On December 5, 2012, Baseball Prospectus and Perfect Game announced a partnership to help promote and cover the game at both the amateur and professional levels. As a result of this partnership, Baseball Prospectus subscribers will now get the opportunity to read some of the great premium content being published by Perfect Game for its members. Today, courtesy of Perfect Game, we bring you this special report by Kendall Rogers.
North Carolina head coach Mike Fox isn't surprised by much, but he let out a light chuckle when asked about the expectations surrounding his Tar Heels for the 2013 college baseball season. Fox doesn't necessarily disagree with his team's top billing in the Perfect Game Top 25, among other rankings, but he doesn't view this club, at least right now, quite as flawless as some of the great UNC teams over the past 10 seasons.
"I know we've got three really good starting pitchers back this season," Fox said. "But by the same token, we're also having to replace two very key pieces to our team last year in a closer and catcher. I'm a little surprised. Not to take anything away from our players, but I guess some of this credit goes to the pitching staff that we have back this season."
Despite Fox's concerns, which is usual for a head coach this time of year, the Tar Heels' current question marks shouldn't be a huge cause for concern. And that, along with the pitching staff, is precisely why this team is expected to win the program's first national title this season.
Winning a national title would be the cherry on top for Fox, who has transformed North Carolina from a program that just reached the NCAA postseason, to one that everyone expects to not only get to the postseason, but also compete for a national title.
The Tar Heels continue to chase that dream, but have been close in recent years. They reached the CWS Championship Series in both 2006 and '07, losing to gritty Pat Casey and Oregon State on both occasions. Overall, UNC has reached the CWS an astonishing five of the last seven seasons.
There's a lot to be excited about when it comes to this year's Tar Heels team. Fox pinpoints the loss of outstanding catcher and leader Jacob Stallings and departure of right-handed closer Michael Morin, who had 19 saves last season, as holes, but the Tar Heels should be fine in both areas.
UNC will lean heavily on junior catcher Matt Roberts to replace Stallings. Roberts, drafted in the 38th round by the Diamondbacks in 2010, only hit .111 last season, but that also was only in 27 at bats. He's expected to take a significant step forward behind the plate and offensively this spring.
"Matt is a veteran even though he hasn't played a whole lot. He was behind a pretty good catcher the last couple of years," he said. "He had a good fall and is now in the best shape of his career. He's anxious for his opportunity and has been patient in the process. I think he's one of those guys who will be rewarded for that in the end."
If comparing the two, there's no question the catcher position is of greater "concern" than the bullpen. The Tar Heels had an outstanding closer last season in Morin, who tallied 19 saves and had a 1.40 ERA in 58 innings of work. However, the Tar Heels should press forward without much of a hitch.
North Carolina's options on the back end of the bullpen are endless. It was thought during the fall that Chris McCue might take over the duties, but some other options have surfaced. For now, it looks like the Tar Heels will lean on fireballer and right-handed pitcher Mason McCullough or another intriguing sophomore right-hander in Trevor Kelley.
McCullough, a strapping 6-foot-4, 240-pounder, certainly is the more known commodity of the two. He showed big-time velocity for the Tar Heels last season, but command was an issue at times. This past fall, he was consistently 95-96 with his fastball, complementing that pitch with a mid-80s slider.
Kelley, a 6-foot-2, 190-pounder, is an interesting arm to watch this spring. Kelley only made four appearances last season with a double digit ERA, but things are much different this go-round. For starters, Kelley, who used to throw with an upper 3/4's motion asked the coaching staff during the offseason if he could lower his arm angle to low 3/4 or sidearm. Fox and pitching coach Scott Forbes obliged, thus the creation of the new and improved Kelley.
Kelley was one of the Tar Heels' most impressive arms during fall workouts, flashing an 88-91 fastball with some sink, along with a good breaking ball.
"He came back really confident during the fall. He's tough on righties, and his ball moves and sinks," Fox said. "He's a totally different pitcher for us right now. He has really excelled in all of our practices and scrimmages."
Assuming either McCullough or Kelley, or perhaps even McCue, pan out as the team's closer this spring, the Tar Heels otherwise are in terrific shape.
The UNC starting rotation couldn't be much better. Left-handed specialists Kent Emanuel and Hobbs Johnson are back in the mix this spring, while right-hander Benton Moss also is back in the rotation. Amazingly, all three arms finished last season with earned-run averages below two.
Emanuel is a prime candidate to take a step forward as a prospect this spring. Emanuel arrived at North Carolina as skinny 190-pound freshman. However, the junior is up to 225 after rigorous offseason training. He also has added a few ticks to his fastball, sitting consistently 90-92 as opposed to upper 80s, low 90s.
"Kent looks great, he's much bigger after he went home and got after it during the offseason," he said. "His fastball has more on it, and I think that's going to really help him. Hobbs and Moss also look pretty good, and I think this rotation is in great shape if they don't put too much pressure on themselves."
North Carolina's offense should do a better job of complementing the pitching staff this spring. The Tar Heels were a few outs away from reaching an NCAA Super Regional last season with a lineup that finished with an underwhelming .276 batting average.
The lineup should be much improved this spring with the return of third baseman Colin Moran in addition to Chaz Frank, Mike Zolk, Parks Jordan, increasingly versatile Michael Russell and hard-hitting Cody Stubbs, who should take a big step forward after hitting just .258 with five homers last season.
In terms of newcomers, the Tar Heels pinpoint freshmen such as Landon Lassiter, Alex Raburn, Korey Dunbar and Skye Bolt as instant impact players.
Lassiter, a 16th-round pick of the Diamondbacks last summer, will start at shortstop this spring after displaying good feel and actions during the fall, Raburn won't start at third with Moran in tow, but could find some significant playing time either at designated hitter or in the outfield. Dunbar won't start at catcher, but again, is vying for significant playing time elsewhere. Bolt is expected to be one of the nation's top freshmen with good raw power and feel for the game.
This is an easy North Carolina team to be excited about. The Tar Heels have an outstanding pitching staff, should have the catcher position filled with a more than adequate replacement in Roberts, and should be vastly improved at the plate.
The Tar Heels have yet to win a national title, but the more we look at this team, the less likely that trend looks to be continued after this season.