Friday (Thursday actually) will mark one of the greatest days on the American sports calendar: College Baseball’s Opening Day. I couldn’t be more serious when I say that I love college baseball and I couldn’t be more excited for another year on the Road to Omaha. I’ve been a die hard college baseball fan since 2005 when you’d be lucky to watch a single game on regional television, let alone national television, prior to the Super Regionals.
Subsequently, I have followed Mike Fox’s program closely over the past decade as the program has reached its greatest heights. Unfortunately, the program has hit a bit of a rough patch the past three seasons, where the Diamond Heels have struggled in ACC play and have missed out on a regional in consecutive seasons. Despite that, the Tar Heels are still one of the most successful programs in college baseball during the last decade and are still synonymous with Omaha.
Since I’m no expert, I called upon Baseball America writer and UNC alum, Michael Lananna to help me look ahead to this season.
JC: Carolina is coming off of its second consecutive season where it narrowly missed out on the postseason despite boasting a high RPI and a few quality wins, how do you see Mike Fox changing the culture or attitude in this clubhouse as the season begins?
ML: I don't think Fox needs to do anything out of the ordinary to motivate this group. It's safe to say, given the history of the program and the fact that the juniors on the team have yet to make a postseason, the players should already be fairly self-motivated. Everyone in the program is aware that the last two seasons haven't been up to the standards fans have grown accustomed to. There's no question players are hungry to get to a regional.
With that said, Scott Jackson leaving for the head coaching job at Liberty has created a domino effect on the coaching staff, with Scott Forbes shifting from coaching pitchers to coaching hitters and Tar Heel alum Robert Woodard joining the staff as pitching coach. While losing Jackson—who is an excellent recruiter—certainly hurts, change could also be good for this team. Fox told me there was a different energy with the new staff in place, and that newness could give the Tar Heels a nice little jolt.
Ultimately, though, UNC's shortcomings the last two seasons stem more from a lack of execution than anything else. Culture and attitude can't be quantified, and generally, winning breeds chemistry, anyway. I don't concern myself with culture as much as I do the results. And, like you said, this team has only narrowly missed the postseason the last two seasons. It's not like the Tar Heels had a shortage of talent in those seasons; they simply weren't able to finish well down the stretch in key series. And as a result, they finished on the wrong side of the bubble. Barring injuries, I expect the Tar Heels to get back on track this year.
JC: The Tar Heels have had a long list of quality Friday night starters over the past decade, whether it was Andrew Miller, Alex Smith, Matt Harvey or Kent Emanuel, the Heels have been set in that category. How do you see J.B. Bukauskas fitting into that role this year?
ML: J.B. Bukauskas is a stud. Plain and simple. He was a stud before he got to campus, and he's only improved since he arrived. With Bukauskas, you're looking at one of the first picks off the board in June, and he could be in the conversation for No. 1 overall.
Bukauskas has always had the fastball, working routinely in the low- to mid-90s and touching higher. But his slider took a big jump last season compared to his freshman year. It became a legitimate weapon and a much more consistent pitch with hard, late bite. He needs to continue to refine his changeup, something that will be interesting to watch this year, but with that fastball-slider combination alone, he should be one of the best Friday night starters in the country.
JC: Last year, Bukauskas and Friday night starter Zac Gallen provided a nice one-two punch at the top of the weekend rotation, but there was some inconsistency behind them on Sunday's. Who do you see stepping up to fill out the Saturday and Sunday roles this spring?
ML: The Tar Heels have a lot of options in this category, and the rotation they employ opening weekend may not necessarily be the rotation they roll with by the end of the spring. Pitching, to me, is the undeniable strength of this team, just with the sheer depth of talented arms the Tar Heels have. Still, though, it might take some time for everyone to settle into their roles.
Junior right-hander Jason Morgan makes a lot of sense as a rotation option, given that he has the most starting experience of anyone outside of Bukauskas. Morgan showed flashes last year, but he lacked consistency with his command and secondary stuff. I do think he has the chance to be an effective starter, however. I know sophomore right-hander Cole Aker, a reliever last year, has been in the starting conversation, and I liked what I saw from him last year. He's got an explosive fastball with life and a clean delivery, and I could see him thriving in either a rotation spot or in the bullpen.
