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2023 NC State Baseball Preview - Part II: Who’s Back

A first look at the 2023 Wolfpack baseball season

COLLEGE BASEBALL: MAY 25 ACC Championship - Miami v NC State Photo by David Jensen/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

We’re less than a month out from the 2023 college baseball season, so let’s take a look at the NC State Wolfpack team that will take the field this season. We’ll attempt to do this in a four-part series again (just trying to cover my rear in case life gets in the way):

  • Part I looked back at the 2022 season and the players who are no longer with the program.
  • Part II will look at the returnees from that 2022 team.
  • Part III will look at the newcomers for 2023.
  • Part IV will look at the non-conference schedule.
  • Part V will look at ACC opponents.

Let’s get this thing started!

Who’s back

Twenty players from the 2022 NC State squad are set to return in 2023. For those wondering, there were also 20 members of the 2021 Wolfpack squad who returned last year. There’s a difference, though, and we’ll get to that in a moment, but first...

Below are the players returning in 2023 from the 2022 team:

  • Jacob Cozart - SO - C
  • Jacob Dienes - SO - LHP
  • Carson Falsken - rSO - INF
  • Payton Green - SO - SS/3B
  • LuJames Groover - JR - INF
  • Jacob Halford - SO - RHP
  • Sam Highfill - JR - RHP
  • Carson Kelly - SO - RHP
  • Justin Lawson - JR - RHP
  • Will Marcy - SO - INF/OF
  • John Miralia - JR - LHP
  • Baker Nelson - rSR - RHP
  • Chase Nixon - SO - OF
  • Garrett Payne - JR - RHP
  • Dominic Pilolli - JR - OF
  • Win Scott - SO - LHP
  • Tristan Sipple - JR - LHP
  • Noah Soles - JR - OF
  • Logan Whitaker - rJR - RHP
  • Matt Willadsen - JR - RHP

(Starters/Key Contributors in bold)

As mentioned in Part I of the season preview series, a ton of experience departed after the 2021 CWS run that left NC State with a largely inexperienced squad in 2022. The opposite is the case here. Whereas last year’s 20 returnees included only five players who could be counted as starters or key contributors, this year’s 20 returnees feature 13 players who were starters or key contributors for the Wolfpack a year ago... and that’s not even to mention the transfers that have entered the program, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Here’s a closer look at each of these returnees.

Jacob Cozart was a highly-regarded freshman, but had the typical struggles you’d expect with a player taking over such a key role in their first year out of high school. Entering the May, Cozart was hitting just .191, but would go 14-of-36 with 6 extra-base hits (4 2B, 2 HR) from there on to finish with a final line of .240/.337/.377 with 8 2B, 4 HR, 24 R, and 25 RBI while walking 17 times (10.0 BB%) and striking out 25 times (14.7 K%). He was also 2-for-2 on stolen bases while throwing out 9-of-28 (32.1%) of opponents who tried to steal on him.

Carson Falsken is the only returning player to have redshirted in 2022, but that was outside of Falsken’s control. An unfortunate knee injury in the fall of 2021 forced the switch-hitting infielder to sit out the season while rehabbing. He was expected to compete for a role on last year’s team, so it will be interesting to see where he is this year as he’ll be a year and a half removed from the injury.

With an absurd amount of expectations heaped on him before even arriving on campus, Payton Green had an up-and-down 2022 season, but like Cozart, flashed plenty of potential that has everyone still excited about his future. Green started the season as the Wolfpack’s shortstop, but flipped with Josh Hood halfway through the season and manned third base for the remainder of the year. He’s expected to return to shortstop for 2023, but regardless will find his way into the lineup. Green hit .256/.353/.435 with 12 2B, 2 3B, 7 HR, 39 R, and 39 RBI. He had 28 BB (11.4 BB%) and 60 K (24.4 K%) while leading the team in stolen bases with a perfect 10-for-10 effort. He’ll need to improve with the glove, but his bat will play.

LuJames Groover transferred to NC State after one season at Charlotte and proceeded to put forth a 2nd Team All-ACC season in 2022. While playing four defensive positions (1B, 2B, LF, RF), Groover hit .364/.440/.568 with 16 2B, 1 3B, 10 HR, 65 R, and 47 RBI, while registering 28 BB (10.2 BB%) and 44 K (16.1 K%) and going 4-for-6 on stolen bases. Groover’s bat is his calling card with a great plate approach and better-than-expected pop, but his glove is what impressed in the fall as he made the move to third base. If the hot corner doesn’t work out, expect Groover to move back over to first base.

