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Aaron Fitt | | November 20, 2019

Georgia Tech baseball will be another strong force in the ACC in 2020

In 1994 Jason Varitek became a college baseball legend

COLUMBIA, S.C. — After missing back-to-back regionals in 2017-18, Georgia Tech returned to the national stage emphatically last spring, going 43-19 overall — 19-11 in the ACC and earning a national seed in the NCAA tournament. Considering the Yellow Jackets lost All-Americans Kyle McCann and Tristin English plus their entire weekend rotation, you might be thinking they’re due to take a step back in 2020.

Think again.

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In last Sunday’s scrimmage at South Carolina, the Jackets had the look of a squad that will be a major force in the ACC once again. One of college baseball’s best freshman classes has brought crucial reinforcements, and there’s still a strong collection of seasoned veterans back to lead the lineup and the pitching staff. Maybe the 2020 Jackets won’t be as experienced as last year’s club, but a strong case can be made that they’re even deeper and more talented than they were last spring.

“I think we have much more pitching depth than I probably thought we might have, let’s put it that way,” Georgia Tech coach Danny Hall said. “We’ll have to pitch some of those young guys, but they’ve been impressive this fall. I’m not sure we’re ready offensively — if we had to play today I know we’re not ready — but we do have time to get the Comptons, the Jenkinses, the Hollands up to speed because they’re gonna have to play for us this year. Replacing the production of English and McCann, that’s not gonna be easy. But I have been very impressed by the freshmen.”

The three freshmen Hall alluded to above — Drew Compton, Andrew Jenkins and Jake Holland, are an enormous part of Georgia Tech’s future, but also its present. And sure, there’s always an adjustment period for freshmen at the Division I level, but those three all look capable of hitting the ground running in the spring.

Compton looks like the next in a long line of great Georgia Tech sluggers. At 6-foot-2, 205-pound switch-hitter, Compton has a quiet setup, an advanced feel for his barrel, and legitimate plus power from both sides of the plate. He showed off his exciting bat speed in the first inning at South Carolina, hitting from the left side against Carmen Mlodzinski and going to the opposite field on a 95 mph fastball for an RBI double that exited the bat at 97 mph. It was telling that Compton started in the cleanup spot (and Jenkins hit fifth) in Columbia, and Hall said Compton has also played a good first base this fall. Expect him to be a fixture at first and in the heart of the Tech order for the next three years.

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Jenkins, a strong-bodied 6-foot, 205-pound right-handed hitter, followed Compton’s first-inning double with an RBI single into the opposite field gap on an 83 mph Mlodzinski slider away — that one exited the bat at 100 mph. He made more hard contact in his next at-bat on a lineout to center, and then recorded another 100 mph exit velocity on a liner single to center on a 92 mph fastball in the ninth. Jenkins seems likely to serve as the primary DH this spring, as he’s still a work in progress behind the plate (where his arm strength is an asset).

“I think his bat’s gonna play. He’s a good hitter, he’s got power, and I think he’s gonna be a really good strong hitter for us,” Hall said. “I think he can handle it as a freshman. He and Compton were on the same Sunbelt League team this summer; Corey Patterson was the coach. Jenkins hit three hole and Compton hit four hole as high school kids playing against college kids.”

The Yellow Jackets don’t need to rush Jenkins’ defensive development because they also have Holland, a more experienced and advanced backstop who has impressed the coaches and the pitchers with his ability to handle a staff, receive and block. He didn’t catch at South Carolina due to some shoulder soreness, but Hall thinks his arm will play. He’s also flashed some power at the plate, hitting an opposite-field homer on a 94 mph fastball during one intrasquad scrimmage. Hall compares him physically to former Georgia Tech star and No. 2 overall pick Joey Bart at the same age.

A fourth freshman position player also impressed at South Carolina. Tres Gonzalez showed plus speed from home to first that also translated to excellent range in center field. He’s a wiry 6-foot, 165-pound left-handed hitter who showed good plate discipline, drawing a pair of walks; he has the look of a future leadoff man for the Jackets, though he may have to wait his turn because Georgia Tech has three returning starters in the outfield.

Hall’s son Colin Hall (.307/.363/.432) didn’t play at South Carolina due to a soft tissue issue, but he’s likely to serve as the everyday center fielder as a junior. Hall hit four homers last year, and Danny thinks he could push for double digits next spring because he’s continued to make significant strength gains. He’s also a talented left-handed hitter with good speed.

Junior hit machine Michael Guldberg (.355/.441/.418) could also play center — he showed plus speed up the line in Columbia, and he has recovered well from the shoulder injury that limited him to DH duties in the past. If Hall plays center, look for Guldberg to start in left.

