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UNC Baseball: Season Preview

The Diamond Heels have eyes on a big season after adding some major talent

COLLEGE BASEBALL: APR 06 North Carolina v South Carolina Photo by David Jensen/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Punxsutawney Phil has declared that we’ll have an early spring this year, and in at least some ways it’s already happening: an already mostly mild winter is giving way to the season of t-shirts, flowers, allergies, and baseball. The Diamond Heels open their 2024 campaign this upcoming weekend with a series against the Wagner College Seahawks, so before the season begins, let’s run through what’s old, what’s new, and what to expect with Scott Forbes’ squad this year.

Departures:

Most of the players who left UNC can be accounted for in this MLB Draft recap from last July. Outfielder Mac Horvath, who had one of the best offensive seasons in program history before getting selected in the 2nd round, is the highest-profile departure, but perhaps just as impactful might have been stalwart catcher Tomas Frick signing with the New York Yankees organization after his best offensive season as a Tar Heel. Erstwhile starting pitcher Max Carlson signed with his catcher’s rival organization in Boston, and, absent a couple of commits from high school and the transfer portal who never got to campus before going pro, that about covers it.

Something else I’ll put in this section is the injury to pitcher Jake Knapp. Knapp suffered a UCL tear in his throwing elbow and will miss the season after getting it surgically repaired. Observers thought Knapp had the inside track on the Friday starting job, so that’s a big and late blow to the bullpen.

Key Arrivals:

Maybe the first thing that stands out about UNC this season is the killer freshman class that head coach Scott Forbes is bringing in. Early rankings had UNC’s 2024 class ranked a very respectable #10, but more recently, D1Baseball put them all the way up at #3, putting this class in the same echelon of the #1-ranked 2016 class that had an instant impact and was the impetus behind UNC’s last appearance in the College World Series. From reading what little coverage I could ahead of the season, the freshman with the biggest impact on Day 1 will probably be catcher Luke Stevenson, who appears to have been slotted in as Frick’s everyday replacement. Stevenson’s a big kid with lefty power at the plate and a very good reputation as a defensive catcher, and everything I’ve read about him says that nothing about him suggests how young he is.

The real story of this class, though, is the pitching: that D1Baseball report says UNC might have “the best collection of freshman pitching in the country.” Talent and depth in the bullpen were sorely needed on this roster after they never really got consistent pitching last season, and it looks like several of the freshmen will be key bullpen arms and maybe even contend for starting spots. Keep an eye on Folger Boaz (brother of former UNC football player Jefferson) and Boston Flannery as potential starters; they’ve been pitching really well in scrimmages. Others might show up, too.

Forbes also went to work in the transfer portal, getting a few guys who should be big-time contributors. Parks Harber headlines the class; the infielder was one of UGA’s best power hitters last season before deciding to leave following a coaching change in Athens and should help offset the home run production lost from Horvath and Frick’s departure. Likely joining him in the lineup will be Anthony Donofrio, an outfielder who comes to Chapel Hill from Quinnipiac. He hit .364 with 16 home runs, 64 RBI, and 31 stolen bases for the Bobcats last season and was named a Preseason Second Team All-American by the National College Baseball Writers Association. Alex Madera, who had an absurd offensive season at DIII Arcadia University, will take over at shortstop. On the mound, UNC adds Shea Sprague from Elon, who I think will be a weekend starter thanks to his combination of starting experience and track record; he had a 2.69 ERA with 82 strikeouts to 19 walks in 2023 and was named First Team All-CAA two years in a row.

Highlighted Returnees

All eyes will of course be on center fielder Vance Honeycutt, who had a perfectly fine but somewhat underwhelming season as a sophomore that ended prematurely when a back injury/issue took him out of the lineup ahead of the ACC Tournament. All reports are that Honeycutt is fully healthy and in the swing of things, and he’ll look to recapture his freshman year magic with some added maturity in his plate approach while remaining an absolute demon on defense. His tools already have him projected as a top-10 pick in this summer’s draft, and hopefully we can see them fully unleashed starting Friday.

I’ll also be interested to see what Alberto Osuna’s place in the lineup is this season. Osuna was a power-hitting menace at DH two seasons ago with 20 home runs and an OPS of .911, but seemed unable to make contact consistently for large chunks of last year and was in and out of the lineup towards the end of the season. Forbes seems to have faith in him and he’s gotten some positive internal press in the lead-up to the season, so maybe he’s seeing the ball again and will get back to terrorizing opposing pitchers. But there’s more proven power on the bench behind him now than there was last year, so if he has the job, I’m not sure it’s safe until he makes good on it.

Others of note include Casey Cook, who finished the year as arguably UNC’s most consistent on-base man as only a redshirt freshman and could really grow into his own in his third year in college; Jackson Van de Brake, who surprised with his power early last season before going a little cold as the year went on but could get rejuvenated; and Hunter Stokely, a first baseman who hit for average pretty last year but has the build to slug a lot more than he did.

Projected Lineup:

(“Projected” is asking a lot, this is very much a guess)

1B: Parks Harber/Hunter Stokely*
2B: Jackson Van de Brake
SS: Alex Madera
3B: Parks Harber/Johnny Castagnozzi*
LF: Casey Cook
CF: Vance Honeycutt
RF: Anthony Donofrio
C: Luke Stevenson
SP: Ben Peterson, Shea Sprague, Folger Boaz

*Harber will be on one of the corners. I don’t know if Forbes and his staff will prefer the consistent contact and power potential of Stokely or Castagnozzi’s defensive versatility and knack for plating his teammates.

The Diamond Heels open the season by hosting the Wagner Seahawks at Boshamer Stadium on Friday at 4:00 PM.