SEC teams better hope they got their licks in before last season.
Chances are good the days of Auburn being an afterthought on the baseball diamond are over as long as coach John Pawlowski leads the way.
The Tigers almost reached the NCAA postseason in his first season. But last season, in his second year, they took the ultimate step forward with an SEC division title, an NCAA postseason appearance and a regional host.
Sure, the Tigers fell short of reaching a super regional and the College World Series. But there's no question Pawlowski set the tone for his program. The rest of the SEC took notice.
Auburn has some holes to fill before spring arrives.
It struggled on the mound at times last season and must formulate an adequate weekend rotation with Slade Smith, Jon Luke Jacobs and newcomer Andrew Morris leading the way. The Tigers also must improve in the field after finishing last season with a .962 fielding percentage.
Even without some key power hitters, offense isn't a concern this fall.
The Tigers welcome back eight hitters who earned significant playing time from a lineup that finished the 2010 season with a .348 batting average. They also welcome several talented newcomers to the mix.
Like many teams, the Tigers continue fall workouts with some important holes to fill. But again, this program only will continue to take strides with Pawlowski in charge.
Gone are the days of dismissing Auburn.
Build off last season
What an incredible run the Tigers have had the last two seasons. The Tigers had high hopes when coach John Pawlowski made the move from College of Charleston to Auburn. And after falling just short of an NCAA postseason appearance in his first campaign, he wouldn't be denied in his second campaign. The Tigers won the SEC Western Division last season with a 20-10 record and hosted an NCAA regional and ended the year with a 43-21 overall record. Amazingly, the Tigers reached the SEC tournament last season for the first time since 2003. AU was an underachieving program before Pawlowski, but he appears to have it headed the right direction. Now, the Tigers must carry momentum through the fall and into the spring.
Replace the Big Three at the plate
The Tigers had one of the nation's most powerful lineups last season, but have some work to do between now and the spring to carry the same label in the spring. The Tigers hit 131 home runs last season and must replace 47 percent of that production with the departures of Hunter Morris, Trent Mummey and Brian Fletcher, who hit 23, 17 and 22 home runs, respectively. That means AU needs equal if not more power production from Dan Gamache, Tony Caldwell, Casey McElroy and Kevin Patterson, which could be difficult with the new bats. Gamache hit eight home runs last season, Caldwell hit 10, McElroy hit nine and Patterson hit 16. It'll be interesting to see how much power the Tigers have when spring arrives.
It's certainly true the Tigers have a plethora of power to replace, but they also have many hitters that had high batting averages to replace. AU finished last season with a fabulous .348 batting average, and though it will be incredibly difficult to repeat that performance, there's a good chance they again will hit well over .300. The Tigers welcome back eight talented hitters who earned significant playing time last season. Dan Gamache is the top returnee after hitting .365 with eight home runs and 37 RBIs last season. Justin Fradejas hit .358 with three home runs and 33 RBIs and is back, while the Tigers also return Tony Caldwell (.349), Casey McElroy (.325), Justin Bryant (.323), Justin Hargett (.316), Kevin Patterson (.315) and Creede Simpson (.308). Like last season, the Tigers can afford to have some miscues on the mound if the offense again rises to the occasion.
Formulate a solid weekend rotation
The Tigers battled some inconsistency issues on the weekend last season and must improve if they want to take another step forward in the spring. That could be difficult with the departures of weekend starters Cole Nelson and Grant Dayton. Nelson was inconsistent last season, but also showed signs of greatness. Dayton, meanwhile, was the club's top starter with a 4.36 ERA in 95 innings. The frontrunners to replace the weekend starters include Jon Luke Jacobs, Slade Smith and JUCO transfer Andrew Morris. Jacobs had a 7.22 ERA in 33 2/3 innings last season, Smith had a 4.65 ERA in 60 innings and Morris was a 16th-round draft selection this past summer and has impressed this fall. The weekend rotation will determine if the Tigers compete for a CWS appearance.
Shore up the defense
The Tigers must improve defensively between now and the spring. They had a solid pillar on the right side of the infield last season with Hunter Morris leading the way. However, Morris is gone and defense is a huge question mark. Third baseman Dan Gamache finished '10 with a dismal .852 fielding percentage and middle infielders Justin Bryant and Casey McElroy had fielding percentages of .941 and .918, respectively. The Tigers hope talented freshman middle infielder Zach Alvord and his strong arm provides immediate assistance. Shoring up the defense could be the difference between a regional or Omaha.