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Baseball: Looking Forward

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Lets look at how UNC's depth chart should shake out in 2016.

With the disappointing 2015 season behind us, Carolina baseball will look to regroup in the next few weeks around and after the draft. Some players will definitely be gone and others will be moved around as recruits come in. Carolina will once again have the talent of a team that hosts a regional but its up to the players and coaches to realize and utilize it.

This is how I think the Carolina team will look next year as they try to return to Omaha for the first time in three years:

Catchers:

Starter: Korey Dunbar (Sr)

Backup(s): Ryder Ryan (So), Brandon Illies (Fr), Wyatt Cross (Fr), Cody Roberts (Fr)

This probably reflects what Coach Fox and Co will look at for opening day. Dunbar is unlikely to be a high draft pick and will probably return for his senior season. There should be healthy competition already on the roster in Ryan who was highly recruited out of high school and should put on more weight to hit for power in the offseason. In Illies, Cross and Roberts Carolina has signed the numbers one, two and twenty catchers in the country. But Illies and Cross will see plenty of money from the big leagues to tempt them not to come to Carolina (none of their catching recruits are in-state so their ties to UNC isn't as strong as they might be either). If either of them decide to come to Carolina expect them to start by the end of the season but not on opening day, per Fox's usual policies with freshmen. Roberts is likely to come to UNC and might challenge Dunbar/Ryan for playing time but he might find more luck elsewhere without as many players in front of him. Adrian Chacon is another option for the Heels coming back after injury, but I think he will start at...

First Base:

Starter: Adrian Chacon (Jr)

Backups: Joe Dudek (Jr), Zack Gahagan (So), Desmond Lindsay (Fr)

This is where Chacon fits in, replacing Dudek after a disappointing season in which Dudek only hit two home runs. Chacon should come in with a bit more power and patch up a hole in the batting order. If Gahagan where to develop in the offseason he could challenge for this spot should either of the Juniors disappoint early. Lindsay is the #49 player in this draft according to Baseball America and the #1 1B according to Perfect Game--which means he's probably going to sign for a lot more than the zero dollars he'd get by playing in Chapel Hill. But if he does come then he probably starts by the time ACC play begins if he's as good as advertised.

Second Base:

Starter: Wood Meyers (Jr)

Backups: Elijah Sutherland (Sr), Kyle Datres (Fr)

Both Logan Warmoth will be back for the Heels as well but he impressed this season at short and would only be moved if another freshman came in and replaced him. In that case expect Warmoth to challenge for this spot but otherwise it should be Meyers here once he's healed up. Sutherland should back up Meyers but be leapfrogged by Datres after a few games. Datres is the #57 short stop prospect in the nation (aka probably coming to college) and can also pitch so he should figure for the Heels somehow next year.

Short Stop:

Starter: Logan Warmoth (So)

Backup: Utah Jones (Fr)

Warmoth should have his same position back next year after a strong showing as a freshman starters from day one. Jones could come in and challenge him for the spot but its unlikely. Jones is the #33 player in North Carolina and unlikely to sign. Jones could play third or second but is most likely the fourth infielder of those three spots when he arrives on campus. Meyers could have his old spot back in which case he and Warmoth probably swap or there is a three way switch involving...

Third Base:

Starter: Alex Rayburn (Sr)

Backups: Zack Gahagan (So), Ryder Ryan (So), Utah Jones (Fr), Cody Roberts (Fr)

Alex Rayburn had some starts here in 2015 and he probably plays third full time next year. Gahagan and Ryan could challenge him for playing time at the hot corner if they find their principle positions (first and catcher respectively) occupied. This could also be a place for incoming freshman Jones and Roberts to challenge for a spot or at least provide depth. It's also notable that Carolina has an additional commitment from Chase Fullington a short stop who probably moves to third or second should he join the team, Fullington has not signed formally with the Heels (or at least that information is not readily available) so I've left him off my list.

Left Field:

Starter: Adam Pate (So)

Backups: Brian Miller (So), Brooks Kennedy (So) Brandon Riley (Fr), Josh Ladowski (Fr), Desmond Lindsay (Fr)

Pate played really well all year and started in left when Landon Lassiter was suspended or DHing and should be the starter on day one for the Heels. Miller was alright in spot playing time this past year and should provide depth in the corner outfield positions. The three freshmen should occupy a similar role. Riley is the #36 player in North Carolina and Ladowski is the #31 player in the state. Each are expected to come to campus and they might challenge for the center field role but it's much more likely that they provide depth and maybe some competitive pressure to Pate. Lindsay is probably playing first if he comes to Carolina but he's played some outfield before and could play in left if both he and Chacon need to be on the field for the Heels. Since he's primarily a first baseman I don't think he can play in center unless he's one of the fastest college first basemen ever.

