Top 25 Countdown: No. 22 North Carolina

North Carolina is in unfamiliar territory this season.

The Tar Heels are trying to get back to Omaha after missing a trip last season.

The Heels put together an amazing run before last season when they reached the College World Series four consecutive times and made the national title series on two occasions. The Heels came up short in both title series appearances, but hope this year’s team will guide them back to Omaha and accomplish much more.

Some areas must greatly improve for that to happen.

The Tar Heels again will look to Levi Michael to spearhead their offense.
(North Carolina)

First, the Tar Heels must make significant strides at the plate after having limited power production last season. They finished the campaign with a respectable .308 average, so they have some hope.

On the mound, the Heels again have a very talented staff. However, Patrick Johnson, Chris Munnelly and Michael Morin lead a weekend rotation that’s unproven.

North Carolina has some question marks, but the talent is there to do something special.

They must seize the moment.

Projected starting lineup

An asterisk (*) indicates a returning player

C Jacob Stallings*
1B Jesse Wierzbicki*
2B Tommy Coyle*
SS Levi Michael*
3B Colin Moran
LF Tom Zengel
CF Ben Bunting*
RF Brian Holberton
DH Matt Roberts

SP Patrick Johnson*
SP Michael Morin*
SP Chris Munnelly*
RP Jimmy Messer*
CP Greg Holt*

Offense

The Tar Heels finished last season with a .308 average and hope to take a step forward in that department this season.

Power production again will be an issue for this team, but being productive enough outside of power to win games shouldn’t be a major issue.

The Tar Heels welcome back several quality bats, including Jacob Stallings, Jesse Wierzbicki, Levi Michael and Ben Bunting.

Stallings batted .307 with two homers and 24 RBIs last season while Wierzbicki hit .307 with eight homers and 52 RBIs, Michael hit .346 with none homers and 54 RBIs and Bunting hit .313 with two homers and 25 RBIs.

Also keep an eye on newcomers Colin Moran, Tom Zengel, Brian Holberton and Matt Roberts, who are expected to have productive inaugural campaigns.

Pitching

The Tar Heels have prided themselves on pitching since they began their CWS run a few seasons ago.

The Heels had a solid staff last season when they finished with a 4.19 ERA and limited opposing teams to a .258 batting average. Can they emulate or best that success this season? It’s certainly possible, but some newcomers must adequately fill some holes.

Patrick Johnson, Chris Munnelly and Michael Morin formulate the weekend rotation. Johnson had a good ’10 campaign while Munnelly must be more consistent. Morin, meanwhile, makes the move to the rotation after serving primarily as a reliever last season.

Elsewhere, Kent Emanuel and Garrett Davis are expected to start in the midweek. Emanuel is an extremely talented newcomer while Davis had a 4.59 ERA in 33 1/3 innings last season.

Jimmy Messer and Zach Bernard are the Tar Heels’ key relievers, while Greg Holt is set to close.

Messer had a 3.66 ERA in 32 innings in ’10 and Bernard had a 2.45 ERA in 18 1/3 innings. Holt, meanwhile, recorded three saves in 26 appearances and had a 5.11 ERA in 44 innings.

Other pitchers to watch include Cody Stiles, R.C. Orlan and Cody Penny.

UNC’s staff again is loaded with talent. But several newcomers must do well for this team to reach its biggest goals.

Shoes to fill

The Tar Heels have some important holes to fill both on the mound and at the plate.

On the mound, replacing former ace Matt Harvey won’t be easy. Harvey started 14 games last season and had a 3.09 ERA in 96 innings. He also struck out 102 and walked 35 and limited teams to a .224 average.

Colin Bates is another loss after he finished last season with a 3.76 ERA in 67 innings and 21 appearances.

Offensively, the Heels will miss Ryan Graepel, Dillon Hazlett and Brian Goodwin.

Graepel and Hazlett finished last season with averages of .329 and .324, respectively, while Goodwin only hit .291 but hit seven homers and knocked in 63 runs. Goodwin was dismissed from the program and has since headed to the junior college ranks.

Overall, the Tar Heels have some holes to fill. However, the players filling the openings are more than capable of meeting expectations.

Must step up

With all eyes on the pitching staff entering the spring, it’s evident which players must rise to the occasion.

The list begins with weekend starters Michael Morin and Chris Munnelly.

Morin made 24 appearances last season, but only one start. He compiled a 5.45 ERA in 39 2/3 innings and teams hit .294 off him. Munnelly, meanwhile, made eight starts and 23 appearances last season, and had a 5.40 ERA in 66 2/3 innings.

Both pitchers must have better campaigns.

Offensively, second baseman Tommy Coyle needs to produce more after finishing last season with just a .282 average, a home run and 25 RBIs. He also had an unimpressive .388 on-base percentage.

Impact newcomer

There’s no question the Tar Heels need several newcomers to provide an immediate impact to have success this spring.

The Heels are expected to have four true freshmen in their everyday lineup, including third baseman Colin Moran, outfielders Tom Zengel and Brian Holberton and designated hitter Matt Roberts.

On the mound, no newcomers will be forced into the weekend rotation, but several will have important roles in the bullpen. Those arms include Kent Emanuel, Andrew Smith, Shane Taylor and Tate Parrish.

The class of newcomers could determine how far the Heels go.

Postseason prognosis

The Tar Heels could be much better than expected if their pitching staff, particularly the weekend rotation, meets expectations.

The Heels finished last season with a decent rotation, thanks to first-rounder Matt Harvey leading the way. However, Harvey is gone and Patrick Johnson takes over at the ace weekend starter. Chris Munnelly must be more consistent and we’ll see how Michael Morin makes the transition to starter.

Offensively, the Tar Heels again will lack big-time power. However, they welcome back five hitters that earned significant playing time last season.

Look for the Heels to reach an NCAA Super Regional if their weekend rotation pans out.

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 Friday, Jan 21, 2011