.BSB/SB Crimson Tide's 2018 Preview: It will be a hard road for Tide baseball

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Opening Day for University of Alabama baseball is set for Friday, if the weather cooperates.

This isn’t just Opening Day for another season, though. This is, if everything goes the way the Alabama administration hopes it goes, the opening of a new era. It’s a chance to erase the bad memories of 2017, which turned out to be Opening Day for a single-season misstep that doesn’t need to be rehashed in detail. Suffice it to say things didn’t work out and the trip back to the drawing board was a quick one.

Brad Bohannon, the new coach, seems to have gotten off to a good start in terms of repairing frayed relationships and building a recruiting base. That building process isn’t entirely from scratch. There are always some players in this state and the surrounding ones who are both good baseball players and Alabama fans. You can’t sustain a championship program solely on that group, of course. It’s simply a starting point.

It will be interesting to see how much patience Bohannon will encounter as he tries to get the baseball program from where it ended last season to the next stops along the way: respectability, then relevance and ultimately to championship contention. One would think this season would be pure honeymoon for Bohannon, as long as he doesn’t out-and-out antagonize anyone.

The expectations are as low as possible for an SEC program. In the SEC preseason coaches’ poll, Alabama was picked to finish last in the West and received fewer votes than any other team in the 14-team league. Without delving into a detailed season preview — our baseball beat writer, Ben Jones, has done a good job of that — the general consensus is the offense should be good and the pitching will be a mystery.

Will that be enough to contend for an title in the SEC, a league that has eight teams in the top 16 of the preseason D1baseball.com Top 25? Almost certainly, it won’t. But competing in the SEC is a double-edged sword. Finishing at the top is bearishly difficult, but if you can finish in the top 10 in the league, you’ve got a chance to make it to a regional. Even that might be a year or two down the road for Alabama, but it’s not an unattainable near-term goal.

For many years, the two explanations for Alabama’s slide out of annual contention for a trip to Omaha were facilities and “supplemental (lottery) scholarships.” There was truth to both arguments. The facility problem has been fixed. Alabama doesn’t quite have the behemoth stadium you see at LSU and Mississippi State, but it now has a first-rate home field.

Supplemental scholarships aren’t a reality and hoping the state of Alabama approves a higher-education lottery isn’t likely to change things. Even if Alabama approved a lottery, does anyone truly think any money would make it out of Montgomery to help anyone? Bohannon, who came to Tuscaloosa from Auburn, knew that when he took the job and will just have to recruit around it.

Those are long-range issues, though. For 2018, the best thing for Alabama baseball will be for everyone involved, players and fans, to have some fun and enjoy whatever success may come on the field. And for everyone, for a year at least, to have some patience.

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2018 Alabama baseball preview: Starting rotation

Alabama baseball opens its 2018 season on Friday with a three-game home series against Valparaiso. TideSports.com will look at the team this week before the season begins.

Alabama announced its rotation for the first series of the season on Monday on Twitter:

Friday – Jr. RHP Sam Finnerty
Saturday – Sr. RHP Jake Walters
Sunday – TBA

Sam Finnerty is a new addition to the starting rotation. He played outfield and helped as a reliever in his first two seasons. Slotting him on Friday night is a strong indication that pitching will be his primary job this year.

Jake Walters is the most experienced pitcher on the roster. He’d likely start on the weekend for every team in the SEC. His fastball reaches the mid-90s but his best pitch might be a cutter. He has 149 strikeouts in 156.2 innings over the last two seasons. He posted a 2.67 ERA as a sophomore, including 1.93 in SEC play. That rose to 3.98 as a junior last season.

The battle for the third spot is probably between junior LHP Dylan Duarte and sophomore RHP Deacon Medders, but Medders is suspended for the first series of the season. Duarte was the Sunday starter for most of last season but struggled, going 2-6 with a 5.69 ERA. In nine SEC starts, he averaged less than five innings per outing and gave up 36 earned runs in 42 1/3 innings pitched. He doesn’t have great velocity but mixes pitches well and his breaking stuff can be hard to spot.

