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2024 NC State Baseball Preview - Part II: Who’s Back

A first look at the 2024 Wolfpack baseball season

COLLEGE BASEBALL: MAR 12 NC State at Miami Photo by Samuel Lewis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The 2024 college baseball season will be here before you know it, and so we’re all properly prepared, let’s take a look at the group that will be the 2024 Wolfpack Baseball team. Here’s how we’ll try to do this:

Let’s go!

Who’s back

For the third straight year, 20 players will return from the prior year’s squad for the Pack. You could argue the number of those which fit the description of a key contributors since a trio of the arms were only lightly used in ACC play, but I believe all three of those will garner larger roles in 2024 so I’m rolling with that tag for them here.

Below are the players returning in 2024 from the 2023 team:

  • Jacob Cozart - JR - C
  • Jacob Dienes - rSO - LHP
  • Carson Falsken - rJR - INF/OF
  • Dominic Fritton - SO - LHP
  • Jacob Halford - JR - RHP
  • Matt Heavner - SO - INF
  • Sam Highfill - SR - RHP
  • Carson Kelly - JR - RHP
  • P.J. Labriola - SR - LHP
  • Drew Lanphere - rFR - C/INF
  • John Miralia - SR - LHP
  • Chase Nixon - JR - OF
  • Garrett Payne - rJR - RHP
  • Win Scott - JR - LHP
  • Eli Serrano III - SO - INF/OF
  • Andrew Shaffner - SO - RHP/UTIL
  • Derrick Smith - SO - RHP
  • Noah Soles - SR - OF
  • Logan Whitaker - rSR - RHP
  • Matt Willadsen - SR - RHP

(Starters/Key Contributors in bold)

One of the best catchers in the country, Cozart is a complete-package backstop who will once again anchor the team in 2024. The lefty-hitting, 6’3 native of High Point is rated as high as the fifth best prospect in the 2024 draft, and no lower than 80th anywhere. Actually, that MLB Pipeline ranking is the only one that has Cozart with a grade outside of the top half of the first round. Barring injury, Cozy will follow his fellow Wesleyan Christian Academy alum and former Wolfpacker Patrick Bailey as a first round pick. Cozart earned 2nd Team All-ACC honors in 2023 after he hit .301/.392/.546 over 228 PA with 14 2B, 2 3B, 10 HR, 39 R, and 42 RBI with a 10.5 BB% and 16.7 K%. He spent a good chunk of his summer training with the USA Baseball Collegiate National Team. He is very good at baseball, which will help NC State be good at baseball in 2024.

Fritton burst onto the scene for the Wolfpack in 2023, earning 1st Team Freshman All-American honors from a bevy of publications. As a clearly underrecruited pitcher from right down the road in Fuquay-Varina, the lefty began building hype with a solid fall camp for State. He carried that effort forward serving in a slew of roles for State, from long relief to starter to closer; Fritton did it all. He made 9 starts among his 17 total appearances, working to a 3-4 record with 3 saves and a 3.59 ERA over 62.2 IP with an 8.9 BB% and 27.8 K%. With a low-90’s riser of a heater and a curve that can also be an out pitch, Fritton pounds the zone and challenges hitters. Like Cozart, Fritton worked over the summer with the USA Baseball CNT. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Fritton show up to close out a few important games this year, but would be shocked to see him in a regular role as anything other than a weekend starter. He’s a draft-eligible sophomore and if his secondary offerings improve, along with a tick or two more on the fastball, could see himself shoot up draft boards. I feel like I also need to point out that Fritton’s middle name is Blaze.

A one-time projected high draft pick after his dominating 2021 campaign, injuries have set Highfill’s NC State career on a different path. The Mayor was a member of the 2021 USA Baseball Collegiate National Team before a back injury early the following season sent him on a path to essentially relearn how to pitch. In 2023, Highfill tied for the second-most appearances among the pitching staff with 22, including 6 starts. He posted a 6-4 record with 1 save and a 4.83 ERA over 54.0 IP while posting a 9.0 BB% and 19.7 K%. For his career, the Apex native has a 19-8 record with 1 save and a 4.24 ERA across 50 appearances, including 28 starts, spanning 189.0 innings. He has a career 7.4 BB% and 21.8 K%. After spending last summer in the Cape Cod League, reports were that Highfill was looking much better in fall camp. He’s a real wildcard for this team depending on his health and, thus, effectiveness. Highfill could fit in anywhere from a Friday starter to a closer for the Pack.