Center Field:

Starter: Hopefully Jehmai Jones (Fr) but really Cole Gibbs (Fr)

Backups: Brandon Riley (Fr), Josh Ladowski (Fr)

If Jehmai Jones come to Carolina then he's the starting center fielder and probably best player on the team, but since he's probably a second round pick and potentially a millionaire before the end of June I've got Gibbs as the real starter here. If Jones comes to Carolina then I expect that Pate gets to go back to DHing and Gibbs get the left field spot. Gibbs is the #120 outfielder in the country and will probably come to the Heels rather than opt to sign. Assuming Gibbs comes to Chapel Hill he's the third outfielder for the Heels. This assumes that Tyler Ramirez stays in right field and isn't asked to move to center, but if Ramirez plays in center I expect Gibbs to start in right. Riley and Ladowski could surprise everyone and challenge for this spot but they're probably depth for now.

Right Field:

Starter: Tyler Ramirez

Backups: Brian Miller (So), Brooks Kennedy (So) Brandon Riley (Fr), Josh Ladowski (Fr), Desmond Lindsay (Fr)

Tyler Ramirez will be the best player for the Heels in 016 and if he develops a bit more he could play himself into a first round draft spot in a year. Ramirez, Warmoth and Meyers are the only returning players who I'm sure start in some capacity on day one next year of all the field players. The backups here are there for depth for now, but if Ramirez is asked to play center then they could all challenge Gibbs for this spot or earn a spot here and send Gibbs to left and Pate to DH.

Pitching:

Confirmed Starters: Zac Gallen (Jr), J.B. Bukauskas (So)

Potential Starters: Hunter Williams (So), A.J. Bogucki (Jr)

Bullpen:

Trent Thornton (Sr), Chris McCue (Sr), Zach Rice (Jr), Spencer Traynor (Jr), Hansen Butler (So), Nick Raquet (So), Jason Morgan (So)

Recruits:

Cole Aker (Fr), Kyle Datres (Fr), Sage Diehm (Fr), Jordan Gubelman (Fr), Josh Hiatt (Fr), Rodney Hutchinson (Fr), Brandon Illies (Fr), Brendon Little (Fr), J.T. Rogoszewski (Fr), Taylor Sugg (Fr), Logan Welch (Fr)

All of the recruits are starters in high school so its tough to guess whether they land as starters or relievers for the Heels so they're a separate category here. Pitching is the real question that needs answering for this team. Particularly the search for that third starter. Hunter Williams profiles as the favorite for that job but any of the freshmen could challenge for that designation if they've got the tools and Bogucki was almost the starter in the ACC tournament against FSU. Bogucki will be the third starter if he develops a bit more as he currently has the tools but hasn't put them all together yet. In the bullpen Trent Thornton is probably there full time next year and might even begin to be marginalized if everyone else is healthy, a couple sophomores show development and if most of the recruits actually head to campus rather than sign. The real surprise of the bullpen is McCue who has indicated that he'll be back in Chapel Hill after returning from injury.

In its plethora of pitching recruits Carolina has the: #92 RHP nationally, a shortstop/probably reliever, #40 LHP nationally, #136 RHP, #5 RHP in NC, #97 RHP. a catcher/reliever, #57 player/#14 LHP, #139 RHP, #25 RHP in NC and the #244 RHP coming to campus (in order of listed names above). That's a lot of ranks which doesn't say a whole lot about what they'll actually do when/if they come to campus, but it does paint a picture of what we can expect next year. If either of the highly touted lefties, Diehm or Little, come to Carolina they're probably the third starter ahead of Williams (another lefty). Hutchinson and Gubelman might also be in the mix as potential third starter should they opt not to sign. They would each at least be in serious consideration for mid-week duties. Based off of probabilities alone one of those four will probably be in Chapel Hill to make the competition for the third starter interesting. The others who actually come to Carolina could all surprise us and make a push to start but they probably profile as relievers for at least their freshman year.

In light of all that information, the next month will really allow the positional battles to take shape once we know who signs and who doesn't. The expectations will still be high but the talent to host a regional is definitely there, some needs to be developed and some needs to start classes but its coming and 2016 should be primed for a bounce-back year for the Heels.

Finally...

I'd be remiss without a quick tip of the hat to the Tar Heels who will be moving on to the professional ranks.

Thanks to Landon Lassiter, Skye Bolt, Benton Moss, Trevor Kelley and Reilly Hovis for their time in the sky blue.