Medders’ numbers were better, with a 4.38 ERA and a 2-1 record, but he pitched mostly in relief and in midweek games. He played a bigger role as the season went along. Duarte and Medders are the best bets to begin the season as the No. 3 starter, but it’s also possible the coaching staff could deploy one on Friday or Saturday in a long relief role to seal a win.

It’s also possible both players will get a shot as a starter until one shows the job is his. Whichever one isn’t used on the weekend may fall into a role as a midweek starter.

Among new players, Sam Gardner might be the best bet to contribute in the starting rotation. He was 9-0 with a 2.00 ERA in junior college last season.

Other players with starting experience on the roster are RHP Brock Love and RHP Garret Rukes. Both players suffered midseason UCL injuries and had Tommy John surgery. They’re on pace to pitch but both will probably be monitored closely. They can help this season but probably will be handled carefully.

Pitching depth isn’t a forte for the roster, so it’s likely that the third, fourth and fifth starters will be juggled heavily throughout the season.
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2018 Alabama baseball preview: Bullpen

Alabama baseball opens its 2018 season on Friday with a three-game home series against Valparaiso. TideSports.com will look at the team this week before the season begins.

Pitching isn’t likely to be the strength of this team. The bullpen was an issue last season, and top reliever Garrett Suchey is now gone. You can expect one or two of the players mentioned as a candidate for a starting spot to eventually fall into a relief role. Even with that, the bullpen has some question marks.

Davis Vainer is the top returning reliever. He was the closer last year. His best pitch is a curveball that helped him punch out 44 batters in 28.2 innings last season. He’ll want to be more consistent and work on his control, though, because he allowed 25 hits and 26 walks.

Brock Guffey, a late addition to the recruiting class, will be counted on. He’ll need to put some weight on and develop in the next few years but the team can’t wait for that before playing him. Expect to see him this spring.

Keep an eye on lefty Sonny Potter. He struggled early last season and was buried quickly, but was dazzling in New England Collegiate Baseball League over the summer. He pitched seven innings with an ERA of 10.29 at Alabama last spring, then threw 36.2 innings with a 2.20 ERA at the Cape. He has a fastball that tops out in the low 90s, which is more than enough to earn another chance.

Brock Love and Garret Rukes, both of whomhad Tommy John surgery during last season, are available to pitch. They’re probably more likely to contribute as relievers to keep their workloads at a manageable level.

Redshirt sophomore Kyle Cameron is back after being sidelined with a medical issuefor almost all of last season. He threw 24.2 innings as a freshman with a 7.66 ERA. He generally pitches to contact, keeping the ball down in the zone.

Notre Dame transfer Connor Stutts played outfield for the Irish but will probably pitch for Alabama. Junior college transfer Mason Duke will have a chance to contribute. Senior Tyler Adams memorably threw about a dozen straight curveballs in extra innings against Auburn last year. Freshman Brady Greene was among Perfect Game’s top 500 prospects in high school last year. Another transfer, Brandon Hill, will sit this season out.
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2018 Alabama baseball preview: Infield/catcher

First base
Both Cody Henry and Hunter Alexander have plenty of experience here, and both should find themselves in the lineup more often than not. One will probably play first and the other will be a strong candidate to be a regular at DH.

Both Henry (6-2/235) and Alexander (6-2/250) are big, physical players. Henry can switch hit and is probably the better defensive option, so he may be the starter to begin the season. Henry hit .294 last season with a .348 OBP and was second on the team with eight home runs. Alexander hit .282 with a .362 OBP, six home runs and was second on the team with 33 RBI.

Sophomore John Trousdale has also spent time working at first base this spring. Playing time at first may be difficult to come by, but Trousdale has worked at other infield positions and should be able to fill in at multiple spots if needed.