“He’s been very good,” Hall said. “We call him the robot — academic All-American in engineering. He’s one of those guys that can put the bat on the ball. He’s an instinctive player, can play a lot of positions. His arm has kind of bounced back, seems to be throwing really well like he did before he got hurt. I think he’s poised to have another really good year for us.”

In right field, Georgia Tech will start junior Baron Radcliff (.257/.403/.503, 12 HR), a 6-foot-4, 239-pound Adonis with enormous left-handed power potential that he’s learned how to access in game action over the last year. He also hit six homers in 93 at-bats in the Cape Cod League this past summer, though his strikeout rate remained on the high side.

With McCann and English gone, Radcliff will assume the role of lineup centerpiece, and it’s critical for the freshmen to provide him some lineup protection. He’s got a chance to put up All-America numbers as a junior, especially if his plate discipline continues to progress.

“He’s getting there for sure. I felt like he made a huge jump last year. I think it was great that he played in the Cape this summer and definitely held his own,” Hall said. “The thing that impressed me this fall, he can really run for a big guy, but the first couple years he wouldn’t really do that in the outfield. I think he was a little tentative. But now that’s coming full circle. Here’s a guy who can run a lot of balls down in the outfield. He’s poised for a great year.”

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The Jackets also return three quarters of their starting infield, led by star shortstop Luke Waddell (.322/.441/.418), one of the best table-setters in college baseball thanks to his elite plate discipline (45 walks against 22 strikeouts last year) and his compact line-drive stroke from the left side. He’s also very quick laterally on defense and has shown double-plus run times from home to first. As D1Baseball scouting director David Seifert wrote about Waddell after seeing him play for Team USA this summer, “He’s a throwback with a blue collar playing style and one who could be the heart and soul of a ball club.”

Switch-hitting senior third baseman Jackson Webb (.312/.437/.408) is another hard-nosed gamer with a knack for putting the ball in play, a patient approach (28-28 BB-K) and rock-solid defense at the hot corner. He impressed me at South Carolina with the way he attacked balls in front of him and made strong, accurate throws on the run.

Another skilled senior, Austin Wilhite, will round out the infield at second base, where he’s an agile defender who turns the double play well and has excellent range. Hall said the Jackets have even given him some work off the mound this fall, and he’s shown the ability to fill up the strike zone at 90 mph, making him a prime candidate for some bullpen innings.

When Wilhite pitches, look for freshman Jadyn Jackson to handle second base. Jackson should be a valuable utility man who played lights-out defense at shortstop this past weekend against Samford when Waddell was out with an ankle injury. He has good hands and range, an accurate arm and a quick release. He’s also surprised the Jackets with his ability to handle the bat this fall.

So Georgia Tech is going to hit as usual and should be outstanding defensively, giving its abundance of talented veterans in key spots. The question heading into the fall revolved around the pitching staff, which lost starters Connor Thomas, Xzavion Curry and Amos Willingham plus stopper English.

But after seeing Georgia Tech roll out one quality arm after another in Columbia, I expect Georgia Tech to be even better off the mound than it was a year ago. A host of returnees have made huge leaps forward this fall under first-year pitching coach Danny Borrell, whom Hall can’t stop lauding.

First and foremost is fifth-year senior right-hander Jonathan Hughes, who finally looks ready to harness the talent that made him a second-round pick out of high school back in 2015. After posting a 2.46 ERA in five starts as a freshman, Hughes went down with elbow surgery, and his stuff and command weren’t quite the same over the next three years, when he posted ERAs north of 5 each year. But last Sunday, Hughes was simply electrifying, attacking the strike zone at 92-95 and bumping 96 with a high spin-rate fastball in the 2400-2500 rpm range. He also showed as good a slider as you’ll see in college baseball, a wipeout pitch in the 83-86 range with a ridiculous spin rate between 2900 and 3100 rpm. And he even showed good feel for an 83-85 changeup that induced a couple swing-and-misses.

“I’m hoping the last chapter of his story here is just a great one where he has a great year and gets the opportunity to go play pro ball,” Hall said. “We kept seeing some flashes of it, but I think he and Borrell have really hit it off. I think Borrell has helped him tremendously, not only fastball but breaking ball. He has two elite pitches right now and even the changeup is coming. Now his velocity has jumped this fall, and the spin rate on his breaking ball was over 3000, only a handful of guys even at the major league level have that kind of spin rate. He’s always been a good competitor, so it’s just great to see what’s happening to him. It’s a great story.”

