Believe it or not, it is time for college baseball season!

The UAB Blazers baseball team will kick off their 2017 season at home in Regions Park against Creighton on February 17.

Head Coach Brian Shoop and UAB baseball are coming off a somewhat disappointing season as they just missed out on making the C-USA Tournament on the last game of the regular season. They finished the season with an overall record of 21-34 with a 12-18 conference record.

That’s the first time the Blazers have had a losing record since the 2013 season.

However, if you recognize how young UAB baseball was last season, you understand why they may have struggled.

The team’s top two hitters average-wise last year were both freshman in Carter Pharis and Brewer Hicklen.

Shoop struggled to find any kind of consistency out of the pitching staff last year, but I expect that will be much better this year as almost everyone is back with some experience under their belt.

Let’s take a look at the 2017 version of UAB baseball and see if maybe there will be a better outcome this season.

Pharis vs WKU

Projected Starting Lineup:

C – Pierce Ressmeyer

1B – Brett Blackwood

2B – Price Visintainer

3B – Carter Pharis

SS – Blake Johnson

LF – Riley McCown

CF- Brewer Hicklen

RF – Zack Davis

DH – Jared Nixon

The only guarantees in this lineup are Brewer Hicklen and Carter Pharis. Pharis led the team in average (.297), doubles (13) and RBIs (36) as a freshman. Hicklen led the team with 37 runs scored, a .408 on-base-percentage and stolen bases with 22 in 28 attempts as a redshirt freshman last year.

Hicklen will most likely leadoff, while Pharis will slide into the 3-hole. Those two will piece together a very strong top of the lineup, but the question is who will fill in behind them?

Brett Blackwood missed almost all of last year because of an injury, and still isn’t 100 percent going into this season, but if he’s healthy enough to play, he will be a huge upgrade to the lineup.

Nixon gets a lead off third
Nixon gets a lead off third

Jared Nixon had a solid freshman year hitting .254 in 134 at-bats. He’s also dealing with an injury, but if he’s healthy he’ll fill in as the team’s designated hitter.

The loss of Adam Smith at shortstop will be felt this year, but hopefully either Blake Johnson or newcomer Price Visintainer can step up in his absence.

Incoming transfer Antonio Ralat will also compete for the starting job at shortstop. He hit .283 with Palm Beach State last year and will be a sophomore this season.

Riley McCown had an up-and-down season last year, but apparently he’s looked good in practice and I expect him to have a much better year in 2017.

I really have no idea who will start at catcher or in right field. This will be a very fluid lineup for coach Shoop early in the year until things get settled.

Overall though, I feel pretty good about this lineup going into the season. It could obviously use some more pop in the middle of the order, but guys like Hicklen, Pharis and Nixon should be able to get on base and put some pressure on the opposing pitcher.

 

Ryan Ruggles on the mound.
Ryan Ruggles on the mound.

Projected Rotation:

SP – Ryan Ruggles

SP – Tanner Graham

SP – Adam Lamar

SP – Garrett Whitlock

 

CL – Thomas Lowery

SU – Kyle Davis

SU – Dylan Munger

SU – Cory Eller

SU – Austin Thomas

 

Much like the starting lineup, the pitching rotation will be very fluid to begin the season. I feel like Tanner Graham and Ryan Ruggles are the safe bets to start the year in the rotation, but even that is in question.

Graham had a 4.79 ERA in 71.1 innings last year, while Ruggles was 6-4 with a 4.18 ERA in 71 innings.

Adam Lamar led the team (of pitchers with over 25 innings) with a 2.93 ERA in 55.1 innings last year, but I felt like he worked better out of the bullpen. Still, I think he gets a shot in the rotation this year.

Garrett Whitlock worked mostly as a long reliever last year, but I could see him getting some starts as a sophomore this year.

Thomas Lowery was up-and-down as the closer last year, but I still think he’s the man for the job. He still managed to finish the season with a 2.82 ERA, 8 saves and 49 strikeouts in 51 innings. In my opinion he has the best stuff on this team, and I’m hoping the senior has a big year out of the bullpen.

Kyle Davis on the mound
Kyle Davis on the mound

Kyle Davis is someone to keep an eye on this year. As a freshman he posted a 1.82 ERA in 24.2 innings with a batting average against of .145. He struggled early in the year with command walking 18 batters to just 14 strikeouts on the year, but he really came on late in the season. If he continues to progress, he could become a very reliable arm in either the rotation or out of the bullpen.

Corey Eller was late coming back from an injury last year, but should be ready to go in 2017. In 29 appearances as a sophomore he had a 3.29 ERA in 41 innings. If he’s healthy he’ll be a huge boost to this bullpen.

