Top 25 Countdown: No. 24 Georgia Tech

Sometimes simple changes can be the difference between an NCAA Regional and getting to the College World Series.

Georgia Tech hopes change, in this instance, is in its favor.

The Yellow Jackets have had some heartbreaking moments the past two seasons with different classes of players. Two years ago, they lost the Atlanta Regional to surprising Southern Mississippi. Last season, they were an Omaha favorite and stumbled again in the regional round, that time to Alabama.

The Jackets again will enter a campaign with high hopes. But it will be without several players that earned a reputation of not getting it done in the postseason. Perhaps the infusion of newcomers will help the Jackets turn the corner and get back to Omaha.

Matt Skole must have a good year for the Jackets to have success at the plate.
(Georgia Tech)

Offensively, the Yellow Jackets have the tough chore of replacing six of their top seven hitters. However, the talent is there to succeed. On the mound, the Jackets welcome back three seasoned pitchers as starters, while the bullpen has a solid nucleus with prospect Kevin Jacob leading the way.

It’s a new year with several fresh faces for the Jackets.

Maybe that will create different postseason results.

Projected starting lineup

An asterisk (*) indicates a returning player

C Zane Evans
1B Matt Skole*
2B Jacob Esch*
SS Mott Hyde
3B Chase Butler
LF DeAndre Smelter
CF Kyle Wren
RF Brandon Thomas*
DH Daniel Palka

SP Jed Bradley*
SP Mark Pope*
SP Buck Farmer*
RP Luke Bard*
CP Kevin Jacob*

Offense

Power production wasn’t an issue for the Yellow Jackets last season as they slammed 122 homers and tallied an impressive .326 batting average.

Equalling that 122 total will be incredibly difficult, while .326 as an average isn’t out of the question if several newcomers rise to the occasion.

DeAndre Smelter, Mott Hyde and Daniel Palka are the primary newcomers to watch. Smelter and Palka earned rave reviews during fall workouts, while Hyde has the talent to be an immediate contributor.

Also keep an eye on Zane Evans, Chase Butler and Kyle Wren.

In terms of returning players, the Jackets must get very productive campaigns from Matt Skole, Jacob Esch and Brandon Thomas, who will become a full-time starter after making just 24 starts last season.

Skole batted .335 with 20 homers and 63 RBIs last season, Esch batted .284 with three homers and 38 RBIs and Thomas batted .262 with 13 RBIs.

The Jackets don’t appear to be in good shape at the plate on paper, but history suggests they’ll again be just fine.

Time will tell if that hunch is correct.

Pitching

The Jackets won’t enter the season with a Deck McGuire-type of pitcher, but they have several talented and productive arms at their disposal.

The weekend rotation has some rebuilding to do without McGuire and Brandon Cumpton, but the replacements are solid options with Jed Bradley and Mark Pope leading the way. Buck Farmer rounds out the rotation.

Bradley made 16 starts last season and had a 4.83 ERA in 91 1/3 innings. He also struck out 99 and walked 25 and limited teams to a .295 average. Pope, meanwhile, had a 3.78 ERA in 78 2/3 innings and limited teams to a .292 average. Farmer only made three starts in ’10, but had a solid 3.63 ERA in 52 innings. Teams hit just .204 off him.

Other pitchers to watch include Matt Grimes, Kevin Jacob, Luke Bard, Taylor Wood, Jake Davies and Zach Brewster.

Grimes was a fourth-round pick of the White Sox last summer, but chose to join the Jackets. He could find himself in the weekend rotation should his stint as midweek starter to begin the season progress well. Jacob, meanwhile, only made 10 appearances last season because of an injury, but will step in as closer. Jacob is extremely talented and will be drafted high this summer should he have a good ’11 campaign.

Bard made 19 appearances last season, but must improve after tallying a 7.43 ERA. Wood had a 2.03 ERA in 13 1/3 innings last season while Davies had a 3.52 ERA in 15 1/3 innings and Brewster had a 3.60 ERA in 10 innings.

Also look for Jacob Esch to log some innings on the mound. Esch has a fastball in the lower-to-mid 90s and could provide the Jackets with a power arm at the back end of the bullpen.

It’ll be interesting to see how this unit comes together outside the weekend rotation.

Shoes to fill

There’s some work to do in Atlanta if the Jackets plan to reach the CWS. They have some holes to fill between now and February.

At the plate, the Jackets must replace six of their top seven hitters, including Thomas Nichols, Tony Plagman, Chase Burnette, Derek Dietrich, Jeff Rowland Cole Leonida.

Nichols led the team with a .376 average last season while Plagman hit .360 with 21 homers and 78 RBIs, Burnette hit .356 with 17 homers and 66 RBIs, Dietrich hit .350 with 17 homers and 61 RBIs, Rowland hit .322 with 10 homers and 42 RBIs and Leonida hit .296 with 11 homers and 56 RBIs.

The Jackets have plenty of solid options on the mound, but replacing Deck McGuire, Brandon Cumpton and Andrew Robinson won’t be easy.

McGuire was fantastic last season, compiling a 2.96 ERA in 112 2/3 innings. Cumpton started 15 games and had a 5.50 ERA in 73 2/3 innings while Robinson recorded eight saves and had a 2.43 ERA in 33 1/3 innings.

Even with much talent, can the Jackets overcome their significant losses?

Must step up

The Jackets lost several key offensive cogs to the MLB draft last summer, meaning several newcomers must make an immediate impact.

That puts more pressure on Matt Skole and Jacob Esch, who finished last season with batting averages of .335 and .285, respectively.

On the mound, the Jackets have the tough chore of replacing All-American Deck McGuire. They’re hoping Jed Bradley, Mark Pope and Buck Farmer meet expectations.

Bradley had a 4.83 ERA last season while Pope and Farmer finished the campaign with ERAs of 3.78 and 3.63, respectively.

Taking pressure off their youngsters is a top priority.

Impact newcomer

The Yellow Jackets have several talented newcomers to watch this season, including outfielder DeAndre Smelter, shortstop Mott Hyde and designated hitter Daniel Palka.

Smelter is a versatile outfielder that brings stability to the table, Hyde is an infielder the Jackets are excited about, though, it will be tough to replace Derek Dietrich. Palka, meanwhile, is expected to be an immediate big-time contributor at the plate.

Other newcomers to watch include top prospect Matt Grimes, Zane Evans, Chase Butler and Kyle Wren.

The Jackets are in great shape if their newcomers make quick transitions.

Postseason prognosis

Even with some question marks at the plate, the Yellow Jackets enter ’11 with hopes of reaching an NCAA Super Regional and perhaps even the CWS.

Offensively, the Jackets only return two seasoned hitters in Matt Skole and Jacob Esch. However, this team is loaded with young talent. Tech will have an amazing lineup in ’12, but can the youngsters make the transition to Division I baseball sooner than expected? If so, the sky is the limit for this team.

On the mound, the Jackets will miss ace pitcher Deck McGuire, but still return a trio of seasoned pitchers as weekend starters. They also return enough bullpen arms to hold teams in the latter innings. As with the offense, the Jackets plan to get several talented newcomers in the pitching mix.

Georgia Tech belongs in the top 25 based on returning pitching and offensive talent. And for now, making an NCAA Regional is the expectation. More could come, though.

Kendall Rogers is the college baseball editor for Yahoo! Sports and Rivals.com. Follow him on Twitter and follow Yahoo! Sports College Baseball on Facebook. Send Kendall a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Wednesday, Jan 19, 2011