In a similar style to Highfill, although with a lot more outward passion on the mound compared to Highfill’s stoic and calm demeanor, Kelly has shown flashes in the past of a potential shutdown reliever for State. Across his two-year career, the Sanford native has a 2-0 record with 1 save and a 5.33 ERA. Over his 39 appearances, all in relief, he’s pitched 54.0 inning with a 14.6 BB% and 24.9 K%. Kelly likes to mix his arm slot, which can be effective but can also work against him at times both from a control perspective and when he becomes too consistent with what pitch is coming out of which slot. Given his control issues in the past, it’ll be interesting to see if Kelly becomes more consisten with a given arm slot this year. He’ll be a relief arm, but again with the upside of a closer role for the Pack. Regardless, he should see a lot more innings in ACC play than the 7.2 he saw in 2023.

Labriola transferred in for the 2023 season after spending his first three years at Clemson. The lefty threw more innings last year for the Wolfpack (20.2) than he did across his entire career with the Tigers (19.2). Only 2.0 of his innings last year came in ACC play as he was mainly used early in the season as a midweek starter. On the season, the 6’7 Florida native posted a 3-0 record with a 5.23 ERA with a 14.3 BB% and 16.3 K%. If the control gets better (5 HBP and 2 WP in addition to the walks), the stuff will play up and Labriola could handle a much larger role in 2024. At the very least, he could serve in a LOOGY (lefty one-out guy) role; however, like Kelly, I would expect his usage in conference play to tick up significantly.

Hey, did you hear that Chase Nixon is the son of Trot Nixon? If you watched any of the 32 games in which he appeared last year for NC State, and probably even some of the ones he didn’t, you certainly heard. And just wait because - spoiler alert on Part III of this series - his younger brother is on the team this year. Nixon played sparingly as a freshman in 2022, showing up in 18 games but making a pair of starts. In 2023, he played a much larger role, especially filling in when Noah Soles missed a huge portion of the season with an injury. On the year he played in 32 games making 18 starts and posting a .319/.402/.514 line with 8 2B, 2 HR, 11 R, and 21 RBI. Over his 82 PA, he posted a 9.8 BB% and 17.1 K%. Nixon’s effectiveness held up in ACC play, too, where he posted a .316/.366/.553 line over 41 PA, although his BB% and K% diminished slightly to 4.9% and 19.5%, respectively. Nixon should have the inside track to a starting outfield spot in 2024, but will need to improve defensively to hold off some talented newcomers. Should he fail to win a starting gig on the grass, the lefty hitter could always feature as a DH or key offensive-oriented substitute.

Like Fritton, Serrano III is a draft-eligible sophomore who is coming off a great initial showing with the Wolfpack a year ago. In earning ACC All-Freshman honors in 2023, Serrano hit .292/.389/.470 with 12 2B, 7 HR, 37 R, 32 RBI, an 11.1 BB%, and a 17.1 K% over 217 PA, while also going 2-for-3 on stolen bases. Due to an abundance of outfielders a year ago and a glaring hole at first base, Serrano manned the first base mit for the Pack in 2023, but he’s expected to move into the outfield - a more natural position for him - in 2024, with an opportunity to be State’s everyday centerfielder. While his ultimate defensive home (CF, LF, RF, 1B) is not yet decided, he most certainly has a bat and the build that scouts love. The 6’5, 201 lbs Fuquay-Varina native has a sweet lefty swing and a professional approach at the plate. The comps made of him coming out of high school were Christian Yelich, and while Serrano hitting that level of MLB productivity is a long ways away, his ability to hit the same draft levels (Yelich went 23rd overall in the 2010 draft) is very reachable. Serrano is currently ranked as high as a late 2nd rounder for 2024, but if he grows into his frame a bit more, shows some more pop in the bat, and an even average ability in the outfield, he’s going to fly up draft boards as his ceiling is the highest of anyone mentioned here.

For whatever reason, Shaffner was lightly used over the last month and change of the 2023 season, and NC State was worse off for it. As a freshman, the righty out of Virginia tossed 21.0 innings of 3.86 ball with a 9.9 BB% and 25.3 K% over 15 appearances. He only threw 4.0 innings in conference play, a figure that is sure to move way up in 2024. Interestingly, Shaffner is listed this year as a RHP and a utility player. You usually see that for freshman who were significant two-way players in high school before they settle into one or the other, but not usually going from a PO as a freshman to a two-way guy as a sophomore. To be clear, Shaffner was a two-way monster in high school. Little Ohtani hit .545 with 11 homers during his senior year of high school, so the lefty hitter can handle the bat. After pitching briefly in the Cape Cod League last summer, Shaffner ended up with a shoulder injury, but should be back for the spring. He’s my breakout pick for 2024.