Like Cozart and Green, Will Marcy had an up-and-down freshman year with the Wolfpack. He had some huge moments both offensively and defensively, but seemed to fall out of favor with the coaching staff and increasingly found himself playing a reserve role down the stretch. Across 101 PA, Marcy hit .277/.384/.410 with 2 2B and 3 HR, scored 22 runs while driving in 10, registered 11 walks (9.9 BB%) against 19 strikeouts (18.8 K%), and was successful on 4-of-5 stolen base attempts. Marcy has the ability to play all over the diamond defensively, which will help in getting his bat into the lineup, but he mainly was getting looks at first base and third base in the fall.

Chase Nixon will enter his second year in Raleigh looking to continue his development as an outfielder. He got some run as a freshman, logging 27 PA and producing to a .273/.370/.318 line with 1 2B, 7 R, and 1 RBI, along with 2 BB (7.4 BB%) and 7 K (25.9 K%). With a loaded roster, Nixon’s likely role is as a reserve outfielder and pinch-hitter in 2023.

Like Groover, Dominic Pilolli transferred to NC State after beginning his college career at Charlotte. Like most of the other first-year Wolfpackers in 2022, Pilolli had an up-and-down campaign. State’s primary left fielder showed massive power with the bat, but as the season progressed, became a pull-only hitter and his approach at the plate diminished. Added to those issues - and likely a culprit of them - Pilolli was working back from a significant knee injury that clearly was an issue for him all season long. In 2022, Pilolli hit .261/.382/.494 with 9 2B, a team-leading 3 3B, 9 HR, 34 R, 33 RBI, 32 BB (14.5 BB%), and 62 K (28.2 K%) over 220 PA. Even with the knee issues, he was still 4-of-5 on stolen bases. Assuming good health, Pilolli’s bat will play huge in State’s 2023 lineup.

Noah Soles was a big-time recruit out of Ledford High School who got off to a great start in the covid-shortened 2020 season before getting lost in the shuffle and buried on the bench with the great 2021 team. He finally got his opportunity in 2022, settling in as the team’s primary right fielder, and progressed tremendously as the season went on. His final line across 193 PA was .321/.396/.458 with 11 2B, 4 HR, 37 R, and 28 RBI. He walked 20 times (10.4 BB%) against 25 strikeouts (13.0 K%) while going 4-for-6 on stolen bases. Soles moved to left field in the fall, but has the ability to play across all three outfield spots. He showed the pull-side power last year that could see him easily pop double-digit homers in 2023, although his all-fields approach should not be sacrificed for power.

Left-handed pitcher Jacob Dienes will enter his second year with the Pack looking to earn a relief role. Dienes was brought in as a developmental arm and showed some promise last year, getting into three games and tossing 3.0 innings of hitless relief and striking out 3 (21.4 K%), although he did allow a run (earned) due to issuing 5 walks (35.7 BB%). There’s potential if the stuff can be harnessed.

Like Dienes, Jacob Halford was a freshman in 2022 who pitched 3.0 innings for State. Unfortunately, that went much different for Halford as he allowed 9 runs (all earned) on 7 hits and 7 walks (30.4 BB%) for a 27.00 ERA. He did register 3 punchouts (13.0 K%) across his five outings. Don’t let the poor freshman campaign fool you; Halford has some really good stuff (the velo was up in the fall and the spin on the breaking ball was tighter) and should carve out a nice role with the Wolfpack this year.

There’s really not a lot to add about Sam Highfill that you don’t already know. If the back injury is behind him, then Highfill could easily step back into the form that made him a preseason All-American in 2021. If not, well... it’ll probably again have a ripple effect across the entire pitching staff.

Carson Kelly earned some hype in the fall before his freshman season last year, and after a good-not-great first half of the year, he really came on strong over the second half. Kelly allowed an earned run in just two of his final nine appearances of the season while registering multiple innings in five of those games. For the season, he made 18 appearances and threw 30.0 innings of 4.50 ERA ball while posting a 2-0 record, walking 17 (12.3 BB%) and striking out 32 (23.2 K%). The dual arm angle righty will need to reign in the control (he also plunked 8 batters and issued 8 wild pitches) if he’s to take the next step as a sophomore, but the talent is there to do it.

