Even though it may not feel like it outside, it’s time for baseball season again, and the Blazers are hoping that 2018 is another step in the right direction.

While 2017 certainly didn’t go as planned for UAB, they did improve upon their win total from 2016. Still, 24 wins is not what head coach Brian Shoop is accustomed to over the years.

Last season UAB got off to a very good start going 13-7 (2-1) in their first 20 games, including a win at Georgia and a conference series win over Western Kentucky.

But then the injury bug hit in the starting rotation, specifically to Garrett Whitlock who was dominate to start the 2017 season and was later drafted by the New York Yankess in the 18th round of the MLB Draft.

The injuries forced Thomas Lowery into the starting rotation where he was great, but it left a gaping hole in the back of the bullpen, which plagued the rest of the season.

They did beat a ranked Auburn team later in the year, but there wasn’t much else to get excited about.

After the season Brewer Hicklen became the highest draft pick of all-time for UAB baseball when he was taken in the seventh round by the Kansas City Royals.

While we are certainly happy for both Hicklen and Whitlock and wish them luck at the next level, those are both guys who were sophomores. Had they stuck around for another year or two I think the Blazes would have much higher expectations at this point.

But the beat rolls on, and coach Shoop and his staff have assembled a nice group of guys that are going to allow them to compete in conference play this year and the years to come.

Schedule:

The schedule shapes up very nicely for UAB this year as only 11 of their 55-game schedule is against teams that made the NCAA Tournament last year. That list includes Iowa (x3), Auburn (x2), Southern Miss (x3) and Rice (x3). Seven of those games are at home.

However, I thought Conference USA got the shaft last year by the tournament committee as at least two more teams deserved to make the tournament.

I certainly think Old Dominion, FAU and FIU have a chance to make the tournament this year, and Southern Miss and Rice are almost locks to get back as well. UAB plays ODU and FAU on the road, with a home set against FIU.

The Blazers also play two games against Alabama State early in the year, and the Hornets are predicted to win the SWAC this year.

So, when all is said and done, I think UAB could be playing up to 22 games against teams that make the NCAA Tournament this year.

This is still a very manageable schedule for UAB, and if they get off to a solid start like they did last year I think they have a shot to get back over the 30-win mark.

The Lineup:

I’ve been to a couple of scrimmages, and I honestly have no idea what coach Shoop is planning to do with the lineup for the upcoming season.

Just based on what I saw last year, and what I’ve seen so far in practice, a few guarantees are that Carter Pharis, Price Visintainer, Antonio Ralat, Stephen Dobbs and Tyler Tolbert will be in the starting lineup.

Where these guys will play, I honestly have no idea. They have been all over the field during practice.

My best guess is that Ralat will go back to shortstop, Dobbs will obviously be the starting catcher, Pharis will either play second, third or first, and Price will likely play third, second or in the outfield.

Tolbert is someone who had a great summer and seems to be coming into this year with a lot of confidence. In one of the practices I watched recently he got on twice and stole two bases. If he can do that consistently for the Blazers this year, it completely changes the dynamic of this team. He’ll likely play in the outfield this year after playing mostly at second last season.

Outside of those five guys, I think we see a lot from Colton Schultz, Brett Blackwood, Thomas Johns, Zach Davis, and Luke Eigsti.

Davis and Schultz have really stood out to me in practice and I think both will be in the opening day lineup.

Davis will likely start in a corner outfield spot, while Schultz could play first, outfield or DH since he is coming off an injury.

We know Blackwood is a good hitter when he is healthy and in the lineup, but health has been a big issue with him during his time at UAB. Johns is someone that can bring some thump to the lineup, while playing first and DH.

Eigsti could also see time in the outfield, but I think he has a chance to have a bigger impact on the mound, and we’ll get to that later.

Blake Johnson is another guy that could see some time on the infield. He is a very good defender that could come on late in games as a defensive replacement.

I truly have no idea where coach Shoop is going with this lineup, and I don’t think he does either at this point. It will be a work in progress over the first few months, but if things started today here is how I would draw up the lineup card.

  1. Tyler Tolbert – CF
  2. Colton Schultz – 1B
  3. Carter Pharis – 2B
  4. Zach Davis – RF
  5. Thomas Johns – DH
  6. Price Visintainer – 3B
  7. Stephen Dobbs – C
  8. Antonio Ralat – SS
  9. Cole Collins – LF

Pitching:

If UAB is going to get back to its winning ways of just a few years ago, they have to do a better job of pitching and playing defense.

Injuries and inconsistency have certainly plagued them the past few years. They lose their two best pitchers from last year in Whitlock and Lowery.

However, there are six or seven guys that I think coach Shoop can depend on this year. But as has been the case for the past two seasons, they have to stay healthy.

Ryan Ruggles, Tanner Graham, Carson Jones and Isaiah Gonzales-Montoya are four guys who are returning that I think will play a major role in this team’s success or failure in 2018.

Ruggles and Graham are both guys who have experienced success as starters in the past.

