Last season ended on a sour note for the Heels as Carolina missed a spot in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2001 after a poor showing in conference play burst the Tar Heels bubble. Carolina lost a lot of offensive talent, but Tyler Ramirez, the team's best player from a year ago, returns for his junior and probably final, season. The Heels brought in a talented class of Freshmen and will need some of them to contribute immediately. This season will most likely be up and down depending on the strength of Carolina's starters and their Freshmen. This team could get better as the season goes on and the freshmen improve as they adjust to the College game.
The team's offense seems to be their weakest point just as it was last season. The Heels struggled to hit for contact in 2015, hitting only .264--good for 205th in Division One. This year's team will be in much of the same boat without internal improvement or superb freshman performances. Tyler Ramirez was the best player on the Diamond Heels last season and will most likely retain that spot in 2016. Ramirez led Carolina on offense with a team high 102 total bases, 10 home runs (tied for team high) and a .285 average. Of players returning to the Heels, only Adam Pate and Brian Miller hit for a higher average than Ramirez and neither of them came close to Ramirez's power. Pate in particular, stands out as the only Tar Heel returning who hit above .300 last year and figures to play a lot more this year compared to last. Elsewhere on offense, Sophomore Zack Gahagan is a pure power hitter who was third on the team in RBIs last year behind Skye Bolt and Ramirez. The Heels will also expect Sophomores Miller and Logan Warmoth to improve as contact hitters, with Miller potentially breaking .300. The rest of the offense is a bit unknown, Carolina has eight freshmen who are all unknown quantities at this point, some will play and produce while others will not. Outside of Ramirez, Gahagan, Pate, Warmoth and Miller everything else is a bit up in the air, a big issue for Carolina when they're at bat to start the season.
If this team is to go to NCAA Tournament and make any type of postseason run, the Heels will need their pitchers to play like dynamite. The Heels have a stud in ace Zac Gallen and a quality second starter in J.B. Bukauskas who are both known. Gallen was Carolina's best pitcher last year and could be one of the best in the conference this season. Gallen had a 2.79 ERA last year and struck out nearly 4 batters for every man he walked. Gallen also allowed fewer than one hit per inning in 2015. These numbers were amazing improvements on what he put up his freshman year, and if he can improve by a similar margin, then he'll be one of the best pitchers in the entire country. Bukauskas came into Chapel Hill as a relatively raw fireballer--his fastball hit 98 routinely last year; however, he remained a bit raw. Bukauskas had an ERA of 4.09 and he lost a bit of steam as the season continued. The Heels have a quality coaching staff and Bukauskas should improve quite a bit this year compared to last. Bukauskas is Carolina's best professional prospect and if he refines his tools then Carolina will have an incredible one-two punch for their rotation. The Heels' third starter currently looks like Sophomore Jason Morgan. Morgan came to Chapel Hill with a lot of potential and played very well in 23 innings last year. Morgan had a 3.91 ERA, pretty good for a freshman, but he also tended to be inconsistent. The Heels see a lot of potential in Morgan and if he can iron out his inconsistencies, he will be another excellent pitcher for the Heels.
The bullpen is another unknown for this team as Trevor Kelley and Trent Thornton are gone. Kelley was second on the team in IP last year at 77.2 and Thornton was 5th at 62.0. These two handled a ton of the relief work for the Heels last season and now Carolina needs new arms to fill in those roles. Carolina will need some of that work to come from freshmen, but A.J. Bogucki, Zach Rice and Hunter Williams will need to step into roles as prominent relievers and mid-week starters for Carolina to have a successful season.
The Heels have four veterans who should be everyday field players including Ramirez, the pre-season pick of best defensive outfielder in the ACC by Baseball America. The Heels will also feature Warmoth at shortstop, Pate in the outfield and Gahagan at one of the infield corners. Everything else is up for grabs as Miller appears to be slotted to be the DH rather than play in the outfield or first base (his two possible positions). The most notable position the Heels need to fill is catcher, where Carolina has no options outside of their freshmen--Wyatt Cross, Brendan Illies, and Cody Roberts. The Tar Heels will also need to find two more infielders and another outfielder from their new players or their little used veterans. The key concern going forward is what can those players contribute on offense. For instance, Carolina has another infielder in Eli Sutherland who can play second base or shortstop. The reason why Sutherland will not play much is that he is a woeful offensive player, hitting .208 last season. Carolina can not put four bad hitters on the field for defense so much of where the Heels go on defense will depend on what they can get out of those same players at the plate.
Despite the uncertainty surrounding the team, the Heels still have enough blue chip talents to be a serious team in ACC play. The Tar Heels are picked to finish third in the Coastal Division by the media, and that seems like a realistic finish for them. Virginia and Miami are the class of the division while Carolina should be in a battle for third with Duke and Georgia Tech. The Heels will rely on their pitching staff to carry them through most of the season and need to stay healthy all around if they are to have any shot of postseason better than last year. Personally, I think that they are in a bitter fight with Georgia Tech for third in the ACC Coastal before a late push from their freshmen helps them lock up that number three spot heading into the ACC tournament. The keys for this season are health of the veterans, consistency and improvement from Bukauskas and Morgan, and quality play from freshmen that improves as the season progresses and they adjust to college play. If these three things happen, then Carolina can challenge for the Coastal title and maybe even make a deep postseason run to Super Regionals.