Baseball fans in the State of Alabama are in for a treat the next few seasons.
The Crimson Tide has been solid the past few seasons and rival Auburn took a huge step forward last season with an NCAA postseason appearance.
But while the Tigers reaching a regional last season was a big story, there's plenty of hoopla inside the state about coach Mitch Gaspard and the job he's doing with the Tide.
Alabama entered last season with some uncertainty after the departure of long-time coach Jim Wells, but Gaspard quickly silenced the doubters with a respectable regular season campaign and a trip to the SEC tournament title game.
The Crimson Tide took things a step further in the postseason, too, by winning the Atlanta Regional before falling just short of reaching the College World Series in Gaspard's first campaign as head coach.
They hope to finish the job beginning with preparations this fall.
The Crimson Tide have the tough chore of replacing the entire infield with the departures of Jake Smith, Josh Rutledge, Ross Wilson and Clay Jones. They also have some talented hitters to replace from a lineup that was productive last season.
On the mound, the Tide welcomes back a front-line ace in Nathan Kilcrease, but need more consistency from Adam Morgan and another solid campaign from Tucker Hawley to make a trip to Omaha a reality.
Like everyone else, the Tide will finish fall workouts with some question marks. But Gaspard already has shown he can exceed expectations.
The treats are expected to continue.
Solidify the infield
The Crimson Tide is most worried about replacing several solid infielders between now and the spring. The Tide welcomes back catcher Brock Bennett, but must replace first baseman Clay Jones, second baseman Ross Wilson, shortstop Josh Rutledge and third baseman Jake Smith. Replacing the foursome won't be easy. Jones finished last season with a .995 fielding percentage, Wilson had a .969 fielding percentage, Rutledge ended the year at .939 and Smith ended at .951. The Tide has high hopes for several returning and new infielders, but are most concerned with Brett Booth, who's making the move from the outfield to third base. 'Bama could have a tough time equaling last season's excellent .977 fielding percentage.
Figure out the closer role
The Tide has some questions to answer at the back end of the bullpen with Nathan Kilcrease now a weekend starter and Jake Smith gone. Kilcrease recorded four saves in 34 appearances last season while Smith recorded six saves in 13 appearances. The Tide is looking to Jason Zylstra or Nathan Kennedy to close. Zylstra is a Jacksonville State transfer that Gaspard believes has a big-time arm. Zylstra has sat in the mid-90's so far this fall. Kennedy, meanwhile, is a sidearm right-hander that has decent velocity but prides himself on outstanding command. Both pitchers will have important roles at the back end of the bullpen, but 'Bama isn't sure who will occupy which role.
Formulate a solid weekend rotation
With the defense and offense somewhat concerns as fall workouts progress, it's important for the Crimson Tide to develop a solid rotation between now and the spring. 'Bama has a solid ace pitcher in Nathan Kilcrease, who went 8-3 with a 2.85 ERA in 98 innings last season. He also struck out 82 and walked 21 and limited teams to a .224 batting average. Adam Morgan also returns but must establish consistency. He had a 6.18 ERA in 90 1/3 innings last season and opponents hit .317 against him. Morgan can be great. He also can be lackluster. That must change for the better. The Tide expect to round out their rotation with sophomore right-hander Tucker Hawley, who had a 4.20 ERA in 40 2/3 innings last season. 'Bama is in good shape if it has a solid rotation in the spring.
Carry momentum forward
Even with some significant departures, the Crimson Tide still has plenty of reasons to feel confident about the upcoming season. After all, the Tide had a campaign to remember in Gaspard's first hurrah as head coach. The Tide entered the season with some uncertainty after the departure of long-time coach Jim Wells. Gaspard, though, made it a seamless transition with a likable personality and intense knowledge of the game. UA finished his first season with just a 15-15 SEC record. However, the Tide reached the SEC tournament title game and an NCAA super regional. Though they fell short of Omaha, the Tide ended the year with an impressive 42-25 overall record. This team should carry plenty of momentum into the spring.
Reload at the plate
The Crimson Tide only finished last season with a .296 batting average, but that figure was deceiving as they had a much more productive lineup than that. The Tide must replace several key hitters from that lineup, including Josh Rutledge, Clay Jones, Ross Wilson and Jake Smith. Rutledge and Jones each hit over .310, while Wilson and Smith had nine and 15 home runs, respectively. The Tide expects big-time production from top returning hitter Taylor Dugas and Jon Kelton. They also believe Andrew Miller will develop more into a complete hitter after ending last season with a .247 average and just 27 RBIs. Gaspard is excited about the additions of newcomers Josh Rosecrans, Patrick McGavin and Austen Smith. He believes the trio have a chance to be immediate contributors at the plate. It'll be interesting to see how the lineup pans out when spring arrives.
- Jake Smith
- Clay Jones