I think Graham has the tools to be a Friday night guy for UAB. He pitched in the Cape Cod League this past summer, which is where a lot of the top college baseball prospects play. And while he struggled to the tune of a 5.89 ERA in 18.1 innings there, he also struck out 17 batters.

The junior has the arm to be an ace, he just has to put it all together, stay healthy and be consistent.

Ruggles is the same way. He had a great freshman year and a solid sophomore season, but really struggled last year. I’m hoping he bounces back in his senior year and goes out on top.

Jones may have some of the best stuff on this team, but he seemed to lose some steam late last year. I personally think he’s better suited for the bullpen, and he could possibly take over the closer role this year.

Isaiah is someone who really impressed me last year, and I’m looking forward to seeing what he does as a senior. If he doesn’t make the weekend rotation, I think he could be a solid mid-week starter or back of the bullpen guy for UAB.

We talked about Eigsti earlier, and I was able to see him pitch in practice recently. He’s developed a submarine type deliver that is devastating on right-handed hitters. I could see him being a specialist out of the bullpen for coach Shoop to get out tough righties and induce a groundball when they need one.

Tyler Gates is someone worth mentioning as he was set to be a starter last year but ended up missing the year due to an injury that he’s still recovering from. It’s unclear when he will be back, but he will be a difference maker once healthy.

There are some new guys who I think could have a big impact this year as well, but we’ll get to them in a minute.

Agains, I have no idea how things are going to shake out for Shoop, and again I don’t think he does either right now. But if things started today, here is how I would map out the pitching staff:

Friday Starter: Tanner Graham

Saturday Starter: Ryan Ruggles

Sunday Starter: Ryan Wesson

Mid-Week Starter: Isaiah Gonzales-Montoya

Closer: Carson Jones

Set-up: Ty Harris

Set-up: Ian McWilliams

Set-up: Luke Eigsti

Newcomers:

UAB has several newcomers in the pitching staff and in the outfield that could have an immediate impact this season.

Position player-wise, Cole Collins and Jess Davis both have a chance to play in the outfield.

Collins is junior transfer that played at Wallace-Hanceville for two seasons and hit .326 over that time. He’s someone I could see batting at the top of the lineup, or at the bottom as a second lead-off hitter.

Davis is just a freshman, but has a bright future in the UAB outfield. He has a chance to play a lot of center field this year and going forward.

As for the pitchers, there are several guys who will need to step up and have an impact right away if the Blazes are going to compete.

One of those is a graduate transfer in Kevin Davis. He received a lack of playing time at Auburn because of arm injuries, but hopefully he’ll be able to stay healthy for the Blazers in his senior year. I watched him pitched recently and he doesn’t have stuff that will overwhelm you, but you can tell he has a mature approach on the mound and knows how to get hitters out. He could certainly be a weekend starter for UAB, or a nice addition to the bullpen.

I also saw freshman Ian McWilliams pitch recently and while he has a live arm, he struggles with consistency. While watching one inning, he walked a batter and hit two. I think coach Shoop will bring him along slowly this year out of the bullpen, but he has the potential to be a part of the starting rotation for UAB in the future.

Ryan Wesson is a junior college transfer who struck out 143 batters in 125.1 innings pitched over two seasons at Northeast Mississippi Community College. I know the coaching staff is expecting big things from him this year.

Ty Harris is another transfer that comes to UAB by way of Arkansas and Crowder Community College. As a sophomore at Crowder he struck out 75 batters in 65 innings pitched. He’s another guy that could start or come out of the bullpen, but either way he will play a major role this year.

Troy Cordrey is a freshman that could find his way into some significant innings this year with his ability to induce groundballs.

All around this a very solid incoming class that gives UAB the ability to compete right away, especially if they find a few more reliable arms in the pitching staff.

Predictions:

Projected Record: 27-28 (14-16)

I hate to put limitations on a team, and in baseball you never know how a season is going to unfold, but going game-by-game through the schedule I see them finishing with just below 30 wins and a .500 record in the conference.

Based on last year’s C-USA standings, that would put them in ninth place and a game out of making the conference tournament.

Hicklen and Whitlock both leaving unexpectedly as sophomores really set this team back another year. If those two had come back I think the expectations would certainly be over 30 wins and a top six finish in the conference.

At this point, if UAB finishes with 28 wins and is on the bubble for making the conference tournament, I think that would be a successful season for coach Shoop.

Obviously, that is not the expectations for the team or coach Shoop. They expect to win every game they play and compete for a conference title, but when I take my green and gold glasses off, that’s how I see things playing out this year.

I really think the offense will be solid this year, or at least not any worse than the .259 team average and the 4.7 runs per game they averaged last year.

The question, as will always be the case for a coach Shoop team, will be how good they are on the mound and in the field.

Last year their .972 fielding percentage was seventh best in Conference USA. I’d love to see them move up into the top four at around .976.

And their team ERA of 5.46 ranked eighth in the conference. That has to improve to close to 4.50 if the Blazers are going to compete.

If those two things happen, then you can expect big things from UAB this year.

Either way, I can’t wait to see this team take the field and see if they can take the next step forward towards competing for a Conference USA title.

Go Blazers!

 

 

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