Justin Lawson joined the Wolfpack as a JUCO transfer last year with three years of eligibility remaining. After struggling to carve out a role with State early in the year (just 7 appearances over the first 8 weeks of the season), Lawson became a go-to arm down the stretch (12 appearances over the last 7 weeks of the season). His fastball-slider combo led to some solid results, going 5-3 with a 3.82 ERA over 37.2 innings with 18 BB (10.7 BB%) and 41 K (24.4 K%). Developing a dependable third pitch will take Lawson to that next level, but he should have a large role out of the bullpen again this year.

Baker Nelson is back for his 8th year of shot-putting the ball across home plate. The righty has seemingly been a mixed bag of results for his entire career. He was putting together a decent year in 2022, but fell off the rails over his final four outings and his season ERA ballooned up to 8.37. Control was his undoing over the second half of the season (10.7 BB% for the year), either missing the plate altogether or grooving fastballs down the middle. If he can find the control, he has the stuff to be a quality relief arm for State, as evidenced by his 26.2 K% for the year.

Following his incredible 2021 CWS outing against Vanderbilt in the #Pack13 game (1 ER over 5.0 IP), the expectation was for Garrett Payne to take the next step forward as a sophomore as he eased into a larger role with the Pack. Unfortunately, injuries in the pitching staff cast him into a much larger role much sooner than I think most would have liked or anticipated. Payne initially stepped up and seemed ready for the part, but his confidence waned as the season progressed and the results suffered. He finished the season with a 3-1 record and 5.91 ERA across 20 appearances (5 starts). Over 42.2 innings he walked 22 (11.1 BB%) and struck out 43 (21.6 K%). With tempered expectations, it wouldn’t surprise to see the 6’8 righty take a big step forward.

John Miralia, Win Scott, and Tr... wait a minute. Win Scott? WIN SCOTT, Y’ALL!

Check out that friggin ‘stache.

Anyways... John Miralia, Win Scott, and Tristan Sipple are a trio of lefties who are looking to carve out larger roles with the Wolfpack in 2023. The 6’7 Miralia has struggled to find a consistent role since arriving at State, but made some outings a year ago that would suggest this could be the year. He registered a 7.50 ERA over just 6.0 IP last year with 3 BB (7.0 BB%) and 8 K (18.6 K%), but the majority of that damage came in a single bad outing at Clemson. He’s not an overpowering pitcher, but his height extends his delivery and allows the fastball to appear faster than it is, and that lets the breaking ball play up.

Scott appeared in just four games as a true freshman a year ago, posting a 6.75 ERA over 5.1 innings with 4 BB (13.8 BB%) and 7 K (24.1 K%). He has some intriguing stuff, so it’ll be interesting to see what leaps he’s made from his first to second year.

Sipple was off to a solid start in 2022, registering a trio of scoreless outings over the first two weeks of the season before an injury shut him down for the rest of the season. He allowed just one hit and one walk while striking out three over his 2.0 total innings of work. If Sipple is back to full health, he should be a contributor in his third year on campus.

As mentioned in Part I of this series, the feel-good story of the 2022 Wolfpack was Logan Whitaker. After being the NC Baseball Class 2-A Player of the Year at Ledford High School in 2018 (on a team with Chris Villaman and Noah Soles, no less), Whitaker battled a slew of injuries that wiped out his first three years on campus. That would typically be enough to drive someone away from the sport and possibly away from the school, but Whitaker toughed it out and found his way onto the mound in 2022. It would have been enough to just get a few innings in, but Whitaker turned into a stud for the Pack, ending up as a member of the weekend rotation and making 14 starts among his 17 appearances. He tossed a total of 66.2 innings, sporting a 2-4 record and 4.72 ERA while walking 32 batters (10.6 BB%) and striking out 62 (20.6 K%). Whitaker should join Highfill in the starting rotation, along with...

Matt Willadsen built on his solid 2021 campaign by turning into the ace of the staff last year in Highfill’s absence. On the year, he posted a 5-4 record with a 4.19 ERA over 16 appearances (14 starts). He walked 45 (11.4 BB%) and struck out 95 (24.0 K%) over his 88.0 innings. Willadsen appeared to struggle with his control in 2022 compared to his 2021 season, but that made a lot more sense when it was revealed that he needed hip surgery after the season. In hindsight, it makes his efforts a year ago even that much more impressive. Willadsen sat out the fall while recovering but should be back and ready for the start of the 2023 season.