman (LHP - Fr)
  • Logan Whitaker (RHP - rFr)
  • Matt Willadsen (RHP - Fr)

(Starters/Key Contributors in bold)

With Patrick Bailey gone, Luca Tresh will assume starting duties behind the plate for the Pack this year. Tresh battled through injuries early on last year, but was on an absolute tear when the season was halted. The sophomore had double-digit hits in seven of ten games on the year, including ending the season by going 8-for-18 over the last four games. A Top 50 prospect for the 2021 MLB Draft, Tresh has a career slash line of .294/.397/.587 with 5 2B and 9 HR in just 131 PAs. The question is not whether he can hit, but just how good he can be defensively behind the dish.

Speaking of hitting ability, Austin Murr returns to man first base for NC State. Murr was a JUCO transfer a year ago, with the question being whether or not he could adapt to D1 pitching. The answer is/was a resounding ‘Yes’. In 17 games (all starts), Murr slashed .306/.470/.629 with an absurd 16:8 BB:K ratio. He notched 7 2B, 2 3B, and 3 HR to go along with 21 R and 14 RBI. He also stole five bases, showing impressive mobility for a first baseman. He may not be a Top 100 draft prospect, but he won’t have to wait long to hear his name called come June.

Second base is a bit of a question mark for NC State this year, but not due to a lack of quality options - it’s more a matter of who the coaching staff will decide to slot in, and that may change based on a number of factors. Walking Tom Emanski instructional video J.T. Jarrett returns after showing some pop in his bat a season ago. Jarrett slashed .333/.388/.600 with 6 2B, 2 HR, 11 R, 15 RBI, 4 BB, and 10 K over 51 PAs. If Jarrett, an offensive liability over his first two season known more for his sacrifice bunting abilities, can resume that same level of offensive production, the junior won’t have an issue seeing his name on the lineup card game after game.

Tyler McDonough is the other option at second base, although the switch-hitting sophomore is more likely to remain as the team’s starting centerfielder this season. Another Top 100 prospect for this year’s MLB Draft, McDonough slashed .354/.457/.554 with 4 2B, 3 HR, 17 R, 16 RBI, 14 BB, 10 K, and 7 SB in 82 PAs a year ago.

At shortstop, second-year freshman Jose Torres will be the man again. Torres earned Freshman All-American honors during last year’s abbreviated season, being the rare freshman to come in an man the shortstop role for the Wolfpack. Ranked as high as a Top 15 MLB Draft prospect for this year, Torres slashed .333/.369/.533 with 3 2B, 3 HR, 11 R, 13 RBI, and 2 SB in 65 PA.

Like second base, third base is another position with a bit of a question mark, but also plenty of solid options. Sophomore Vojtech Mensik has the inside track on the job as he’s started 43 games over the last two seasons. Over that span, he’s slashed .253/.365/.395 with 9 2B, 1 3B, 4 HR, 38 R, 23 RBI, and 11 SB. Despite some hiccups last year, defense is still Mensik’s calling card - although he did show an increased offensive prowess last year.

DeAngelo Vickers Giles is a returning freshman who could wrangle away the third base job from Mensik. Giles only appeared in three games last year, going 1-for-2 at the plate with an RBI and a strikeout.

Joining the aforementioned McDonough in the outfield are a slew of quality players with strong track records of success. Devonte Brown was finally afforded the opportunity to be an everyday starter in 2020 and he responded with one of the hottest bats in the country. In 77 PAs a year ago, Brown slashed .338/.429/.692 with 6 2B, 1 3B, 5 HR, 19 R, 19 RBI, 10 BB, 18 K, and 4 SB. The righty with the power bat is another Wolfpacker who will hear his name called come June.

Jonny Butler was a JUCO transfer a couple years ago who will enter his third year in the program. He slashed .290/.384/.468 wtih 4 2B, 2 3B, 1 HR, 7 R, 14 RBI, 10 BB, 12 K, and 9 SB while starting all 17 games a year ago in left field. The guy is like a left-handed-hitting Hunter Pence.

Terrell Tatum showed a completely refined approach at the plate in 2020, a continuation of which very well could - and should - force his way into the lineup in 2021. On the season, he slashed .292/.500/.375 with 1 3B, 8 R, 1 RBI, 10 BB, 12 K, and 7 SB in 36 PA. He’ll need to continue to cut down on the strikeouts, but that walk rate will play anywhere and showed plate discipline that had previously not been seen.

Noah Soles was a 19th round pick in the 2019 MLB Draft who struggled to find consistent playing time with the Pack last year, but did not struggle when given his opportunities. On the season, Soles slashed .600/.625/.733 with 2 2B, 5 R, 5 RBI, 1 BB, 2 K, and 1 SB in 16 PA. In his three starts, he was a combined 7-for-9 at the dish. Soles is a future stud for the Pack, if he can break into the lineup this year.

Also listed on the roster to return after a year away from the baseball program is everyone’s favorite slot receiver: Thayer Thomas. After tying for the team lead in receiving touchdowns this year for the 8-4 Wolfpack football squad, Thomas is looking to give it another go on the diamond. In 2019, he slashed .222/.364/.500 in just 22 PAs, including a 2-for-2 effort with a 2B and HR in a win over Pittsburgh. That brief showing displayed enough potential to entice the Boston Red Sox to use their 33rd round pick on Thomas. It’s unclear what - if any - role he’ll have on the 2021 Wolfpack baseball team. He was, after all, on the roster at this time last year, too.

