2016 Alabama Baseball Complete Season Preview
The start of the 2016 college baseball season is just a few weeks away, and the excitement level is at an all-time high in Tuscaloosa.
Fans will no longer have to make the trip to Birmingham to cheer on the Tide now that the $42.6 million dollar renovations to Sewell-Thomas Stadium are complete.
Playing in the newly renovated stadium will allow a fresh start for a team that stumbled through the 2015 season on its way to a 32-28 record overall and a 12-18 record in conference play. Of course, some of the inconsistencies of last season can be attributed to the fatigue that comes with playing your "home" games in a ballpark that is 50 miles away from your campus.
There were bright spots to be seen throughout last year's season, which ended with an impressive run in the SEC Tournament.
Still, head coach Mitch Gaspard had his work cut out for him in the offseason as he had to figure out how to replace veterans like Mikey White, Kyle Overstreet, and Casey Hughston. However, success on the recruiting trail has given Gaspard plenty of talent to work with as he enters his seventh season as head coach.
This year's preview will breakdown the new and familiar faces you can expect to see on the field for the Tide this season:
Leading the way in the outfield will be center fielder Georgie Salem. Salem could have gone pro after being drafted by the Diamondbacks in the 39th round of the 2015 MLB Draft but instead decided to return for his senior season where he will play in his 185th game in the season opener against Maryland. He is what some may call the "complete package" as he carries a career .275 batting average along with a team high 32 stolen bases. He has committed just one error since 2014, and will be the starter in center field once again this season.
The corner outfield positions are where fans may see some new faces.
It appears that senior Ryan Blanchard will get the opening day start in right field. Blanchard saw action in 16 games last season in his first year back from a leg injury that he suffered in 2014. He is one of the team's more consistent hitters, and he has a knack for getting on base.
Blanchard's competition in right field comes in the form of Keith Holcombe. Holcombe is a 6'3", 230 pound linebacker on Alabama's football team who proved to be one of the Tide's most valuable special teams players. This will be the first time he has played organized baseball at the collegiate level, but he could work his way into the rotation at any time. The left-handed hitter has great power and he's very quick for someone his size.
In left field, fans should keep an eye out for freshman Gene Wood. He is not the biggest guy in the world at 6'1", 170 pounds, but he has an uncanny ability to find the gaps and get on base. In fact, he led the nation in runs scored (68) as a junior in high school. He could add much-needed consistency to the lineup this season.
Other faces you could see in left field include Connor Short, Chandler Avant, and Hunter Webb. Short and Avant's potential time in left field will vary depending on who wins the starting battles at shortstop and third base.
It is never an easy task to replace key veterans on your team, but it especially difficult to replace guys like Mikey White and Kyle Overstreet. Fortunately, Mitch Gaspard has a pretty good crop to choose in his search for a brand new middle infield.
Overstreet's replacement at second base will likely come in the form of freshman Cobie Vance. Vance was a high school standout who spurned an opportunity to join the Cleveland Indians' organization to play for the Crimson Tide. Vance has some serious pop in his bat, and has can move very well for someone of his stature. He did suffer an ankle injury at the end of fall practice, but he should be ready to go by the season opener.
Avant and Chance Vincent are both battling for the vacant spot at shortstop. As it stands currently, the battle could come down to the wire.
Avant served as the team's lead-off hitter last season and saw time in both infield and outfield. He is one of the team's biggest threats to steal and has an excellent eye for the ball. He and Overstreet were the only players on the team to have more than 200 at-bats with fewer than 45 strikeouts.
Vincent played both first and third base last season before suffering a season-ending injury. He had an impressive summer playing for the Acadiana Cane Cutters where he finished with a .394 batting average in the regular season and was named second team All-Texas Collegiate League.
The decision may be one that Gaspard cannot make, so he could split the difference and start Avant at shortstop and Vincent at third base. This setup is ideal because it puts two very talented players on the field, but Connor Short is another viable option at third.
Short played his freshman season at Auburn before transferring to Alabama last season. He sat out a year due to the NCAA transfer rules. He also had a solid summer playing for the Cane Cutters and was also named second team All-Texas Collegiate League. His starting at third base could lead to Vincent starting at shortstop and Avant starting in left field.
Another positional battle to keep an eye on is at first base between Cody Henry and Chandler Taylor.
Right now, Taylor appears to have the upper hand. The freshman out of Montgomery, Alabama has an excellent glove, but his presence at the plate is what will impress most. The left handed hitter has home run capability and may be one of the team's best hitters by season's end.
That does not mean it is time to rule out Henry. He is still in the hunt for the starting job at first base, however, he could end up being the team's designated hitter. He is a switch hitter with a lot of power at the plate, but he also has the ability to find the gaps and leg out doubles.
Expect junior Will Haynie to maintain his spot as the team's starting catcher. Haynie is an absolute specimen behind the plate, and you would be hard-pressed to find runners that can successfully steal on him. He is Alabama's active leader in home runs (11), but he did lead the SEC in strikeouts (80). If striking out becomes a major issue than Gaspard can rely on Tanner DeVinny.
Devinny started his career at Kansas State where he was named to the All-Big 12 Freshman Team. He continued his success at Grayson Community College and now could see significant playing time for the Tide. He is a switch hitter with an excellent track record for having power and consistency at the plate.
Do not be surprised to see both Haynie and Devinny at catcher even if Haynie is not struggling at the plate.
Gaspard has a lot of talent to choose from when it comes to deciding his three starting pitchers for each weekend series. It looks like that he has narrowed it down to five pitchers that are all battling for one of the weekend spots.
RHP Geoffrey Bramblett will likely fill in one of those open spots. Bramblett ended his 2015 campaign by pitching a complete game against Ole Miss in the SEC tournament. He finished that game with career high 10 strikeouts in route to a 6-1 Tide victory.
Bramblett has solid command and did not issue more than three walks in 13 of his 15 starts last season. His fastball usually sits around the low 90's, and he also has a solid slider.
The other two weekend spots are up for grabs, but RHP Nick Eicholtz certainly sits in good position after having a solid fall. The 6'4", 200 pound junior has never started a game against an SEC foe. However, his improved command and lethal fastball will certainly work in his favor this season.
RHP Jake Walters stepped up in a big way in the latter part of the 2015 season, and he would not be a bad choice to fill in one of the starting spots. His 62 strikeouts were third most on the team, and his 3.36 ERA was the lowest among starting pitchers on the team.
The final two contenders are LHP Jon Keller and RHP Matt Foster. Keller is back from an elbow injury that sidelined him for the 2015 season. He is just one of four left-handed pitchers on the team, which could work in his favor when deciding on a starter. His fastball usually stays around the upper 80's or low 90's, and he has excellent command.
Foster is junior college transfer out of Gulf Coast State College where he was named first team All-Panhandle Conference after finished with an 11-4 record and 2.04 ERA. He struck out 111 batters across 105.1 innings. His prior experience has certainly helped him compete for a starting job.
LHP Thomas Burrows and RHP Ray Castillo will look to be the key relievers for the Tide this season, but do not be surprised if Castillo starts a few games. Another key relief pitcher this season will be RHP Tyler Adams, who was named 2nd Team All-Texas Collegiate League over the summer.
Other contributing pitchers this season will be RHP Kyle Cameron, RHP Brock Love, LHP Dylan Duarte, RHP Jake Hubbard, and RHP Mike Oczypok.
Alabama's season opener will be against Maryland in the new Sewell-Thomas Stadium on February 19th.