Soles has had a very interesting college career. From a Ledford program in Thomasville that has been very good to NC State as of late, Soles was a 19th round pick of the Diamondbacks out of high school in 2019 but chose to head to Raleigh. He found instant success during his first year in 2020 (.600/.625/.733 over 16 PA), but that season was cut short as you’ll well remember. He struggled early on in 2021 and found himself as a reserve on the Pack’s CWS squad (.207/.324/.241 over 34 PA), but finally broke out as a full-time starter in 2022 (.321/.396/.458 over 193 PA; 11 2B, 4 HR, 37 R, 28 RBI, 10.4 BB%, 13.0 K%). Surprisingly, he went undrafted after that performance and returned last year. Unfortunately, a hamstring injury... uhh... hamstrung his 2023 season restricting him to 36 games, 33 of which were starts. He was still highly effective during that time (.305/.443/.466, 6 2B, 2 3B, 3 HR, 26 R, 14 RBI, 15.9 BB%, 10.6 K%) as the engine atop the Wolfpack lineup. Again, Soles went undrafted, but that’s good news for NC State. A fully healthy Soles - the dude has wheels, but just hasn’t been healthy enough to showcase it yet to this point in his career - is an on base machine who can pop 15 HR and steal 15 bases for the Pack.

Whitaker hails from that same Ledford program as Soles, and his story is amazing. The former 2A State Player-of-the-Year in high school, injuries caused him to miss the entirety of his first three years of college. He stuck it out with the Wolfpack, though, and returned in 2022 earning a weekend starting gig in the process. That year he went 2-4 with a 4.72 ERA over 17 appearances (14 starts) spanning 66.2 innings with a 10.6 BB% and 20.6 K%. He was even better in 2023, going 5-3 with a 4.29 ERA over 16 appearances (15 starts) spanning 79.2 innings with a 5.0 BB% and 23.4 K%. Now in his final year of eligibility and seemingly on top of his game, Whitaker will look to again be a foundational piece of the pitching staff in 2024. There was talk in the fall of potentially moving him to a bullpen role this year to allow his stuff to play up (it doesn’t hurt to have a dude who pounds the zone in a high pressure role, either), but he brings so much value and consistency to the rotation it’s hard to imagine that playing out. He pitched into the 7th inning five times last year, a figure that led the team last year.

Willadsen, from Holly Springs, has been a workhorse for three years running now for State. In his career, he’s posted a 16-12 record with a 4.43 ERA over 56 games, including 45 starts. During that time, he’s tossed 260.1 innings with a 9.5 BB% and a 22.9 K%. He’s been the model of consistency (13+ starts, 81.0+ innings, sub-4.75 ERA each of the last three years) and gives the Pack a chance to win every time he toes the rubber. He’s battled - but still pitched through - injuries in 2022 and 2023, making his year-over-year consistency even more impressive. A fully healthy Willadsen could be a top of the ACC type of arm and elevate the entire pitching staff around him. He’ll again command a weekend rotation gig. And if you’re counting, yes, that’s four returning starter-caliber arms that the Wolfpack has heading into the season. Depth like that is invaluable.

As an athletic small school recruit out of Wilson, NC, Dienes was a project guy who is now getting to the point where he can start contributing for the Wolfpack. After not pitching in a game last year for State, he made was an All-Star for the Asheboro Zookeepers in the Coastal Plain League last summer. He’s not an overpowering arm, but has stuff that can miss bats. Control is the issue; in 3.0 IP for the Pack in 2022 he walked 5 and plunked 1 (but did strike out 3) and in 36.1 IP over two seasons in the CPL, he’s issued 31 BB (but also struck out 46).

Falsken was a highly rated recruit out of the state of California who played a reserve role behind an experienced infield during the Pack’s 2021 run to Omaha. Unfortunately, his career was derailed by a knee injury during the 2021 fall camp and he missed the 2022 season entirely. He returned last year in a reserve role and will again serve in a similar fashion for the 2024 team. Over his career, Falsken has a .188/.263/.188 line across 19 PA with a 10.5 BB% and 36.8 K%.