Georgia Tech is counting on Hughes to help anchor the weekend rotation this year, and sophomore Cort Roedig figures to join him. A wiry-strong, athletic, 6-foot-2, 192-pound righty, Roedig presents an incredibly unique look: he starts his windup from a deep crouch, then launches into a hyper-uptempo, herky-jerky delivery. It’s unorthodox, but he repeats it — and the ball jumps out of his hand. Roedig worked at 92-94 and touched 95 at South Carolina, and he flashed a 12-to-6 hammer curve at 74-76 with a spin rate around 2400 rpm. He also showed the ability to throw a quality mid-80s changeup to righties as well as lefties, giving him three legitimate weapons.

The third starter spot is up in the air, but Tech has several exciting candidates. The first is blue-chip freshman right-hander Zach Maxwell — a 6-foot-6, 245-pound lumberjack with premium arm strength and a clean high three-quarters arm action. He sat comfortably at 94-96 and bumped 97 in Columbia. His fastball also has a good spin rate in the 2400-2500 range, making it tough to square up, especially up in the zone. His power slider at 82-85 was a bit inconsistent, but it flashed obvious wipeout potential, with a spin rate as high as 2800 rpm. His changeup remains a work in progress, but he has a chance to dominate with his fastball and slider either as a starter or in the late innings.

“He’s gonna scatter it here and there, but man has he got an elite package of stuff,” Hall said. “So he’s a definite starter candidate, but I’ve even heard Borrell say, 'Do you try to make Maxwell the closer?' Knowing he’s going to walk a guy or two but he’ll probably strike everybody out as well.”

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Likewise, fourth-year junior righty Andy Archer could either step into a rotation job or return to the bullpen, where he was so valuable two years ago before missing last spring with UCL repair surgery utilizing an internal brace and avoiding Tommy John. He’s back to 100 percent now and looks better than he ever has. He pounded 93 mph in his 1-2-3 inning at South Carolina, and Hall said he’s been up to 94-95 this fall — a significant jump from where he was before the injury. He’s always owned one of college baseball’s best changeups, and it was as dirty as ever last Sunday, tumbling off the table at 82-84 mph. But he’s also made serious progress with his 75-78 curveball, giving him a third weapon that would help him thrive as a starter should the Jackets elect to use him in that capacity. But Hall also acknowledged that he loves having Archer as “a trouble shooter” in the bullpen, much like English was a year ago. There’s a lot to be said for that peace of mind.

High-profile sophomore Luke Bartnicki is also being groomed as a potential starter. A physical low three-quarters left-hander with a wrap in the back of his delivery that could impact the consistency of his command, Bartnicki worked at 87-93 with very good sink and arm-side run at times against South Carolina. And Hall likes his changeup. The key for him is developing a consistent breaking ball — he threw a 79-82 mph sweeper that lacked bite last Sunday, though he flashed better feel to spin in the Cape League this summer.

Other notable returning arms include left-handers Will Shirah, Joseph Mannelly and Brant Hurter plus righty Hugh Chapman. Those four all fall into the “wild card” category as they work their way back from injuries. Shirah had some bone spurs removed from his elbow and hasn’t thrown yet this fall. Chapman was up to 94 earlier in the fall before getting shut down for a time with shoulder tendinitis, but Hall said he’s back throwing again now. Mannelly is expected to be ready to go when spring practice starts in February, but Hurter is most likely to miss all of 2020 while working his way back from Tommy John surgery — though there’s at least a chance he’s back in action when May rolls around.

Meanwhile, the Yellow Jackets will count on additional talented freshmen to bolster their bullpen depth. Right-hander Jackson Finley was 92-94 last Sunday and flashed a promising curveball at 76-78, but his command of his fastball and breaker remain works in progress. Lefty Dalton Smith attacked at 88-90 from a short, quick three-quarters arm action and showed a very good tumbling changeup at 80-81. Fellow lefty Josiah Siegel carved at 86-87 with good angle from a three-quarters slot, and his 79-80 slider should be a nice second pitch for him.

“I think Smith and Siegel for freshmen both throw strikes,” Hall said. “I think both those guys can really help us probably now out of the bullpen, but I could see those guys potentially being midweek starters because they’re both really good pitchers and they’re left-handed. Finley I think has elite stuff. He’s just been a little inconsistent with everything, but I could see him between now and March making a huge jump.”

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Jenkins could also see bullpen innings, and Hall said the Jackets have messed around with him as a potential closer because he can miss bats with his 92-93 fastball and hard slider. But they’re also counting on his bat, so they might not want to ask him to assume two-way duties right away. There’s time to figure out who slots in at the back of the bullpen, but at least Tech has more potential shutdown options than it has had in the past. All in all, this roster is simply teeming with intriguing talent.

“I’m excited about it,” Hall said. “I think we’ve got a lot to do and a lot to prove, but I think we have a lot of pieces to the puzzle. Now it’s up to us to put the pieces together.”

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