On the mound, the Wolfpack will return every player who threw a pitch a season ago aside from Nick Swiney. And while Swiney’s loss is an enormous one, there is plenty of talent and depth coming back for the Pack.

Junior lefty David Harrison made three starts a year ago and featured a noticeable increase in the pop of his pitches. He went 2-1 with a 2.75 ERA and a .221 Batting Average Against (BAA) over 19.2 IP with 4 BB (5.2%) and 23 K (29.9%). Harrison should play a key role on the pitching staff this year, either as a starter or a key reliever. I’m a big believer in what Harrison brings.

Junior Reid Johnston returns for what should be his fourth year in the starting rotation. The former Freshman All-American was just 0-1 with a 5.68 ERA last year, but did hold opponents to a .234 BAA over 12.2 IP with 4 BB (7.4%) and 17 K (31.5%). The 6’3 righty is 13-4 in his career with a 3.60 ERA.

Chris Villaman came in last year as a freshman with high expectations and he did not disappoint. The crafty lefty tied for second on the team in starts (with Harrison and Johnston) and finished the season 1-0 with a 3.86 ERA and .190 BAA over 11.2 IP with 4 BB (8.3%) and 14 K (29.2%). The coaching staff should stretch out Villaman this year after being cautious with his innings a year ago.

Evan Justice was drafted in the 39th round of the 2019 MLB Draft as a draft-eligible sophomore, but the lefty chose to come back to NC State to improve his accuracy - and draft stock. Justice allowed a .189 BAA in 2020 with 5 BB (11.1%) and 9 K (20.0%) in 9.2 IP. After working almost exclusively as a reliever to this point in his career, Justice should get a look as a starter this year, although there are worse things to be than a shutdown reliever.

Speaking of shutdown lefty relievers, Kent Klyman returns for his second senior season after bouncing back to the form a year ago (0-0, 2 SV, 1.42 ERA, .227 BAA, 6.1 IP, 5 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 1 BB, 5 K) that had previously made him one of the top relievers in the ACC. The 6’7 Klyman has a 14-4 career record with 8 SV in 77 appearances.

Dalton Feeney is a former blue chip prospect who has worked his way back from Tommy John Surgery in 2018 to become a top bullpen arm for the Pack. The stocky 6’3 redshirt junior righty should again return to a prominent relief role in 2021 after posting a 2-0 record and 2.35 ERA over 7.2 IP last year. Now in his third season back from TJS, this should be the year his stuff truly starts to return to form.

Sophomore righty Baker Nelson tied for the team lead in appearances in 2020 with seven (Justice and Canaan Silver also had seven each). Over 9.1 IP, Nelson notched one save and a 1.93 ERA with a .156 BAA, 1 BB (2.7%), and 7 K (18.9%). He’ll be in line for another high-usage season, although Nelson will need to develop a better third pitch if he’s to become a multi-inning reliever.

Junior Canaan Silver is a former JUCO transfer who went from a starter early in his career to a situational bullpen arm a year ago. The junkball throwing lefty had a rough year, but should again be an often-called-upon arm out of the bullpen this year.

Speaking of often-called-upon bullpen arms, freshman Sam Highfill ended the season third on the team in innings pitched (14.0) despite not starting a single game. He showed well despite not being a PO (pitcher only), posting a 3-1 record with a 3.21 ERA, .316 BAA, with 2 BB (3.2%) and 15 K (24.2%). He has the frame (6’3, 211) to be a power pitcher and potential starter down the road if he can develop a consistent third pitch.

Another returning freshman righty who showed well a year ago is 6’10 Austin Pace. He came in as a high ceiling project, but proceeded to throw 7.1 innings of 1.23 ERA ball while making two starts and even notching a win over Coastal Carolina. He did not issue a walk and struck out 9 batters (30.0%). If the stuff continues to develop, his low 90’s fastball will play up even better and (no pun intended) big things could be in store for this kid.

Matt Willadsen was a freshman who came in with a ton of hype a year ago after throwing three no-hitters as a high school senior in 2019 at Holly Springs HS. He rightfully earned a good bit of playing time early in the season (6 appearances, 2 starts, 7.2 IP), although his introduction to college baseball was a bit rougher than his fellow freshman cohorts. Willadsen has a lot of room to add muscle to his frame (and MPH to his FB), plus he has probably the deepest arsenal of pitches on the team.

Campbell transfer (by way of Catawba Valley CC) Logan Bender made six appearances and was the case of a bad combo of early season control issues (24.0 BB%) and small sample size (4.1 IP). Expect the former NCAA Freshman All-American and JUCO All-American to regain form, using his wipeout slider to shut down opposing bats.

Sophomore righty Andrew Tillery will be another bullpen option. He got touched up last year by Coastal Carolina (no shame there), but has looked good in his other five career outings. It’ll be interesting to see what he does with more innings.

Like Feeney, Cameron Cotter is a player who missed all of the 2018 season due to Tommy John Surgery. He became a frequent bullpen arm in 2019 (39.0 IP, 3.00 ERA, .219 BAA, 10 BB, 36 K), but missed the abbreviated 2020 season due to injury. The 6’3 redshirt sophomore righty has a low-to-mid’90’s fastball and great curveball. He should be a significant factor in a deep bullpen.

Redshirt freshman righty Logan Whitaker is back on the roster for 2021. He missed the 2019 season due to injury and was off the roster altogether in 2020. The lanky righty has potential, but has yet to see the mound for the Wolfpack.