Halford has pitched only 7.0 innings over his two years in Raleigh, but just enough each year to avoid a redshirt, so he’s into his third year of eligibility in 2024. Like Dienes, Halford pitched for the Zookeepers in the CPL last summer, and also like Dienes, control has been an issue for him. He’s issued 11 BB and 4 WP over his NC State career, but appeared to turn a corner in the CPL last summer (34.1 IP, 29 H, 18 BB, 46 K) and carried that into a strong fall. He’ll compete for relief innings this spring for State.

An undersized infielder, Heavner has a legit shot at outright winning the starting second base job for the Wolfpack this spring, although he’ll have stiff competition from some of the newcomers (more on them next time). The Lincolnton native made a pair of starts late in the season as a freshman last year (including against Miami in the ACC Tournament) while Payton Green battled ineffectiveness in ACC play. He hit .176/.263/.353 over 20 PA last year with 1 HR (vs Pittsburgh), 5 R, and 3 RBI, posting a 10.0 BB% and 25.0 K%. Heavner is a solid defender with upside in his bat. I said he gave off J.T. Jarrett vibes, and I’ll stick to that assessment.

Lanphere redshirted last year after arriving on campus as a corner infielder from East Wake Academy, but has since moved to a reserve catcher role. He has a stocky build at 5’10, 192 lbs with some natural pop in his left-handed swing. Regular playing time will likely be hard to come by this spring for him with Cozart in place and freshman Alex Sosa also commanding playing time in the rare instance that Cozart isn’t in the lineup. Lanphere has the type of bat that could force his way into regular ABs if given the chance. He hit .283/.473/.472 across 74 PA to earn All-Star honors in the CPL last summer with an impressive 24.3 BB% and 16.2 K%.

Hopefully 2024 will be the year that I don’t have to get up on my soapbox and clamor that Miralia is again being underutilized. The 6’7, 247 lbs product of Providence Day in Charlotte pitched to a 1-0 record with a 2.16 ERA over 8.1 IP in 2023 with an 11.4 BB% and 37.1 K%. While that BB% may look high, keep in mind that Miralia never issued more than a single walk in any one outing and went the entire year without a wild pitch or HBP. Control is not an issue. Miralia worked 12 scoreless outings of his 13 appearances a year ago. He doesn’t feature a fastball approaching triple digits or any single offspeed pitch that’s going to knock your socks off, but he gets outs and is especially hell on lefties. Please, pitch this dude more.

Payne is set to return to the mound for the Pack in 2024 after missing last year due to a UCL injury. While most UCL injuries require full reconstruction surgery (otherwise known as Tommy John Surgery), Payne underwent an internal brace procedure that potentially has a shorter rehabilitation time and thus a quicker return to play. His absence was certainly felt last year among the pitching staff, a group that saw only six pitchers log double-digit innings in ACC play. Over his first two years of action, Payne tossed 56.1 innings of 5.75 ERA across 27 outings including 6 starts (with one of those starts being the #Pack13 CWS game against Vanderbilt). He holds a career 11.7 BB% and 21.8 K%. Nobody knows what, if anything, to expect of Payne in 2024 as he’s still in the post-procedure ramp up process and the next time he toes the rubber for the Pack will have been almost two full years since his last game action.

Scott, like Halford, has been lightly used over his first two seasons in Raleigh, but used just enough to be ineligible for a redshirt both seasons. Thus, the lefty enters his third year of eligibility in 2024 despite only having tossed 10.2 innings in his Wolfpack career. Over that span, he’s posted a 5.06 ERA with BB% and K% numbers of 13.7 and 27.5, respectively. Like Dienes, Scott turned in an All-Star effort last summer in the CPL (30.0 IP, 20 H, 14 BB, 25 K) where he primarily served as a starter for the Zookeepers. He’ll feature as a relief arm for State in 2024, but while Scott doesn’t possess a fastball that’s going to blow by anyone, he has some good off-speed offerings and plenty of potential, as evidenced by him getting a three-game run in the Cape Cod League late last summer.

Smith is a righty from Minnesota who is built like a linebacker at 6’2, 222 lbs. He pitched only 3.0 innings last year, posting a 3.00 ERA while recording 1 strikeout and issuing 1 walk, although he did plunk a pair of batters. Given that his redshirt was burned for those three appearances, it would have been nice to see him get a little more action, but he should command much more of a look in 2024. Last summer in the Northwoods League, Smith earned All-Star accolades as a starting pitcher (44.1 IP, 42 H, 22 BB, 34 K). Control will be Smith’s biggest limiting factor, as his stuff is great if he can locate effectively.