Sophomore Rodney Hutchinson also started some for UNC last year, and he's got one hell of a changeup. Beyond them, you're looking at starting freshmen, and there are several to choose from. Right-hander Luca Dalatri is the most polished of the bunch, with a four-pitch mix and solid command of each of them. He has a real feel for pitching, and I imagine he'll at least get some starts in mid-week games, if not on the weekend. Right-handers Tyler Baum and Austin Bergner—the best two arms in the freshman class in terms of sheer stuff—could enter that conversation, as well. So, like I said, UNC has quite a few options—and I haven't even begun to talk about Robbie Peto or Zach Attianese
JC: You and the good folks over at Baseball America rated this incoming recruiting class as the 2nd best in the nation. Who are some of the impact freshman that fans should be on the lookout for this season?
ML: It's a very good class, clearly, and its strength is pitching. I touched on a few of those arms in the previous question—namely Dalatri, Baum and Bergner. I could see all of those guys playing a factor. And Dalatri could potentially make an impact with his bat, as well. He's got some pop. Position player-wise, Brandon Martorano is the most highly touted of the bunch. He's primarily a catcher, but with sophomore Cody Roberts in the mix, he could move around the diamond a bit, too. Ashton McGee, a left-handed hitting infielder, enrolled early and should compete for playing time. And I know Michael Busch made a very strong impression on the coaching staff in the fall. Expect him to get some starts at first base.
JC: Staying with recruiting classes for a minute. How big of a role do you think watching five of the programs top signees in 2015 head to minor league baseball instead of Chapel Hill played in the struggles of the past two campaigns?
ML: Certainly, the Tar Heels would've been deeper if those players had made it to campus, but that's the risk you take when you recruit some of the top talent in the country. While UNC was particularly unlucky with that class, it's not a problem unique to the Tar Heels. I don't put much weight on it. Even with those defections, the UNC still brought in a strong class, headlined by Bukauskas. Like I said earlier, I don't think UNC has suffered from a lack of talent; it's just comes down to execution.
JC: Switching gears to offense, Carolina has had their own inconsistencies over on that side of the game as well over the past few years. Youth has likely played a role in that. Given the experience, do you see the Tar Heel bats returning to form?
ML: I do think UNC will be a more offensive club this season. You're right; youth has certainly played a role. I'd expect offensive jumps, in particular, from sophomore Kyle Datres, who had a strong summer, and sophomore outfielder Brandon Riley. Junior shortstop Logan Warmoth blossomed offensively late last spring and carried that into the Cape Cod League this summer. I see him continuing to improve, as well, joining fellow juniors Brian Miller and Zack Gahagan to form a strong offensive core.
JC: He's no Colin Moran or Dustin Ackley by any means, but how good can Brian Miller be for this offense in 2017?
ML: Miller is a very cool story as a former walk-on who has blossomed into a legitimate draft prospect. He's a second-team preseason All-American for us at Baseball America, and that's an honor that was voted on by 17 scouting directors and national cross-checkers from big league teams. So that's the industry opinion on him. Not our opinion.
While, no, he's not quite Moran or Ackley, he's not as far from them as you might think. He's a very tough out at the plate, working deep counts routinely, and he has a knack for making contact. While not a powerful hitter, his plate discipline and feel for the barrel are exceptional, and he's a gifted athlete and runner. There's been a lot of buzz around Miller in scouting circles, and I'd expect him to be a cog in the Tar Heel lineup once again this spring.
JC: This has been one of the most successful programs in college baseball over the past decade, even after the past two seasons, is their still an expectation for this team to compete to go to the College World Series in Omaha?
ML: Internally, I think that's the always the expectation. And on paper, this year's team has the talent to make an Omaha run. We ranked them somewhat conservatively in our Top 25 (No. 17) in part because of the last two seasons; they were talented in 2015 and 2016, too.
They'll have to answer some questions—they'll have to prove it—but if they put it all together and play to their full potential, I don't think there's any question this team could be dangerous come May and June. They'll be tested early, with a tough non-conference slate to open the season, so that should be a good measuring stick.
JC: What is your prediction for the Diamond Heels in 2017?
ML: I see the Tar Heels at least getting back into the postseason, and I wouldn't be surprised if they hosted a regional. From there, I do think they have the pitching depth to make a run, with Bukauskas giving them a sizable Game One edge against most opponents. That's as far as I'm willing to go for now. But ask me again when we're a few weeks into the college season.
I’ll definitely be calling upon Michael as the season goes along. You can also check his stuff out on Baseball America where he not only covers college baseball but the draft.
I’d also like to point out that with the birth of ACC Network Live Extra, 47 Diamond Heel games will be available for streaming via the ESPN App and WatchESPN.
The Diamond Heels host Kentucky for a three game slate this weekend, starting off on Friday afternoon at 2 p.m.