Dylan Munger and Austin Thomas should also be very reliable arms out of the bullpen or in the rotation for coach Shoop this year.

Even though there aren’t any locks for the rotation or bullpen spots, there are a lot of very good, young arms for UAB baseball this year. I am very excited to see what this group will do in 2017.

 

A beautiful night at Regions Field as UAB beats La Tech 7-0.
A beautiful night at Regions Field as UAB beats La Tech 7-0.

Freshman to Watch

Last year the Blazers had to count on a lot of freshman, but that shouldn’t be the case this year. Still, coach Shoop brought in some talented young players that could have an immediate impact.

The first of those is Sylvester Toe, Jr. The 6-foot-3, 210 pound freshman is listed as a RHP/OF on UAB’s roster, but he was recruited as a right-handed pitcher. Perfect Game had him listed as the 368th best prospect in the country.

He hit .485 as a junior in Douglasville, Ga., and then for the East Cobb Patriots he hit .421 in 38 games, while posting a 1.15 ERA in 36.1 innings pitched.

There is an opening in the outfield, and Sylvester will definitely compete for that spot this spring. I also think he’ll come out of the bullpen a lot this year like Kyle Davis did as a freshman last season.

Next up is Thomas Johns from Clay-Chalkville High School. The big lefty measures up at 6-foot-2, 225 pounds and was recruited as a first baseman. Perfect Game ranked him as the 436rd best prospect in the country.

He hit .417 with 3 home runs as a sophomore, but was limited in his junior season due to an injury. Still, he was ranked as the best first base prospect in the state of Alabama by Perfect Game.

The UAB website also has Johns listed as a catcher and he has an opportunity to play at either position this year. The Blazers could definitely use some pop in their lineup, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see Johns get the nod at first if Blackwood is not healthy.

Jim Jeffries will come in and compete for the starting catcher position right away. He helped Providence Catholic in Illinois win three straight state titles, so he knows how to win ball games.

Colton Schultz was a top 1,000 player by Perfect Game last year as a middle infielder. UAB lists him as an INF/OF. He received a grade of eight by Perfect Game and profiles more as a second basemen, but he could be moved to the outfield.

Tyler Tolbert was also a top 1,000 player according to Perfect Game, but he received a grade of 8.5. At 5-foot-11, 150 pounds he profiles a second baseman. He is very quick and will be a great top of the order guy for UAB baseball one day.

Lastly we’ll take a look at Nathan Anthes from Marietta, Ga. He was recruited as a catcher, but he also played some third base and outfield in high school. Perfect Game ranked him as a top 500 prospect, and gave him a 9.5 grade after a showcase in August 2015.

From the scouting report from Perfect Game, it sounds like he has the arm and ability to stick at catcher, which is something UAB desperately needs after losing Esteban Tresgallo and Mitch Williams.

I’m not sure if he gets the nod at catcher to start the season, but I think we definitely see him there at some point this year.

 

UAB Head Baseball Coach Brian Shoop looks on during the team's first intersquad game of the year. Photo courtesy of Scott McLeod.
UAB Head Baseball Coach Brian Shoop looks on during the team’s first intersquad game of the year. Photo courtesy of Scott McLeod.

Outlook

I think we will see a lot of improvement from UAB baseball this year. We all knew there were going to be some growing pains last year with all of the uncertainties in the pitching staff. Then when the offense struggled as bad as it did, that just made the situation even worse.

We’ll still be very young in the lineup, but I expect to see more consistency through the batting order in 2017. I think Hicklen and Pharis will be first team all-conference players this year.

In fact, Baseball America ranks Hicklen as the sixth best MLB prospect in Conference USA. As a redshirt sophomore there is a very good chance we could lose him after this season.

The key for Blazers this year will be whether or not they can find some consistent starting pitching. When UAB has been good the past several years it’s been because they’ve had two or three solid starting pitchers.

I’m really hoping Graham and Ruggles step up to lead this rotation in 2017. If they can each throw 80-plus innings with ERAs under four this will be a great year for UAB baseball.

In 2014 and 2015 UAB had three starting pitchers throw at least 70 innings and all had an ERA under four. That’s the goal for coach Shoop and UAB this year.

There are plenty of great arms in the bullpen, but the problem last year was that none of our starters went deep into games, and that put a lot of stress on our bullpen.

We need two or three pitchers to step up in the starting rotation and go deep into games. Whether that’s Graham and Ruggles or someone else, it needs to happen for UAB to be successful in 2017.

I look for the Blazers to be around a .500 team this season, both overall and in conference, and they will make the Conference USA Tournament this year.

Go Blazers!