Second base

Chandler Avant isn’t a new name at Alabama, but he hasn’t spent much time at second base. Avant started all 54 games at shortstop last year and 34 there as a sophomore in 2016 before an ankle injury ended his season. Teammates said his range at second base has helped turn double plays no one else on the roster can. He made 19 errors at short last season, so a change of scenery might help him be more consistent.

Avant isn’t going to steal 20 bases, but has some speed. He led the team with 15 doubles last season. Trousdale could also play second, and Cobie Vance could move back here if needed.

Third base
Junior Cobie Vance is another returning piece at a new position. He moved from second to third. He appears to have the arm to play the hot corner and is settling in well. This will be a new position for him in games, but previous coaching staffs have tried him at third in practice. It’s not totally new to him.

Senior Connor Short has the most experience at third and started 53 games last year. He struggled at the plate in 2017, batting .196, but was better in 2016 when he hit .270. He could end up playing a major role if things shuffle from how they’ve appeared in preseason. Trousdale is also an option here.

The new face in the infield is Jett Manning, a junior college transfer. Teammates and coaches like the double-play tandem of Manning and Avant up the middle. He hit .430 in junior college last season and stole 33 bases. He’s among the more athletic players in the lineup. That should show up on the base paths and on the field.

If Manning struggles or injury strikes, Alabama might rework its infield to look more like last season. That could move Avant back to short and potentially see a few more dominoes fall after that.

Alabama kept shuffling between three catchers last season, but only junior Kyle Kaufmanis back from that group. He hit well (.301 with a .396 OBP), albeit not with much power. He also struggled defensively, going 0-10 against runners who were stealing. He’ll be an option at DH.

That means freshman Sam Praytor has an opening to play early. Catcher is a difficult position for freshmen to manage but Praytor seems to have the inside track on the position. He was Alabama’s top high school signee to reach campus, hitting .458 with nine home runs and 40 RBI at Helena.

Junior college transfer Matt Malkin will get his chance, too. He hit 10 homers and 20 doubles for his Arizona junior college last year. All three players could find some role on this team.
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2018 Alabama baseball preview: Outfield

Alabama baseball opens its 2018 season on Friday with a three-game home series against Valparaiso. TideSports.com will look at the team this week before the season begins.

Left field
This might be the most difficult position to guess entering the season. Junior Sam Finnerty could see some time here, but was announced as the Friday night starter earlier this week. His bat could help but he’s needed more on the mound.

Junior Gene Wood hit .269 in SEC play before a knee injury ended his season. He played mostly center in his first two seasons but is probably the favorite to open the season here.

Keith Holcombe has also played here in the last two seasons. He switches back to playing football when spring practice begins, so Alabama probably won’t have him all season once again this year. Notre Dame transfer Connor Stutts is a possibility, but he also pitches. Like Finnerty, his role could be determined by needs on the mound.

Center field
The best bet to start the season here is junior college transfer Joe Breaux. Alabama’s coaching staff made sure to hold on to him during the transition last summer. They expect him to help this season after turning down the Phillies in last year’s draft. Head coach Brad Bohannon said again at the start of spring practice that he would be a newcomer Alabama fans will get to know.

Alabama has some depth here. Wood is also an option in center. Walker McCleneyacquitted himself well as a true freshman last season, batting .250. He can defend and has some speed as well.

Right field
Chandler Taylor. We can probably stop right here.

Taylor is the best bat in the lineup and among Alabama’s core of returners. He was second-team All-SEC last year, the only Alabama player named all-conference at the end of the year. He batted .282 on the season but improved to .295 in SEC play and was fourth in the conference with 16 home runs despite not reaching the postseason. Maybe he plays a little left field or something, but he’s an every day player and will be counted on to hit in the middle of the order.

He’ll be suspended for the first series of the season but will be among Alabama’s most important players when he returns.

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