Coming into the baseball season, there were very high expectations for the UNC baseball team. The team was nearly unanimously considered a top 20 squad and some saw the Heels as a top 5 squad. Many thought that this time of year would be time for yet another Chapel Hill regional in the NCAA tournament. However as we all know the Heels fell short of all of those goals and failed to make the NCAA field amid posting a losing record within the ACC. The Heel's fate was probably sealed by getting swept in the last six games of ACC regular season play and then losing to the regional hosts Louisville and Florida State in the ACC tournament. If Carolina had won either of those games they might have edged out Clemson (who swept Florida State in the regular season and soundly beat Louisville in the ACC tournament) for the final ACC spot in the field. The Heels also suspended their best hitter, Landon Lassiter, for the rest of the season for conduct detrimental to the team (he allegedly cussed out the coaching staff for being the DH against FSU rather than playing his normal position in left field in Carolina's second ACC tournament game). All of this came together to make a compelling case against the Heels making the field of 64.
Injuries, particularly to Adrian Chacon, Wood Meyers, Reilly Hovis and Chris McCue, really hurt the Heels at positions of need and the lack of depth showed on both offense and in the bullpen. Injuries do not account for all of the Heels' issues this season, it must be said that both the players and coaches came up short of expectations.
On offense the hits never really came for the Heels, the Heels didn't hit for average or power like they needed to to contend this year. Nearly every player in the Carolina batting order other than the freshmen Adam Pate and Brian Miller disappointed this season. The Heels were really let down by Joe Dudek, Korey Dunbar, Skye Bolt, Tyler Ramirez and Landon Lassiter. In the cases of Dudek and Dunbar Carolina needs more power from those positions, especially at first where Dudek hit only two HRs all season which is anemic for a first baseman. Dunbar was probably Caroilna's most consistent offensive player but a bit more power was expected from the Junior catcher. Ramirez and Bolt should have been the stars of the team and while they each hit 10 homers this year, looking at other rosters, the expectations around the team and what these players are capable of, they each should have been hitting around .310 with about 13-15 homers. Lassiter disappointed as he failed to hit for average like he did his freshman year when he was a veritable world beater and not matter what he actually did, his suspension is a poor way to end his UNC career.
Bolt similarly never lived up to the hype he had as a freshman, but showed on multiple occasions that he can destroy baseballs for homers when dialed in. The season finale against Clemson in the tournament is a good microcosm of Bolt's year, in his first at bat the umpire called a strike he didn't like and he slumped his shoulders and did not put his legs into any swings for the rest of the at bat--resulting in a pop up to left field. But his second at bat he saw runners on base and hit a payoff pitch about 420 feet to right filed into the seats. That kind of inconsistency of results and seemingly effort plagued Bolt all year and hurt both his draft stock and the Heels.Ramirez was supposed to be the breakout star of the Carolina offense but really disappointed in his second year in Chapel Hill.
While it was expected that Ramirez and Bolt challenge each other for the lead in homers, we all expected these two to challenge each other in a sprint rather than a jog. Some of this blame has to be on the coaching staff. Lassiter and Bolt had excellent freshman years but have dropped off since then. The question of their development/stagnation/regression needs to be asked of the coaches. If only one or two players regressed or failed to develop that would be borderline acceptable but since so many players failed to reach their potential the ability of the coaching staff comes into place. Carolina fans should keep an eye on this for Pate, Warmoth, J.B. Bukauskas and Miller if they also regress and disappoint in year two, then there should be real questions about the abilities of this coaching staff to be able to continue to develop talent like they need to in the new and deeper ACC.
On offense the Heels did succeed at doing one thing very well, the Heels were patient and drew a ton of walks. That does relate to coaching and that was a strength that the coaching staff built this season. The unfortunate problem was that they often did not hit those base runners in for runs.
On defense the Heels never cut out errors that plagued them throughout ACC play and cost them multiple runs and games. Some of this is also due to injuries since Carolina lost their starting short stop in Meyers and had to platoon at multiple positions. However others are due to lapses in focus or players ill equipped to play their positions at the college level. Again, coaching can remedy some of these concerns through practice and development as can better lineup balance. Carolina has a large roster with a lot of potential prospects who need to be playedd to stay happy but Carolina still platoons a bit too much to be very successful. The Heels toggled positions a lot in ACC play when that would be better left to games in the mid-week against weaker opposition.
The largest issue the Heels had this season, was the issues with the bullpen. Injuries to Hovis and McCue really hurt the Heels in later innings as it reduced Carolina to one consistent relief pitcher in Trevor Kelley. The larger issue was that the bullpen was used inconsistently and that Trent Thornton had a really bad year. The coaching staff never trusted another pitcher out of the bullpen for short work (about two innings) other than Kelley. The coaches looked at Hansen Butler, A.J. Bogucki, Jason Morgan, Spencer Traynor and Jason Morgan for this role but never really picked a player who they felt comfortable with. Almost more damaging was that there never seemed to be much of an order to who came out of the pen. Even at the end of the ACC tournament the Heels kept switching pitchers, very much with the appearance of throwing everything at the wall and seeing what stuck. Thornton was asked to do most of his work out of the bullpen and was simply asked to do too much, especially in conference play. Thornton has now gone from a consensus freshman all-American to a player expected to return for his senior season. Again, some of this leads to questions about coaching, Thornton has played better in the past so why is he relapsing now? If the answer is overuse, then that is the fault of the coaches for pushing Thornton beyond his abilities. Thornton has not missed time with injury so either his abilities have declined or he's been asked to do too much--both of these should be addressed by coaching.
All in all, the Heels let fans down this year on the diamond. The players and coaches each share blame for this (since one of these two groups is a bunch of paid professionals I'm harsher with them). In most facets of the game the Heels needed a bit more; they needed to hit for a better batting average and for more power, field with fewer errors and pitch better out of the bullpen. The coaches seemed to exacerbate some of these problems, failing to develop arms out of the bullpen and the Carolina bats. Injuries are an excuse but they do not explain all of the Heels' limitations and the team this year was just plain disappointing.
This was only a reflection on a down season, a look forward to next season is coming soon. Draft coverage (pre and post) will also be coming soon.