Following a disappointing end to the 2012 season with a NCAA regional round loss against St. John's, the Tar Heels return a deep and talented squad. Baseball America and Perfect Game have both ranked UNC #1 in their preseason polls. The ACC coaches have voted UNC the Coastal Division favorite(but given NC State the nod for overall champion) More or less, all the pieces are in place for UNC to make a run at a sixth College World Series appearance in eight years.
Key Returning Players
3B Colin Moran, Jr. 2012: .365 BA, 3 HR, 35 RBI, 30 R, 21 BB
Moran missed 21 games in the 2012 season with a broken hand. The injury obviously curtailed his cumulative numbers but his batting average was 30 points higher than during his freshman campaign. Since this is likely Moran's last season in Chapel Hill, a big season is expected at the plate. Like last season, Moran will be a key part of the Tar Heel's offense, that is really never in question. His defense on the other hand still need to improve with a .926 fielding percentage that was actually worse than his .936 in 2011. Among the regular starters in 2012, only SS Tommy Coyle was worse than Moran fielding the baseball.
CF Chaz Frank, Sr. 2012: .293 BA, 39 RBI, 45 R, 46 BB, 16-20 SB-Att., .419 OB%
Normally slotted as the leadoff batter, Frank led the team last season in stolen bases and hits but also posted the 2nd best on-base percentage. Surprisingly, Frank is also the leading returning RBI man however that is a bit deceiving since Moran would have likely held that title had he played the full season. In the field, Frank plays a solid centerfield committing just two errors a year ago and recording 151 putouts.
1B Cody Stubbs, Sr. 2012: .258 BA, 5 HR, 35 RBI, 39 R, 27 BB, .403 SLG%
The Heels' best returning "power" hitter, Stubbs led UNC in home runs with five and was second behind the now graduated Jacob Stallings with 19 doubles. Also of note, Stubbs stole six bases in seven attempts. In the field Stubbs had a .989 fielding percentage committing five errors and recording 446 putouts playing 56 games at first base.
1B/OF Parks Jordan, Jr. 2012: .270 BA, 31 RBI, 29 R
Jordan started 57 games as a sophomore posting a solid .270 batting average and driving in 31 runs. He also played the season without an error in the field, the only Tar Heel among the regulars to do so. One interesting note about Jordan is he led the team in sacrifice hits and flies combined with 13. He also had seven stolen bases in eleven attempts.
IF/OF Michael Russell, So., 2012: .269 BA, 40 R, 24 RBI, 14-17 SB-ATT, .383 OB%
Russell played a variety of positions a year ago both in the outfield and infield starting all 62 games as a freshman. Russell's 14 doubles was tied for third on the team and his 40 runs scored was fourth. His 14 stolen bases were only second to Frank's team leading 16. With Tommy Coyle graduating, it will be interesting to see if Russell slides into one of the middle infield positions(likely 2B) on a more consistent basis.
P Kent Emanuel, Jr., 2012: 8-4, 1.96 ERA, 110.0 IP, 91 H, 24 ER, 23 BB, 100 K
With two seasons under his belt as a regular starts, Emanuel comes in as the ace of the staff and looking for a big season. In 2012, Emanuel was 2nd in the ACC in innings pitched, 4th in ERA and strikeouts and 9th in opponents batting average. Of Emanuel's 100 strikeouts, 56 came with the batter looking which led the ACC. The importance of having a pitcher with Emanuel's talent and experience cannot be overstated since he will be used to open weekend series in ACC play.
P Benton Moss, So, 2012: 7-2, 1.94 ERA, 79.0 IP, 65 H, 17 ER, 23 BB, 83 K
Moss had an outstanding freshman season starting 16 games and posting a 1.94 ERA and named to the freshman All-American team. Moss' numbers and ranking are quite similar to Emanuel's giving the Heels a very tough one-two punch in the first two games of any series. Moss was 3rd in the ACC in ERA, 6th in opponent's batting average and tied for ninth in strikeouts.
P Hobbs Johnson, Jr. 2012: 7-1, 1.56 ERA, 57.2 IP, 37 H, 14 ER, 24 BB, 69 K
Poised to become the third weekend starter for UNC, Johnson posted excellent numbers in 2012 splitting time between the bullpen and the starting rotation. Johnson's 1.56 ERA was second only to departed closer Michael Morin's 1.40. Johnson faced 207 batters in 2012 and allowed a .179 batting average against him. Obviously there will be some give in these numbers as Johnson's inning count goes up but at first glance, he will round out one of the best all-around weekend rotations in the ACC.
Newcomers to Watch
SS Landon Lassiter, Fr. North Davision HS(NC)
Lassiter was drafted in the 16th round by the Arizona Diamondbacks in the 2012 MLB draft but opted to attend UNC instead. A candidate to start right away at shortstop he was named to the Rawlings Atlantic All Region 1st team and was ranked as the sixth best recruit in North Carolina.
OF Skye Bolt, Fr. Holy Innocents Episcopal(GA)
Bolt comes in as the most highly touted of UNC's class with ESPN ranking him 37th in their top 100. He was drafted in the 26th round by the Washington Nationals but chose to postpone his professional career for three years in Chapel Hill. Bolt was named to the Rawlings All-America first team in 2012 and the Southeast All-Region 1st Team. It is expected Bolt will start in the outfield and have an immediate impact.
With most of the lineup intact, an All-American third baseman anchoring it and a quality weekend rotation, anything short of the College World Series will be a disappointment for this team(barring injury natch.) The only concern heading into the season is replacing Jacob Stallings behind the plate and Michael Morin/R.C. Orlan in the bullpen. UNC will be breaking in new players in both key positions. Junior Matt Roberts will be in the mix for catcher even though his hitting numbers in limited action last season are a cause for concern. As for the closer's role, there are plenty of choices since the bullpen doesn't lack for depth. Andrew Smith missed most of last season with shoulder surgery after posting a 2.77 ERA during his freshman season in 2011. Assuming Smith is healthy he will obviously contribute. Chris McCue and Tate Parrish are the only returning bullpen pitchers with ERAs under three. Shane Taylor, Chis Munnelly, Mason McCullough, Trevor Kelly and Luis Paula all have the potential provide UNC will solid innings. And provide them they will since Mike Fox makes pitching changes frequently in an attempt to play percentages or matchups.
UNC's schedule doesn't offer too many early pitfalls and in conference play, the Heels will not face perennially solid Florida State. The Heels open the season with a seven game home stand with the finale of that coming against St. John's who was last seen beating UNC twice at Boshamer Stadium to end UNC's season. The Heels will make a road trip to Houston, TX to face Rice, California and Texas A&M before jumping into the ACC schedule on weekends and local non-conference schools during the week. Of the key games in ACC play, UNC faces Clemson, Miami and Virginia in Chapel Hill but get NC State and Georgia Tech on the road. NC State is the Atlantic Division favorite and sport on the the best pitchers in the conference with Carlos Radon. That series in late April coming on the heels of last season's 13-inning game in the ACC Tournament will be one of the most anticipated of the year.
Assuming everyone stays healthy and no one tries to attack any doors, UNC is in a great position to return to Omaha. The only question is can this group finally do what five other Mike Fox coached teams have failed to do? Is this finally the year the Tar Heels win the national championship in baseball? Since it is baseball, no one can say for sure but the Heels have the talent and experience which gives them as good a shot as anyone.
Source for stats and info: GoHeels.com