CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — If the draft had played out the way North Carolina expected it to, 2020 might have been a transition year for the Tar Heels. Instead, right-handers Joey Lancellotti and Gianluca Dalatri plus outfielder Dylan Harris all returned to UNC for another season, giving the Heels three accomplished upperclassmen to lead a largely inexperienced team.
“We weren’t expecting Lancellotti and Dalatri and Dylan Harris to be here,” UNC coach Mike Fox said. “Those three guys could be the difference between us being an average team and an above-average team.”
To take it a step further, having Lancellotti and Dalatri could make UNC’s pitching staff Omaha-caliber because they join with a few other returnees to form a top six or seven arms. They stack up well against almost any staff in college baseball if everything comes together.
There are certainly some wild card factors at play.
Of course, a major key will be Dalatri’s health. After going 7-3, 3.34 in 97 innings to earn freshman All-America honors in 2017, Dalatri was limited by injury to 27 innings as a sophomore and 17 innings as a junior. He hasn’t pitched in scrimmage action this fall while rehabbing from April hip surgery, but he started his throwing program in the last two weeks and is now working to build up his strength. He’s ready to go full throttle by the time the season starts in February. At his best, he’s a polished four-pitch strike-thrower and a bona fide ace. UNC needs him to return to that form as a senior.
Lancellotti, who declined to sign as a 34th-round pick by the Yankees as a draft-eligible sophomore in 2019, has been a flame-throwing weapon out of the UNC bullpen for two years. The Tar Heels have stretched him out this fall to give him a chance to compete for a weekend rotation spot. He’s been extended before out of the bullpen and maintained his stuff well, but he doesn’t bounce back great when he works multiple outings in a weekend, making the move to the rotation might suit him perfectly.
Given Dalatri’s health history and Lancellotti’s lack of experience as a starter, it’s hard to know exactly what to expect from them in the rotation, but the potential is clearly there for them to form one of the nation’s best one-two punches. And the Tar Heels have a third potentially dominant — but unproven — weekend starter in redshirt freshman right-hander Max Alba, who has come back strong from Tommy John surgery in the summer of 2018. Alba will be draft-eligible in 2020, and he could rocket up draft lists if he pitches up to his capabilities.
“He’s gonna be good. He’s gonna be good,” Fox said of Alba. “He’s got a chance to be pretty special. Downhill, competitor, life, good breaking ball. His fastball’s got some life, and good changeup. He’s very athletic. He’s 92-93. There’s more in there, but might not see that until he’s gone from here, who knows?”
Sophomore left-hander Will Sandy made 11 starts last spring, seeing plenty of ACC action on Sundays. He had his elbow scoped right after the season and sat out the summer, so the Heels brought him along slowly this fall. He has the pitchability, angle and three-pitch arsenal to thrive as a starter whether on the weekend or midweek.
Another strong candidate for midweek starts is junior college transfer Michael Oh, who turned in five scoreless innings in the first game of UNC’s fall world series. A strong-bodied 6-foot-3 right-hander with a simple, repeatable arm action, Oh spotted up to both sides of the plate with an 84-86 fastball from a conventional high slot. The ball jumps on hitters thanks to its high spin rate (consistently in the 2500-2600 rpm range). He also has good feel for a downer curve at 74-77 with tight spin in the 2600-2800 range and a decent changeup.
“Honestly we didn’t really know what to expect from him. But guys have a hard time hitting him,” Fox said. “He’s got that high spin rate. You look up there and see the velo, but the hitters come back and go, ‘That ain’t right.’ It gets on them, and he’s a strike-throwing machine. So a lot of times it’s strike one and then he just competes, got an above-average breaking ball, throws to both sides of the plate. He’s pitched like that pretty much all fall. There’s a lot of options there with him.”
UNC’s bullpen will still be anchored by intrepid stopper Austin Love, who is shut down this fall after working 68 innings over 36 appearances in the spring and another 20 innings in the Cape Cod League. The 6-foot-3, 232-pound redshirt sophomore is a strong All-America candidate thanks to a fastball that reaches the mid-90s, a premium changeup and a solid slider. And battle-tested left-hander Caden O’Brien, a funky, deceptive changeup specialist, returns as a key bridge/setup guy.
One thing UNC lacked a year ago was a southpaw with a knockout breaking ball to come in against dangerous left-handed hitters. Fox hopes that sophomore Bennett Nance, freshman Nick James and/or fourth-year junior Chris Joyner can fill that role next spring. Nance, a lanky 6-foot-2, 175-pounder with a high three-quarter slot, probably needs to take another step with his velocity, which was 81-82 last in the fall world series along with a big 71-72 mph curveball that he has commands pretty well. James is a strike-thrower with a good arm, and the Tar Heels feel good about his potential. But he still has some work to do to prove himself. Joyner, who sat out last spring after transferring from UNC Wilmington, has a high-80s heater from a tough low three-quarter slot and a quality short, late slider. He seems well suited for a matchup lefty role.
BRINGING THE HEAT: 22 college baseball flamethrowers who topped 96 this fall
Other right-handed bullpen options include sophomores Connor Ollio, Josh Dotson and Davis Palermo; senior Andrew Grogan; junior low-slot guy Kyle Blendinger; junior college transfer Gage Gillian; redshirt freshman Austin Elliott; and freshman Joseph Charles. Those first five guys are all competitors with decent but not overpowering stuff, though Ollio seems like a candidate to take a step forward after a winter of rest (he’s looked tired this fall). Charles is a higher-upside 6-foot-3, 220-pound righty with a live fastball, though he’s still working to command it consistently. Gillian showed up on campus with a torn hamstring that has limited him this fall, but when he’s pitched, he’s been very tough. He's a fearless competitor, who attacks with his fastball and a hammer 12-to-6 curveball. Elliott is the real X-factor.
“Boy, he’s got good stuff,” Fox said. “He throws pretty much every pitch as hard as he can — his fastball and his curveball. If he throws strike one, I mean, our guys don’t hit him. It’s whether or not he cannot walk people. If he ever figures it out — and he’s getting close — I think if he goes out there and does it in a game early in the season, best case scenario, it’ll just validate to him that. Yes, he can do it. Our guys don’t like facing him. He’s just good stuff, power stuff, and it’s coming at you. … So I’m pulling hard for him. He could be a wild card for us. He’s 91-93. It’s got some life in it. It’s not upper echelon 90s, but it’s hard enough. And his breaking ball is his bread and butter. It’s a legit curveball; it’s not a slurve or a slider. His changeup’s hard, but it’s got some movement to it. He’s got three above-average pitches that if he can command even two of the three. He’s legit.”
The Tar Heels have some very big shoes to fill in the lineup, as first-rounder Michael Busch and mainstays Ike Freeman, Ashton McGee and Brandon Martorano are all gone. The aforementioned Harris, a hard-nosed 5-foot-9, 190-pound spark plug with speed and strength in his compact frame, is back to patrol center field as a senior. He provides some veteran presence.
Fox aptly describes him as “a tough little nut,” borrowing a favorite compliment of UNC basketball coach Roy Williams. But the two centerpieces of this lineup will be sophomores Aaron Sabato and Danny Serretti, who both earned freshman All-America honors in 2019.
Sabato (.343/.453/.696, 18 HR, 63 RBI) is simply one of the most fearsome sluggers in college baseball, a tough out with enormous right-handed power to all fields, which he showed off yet again with a monstrous two-run homer to left-center at the scrimmage I attended in late October.
Serretti (.299/.373/.424) is a switch-hitting doubles machine, who plays a very good shortstop. Any team in the country would love to build its lineup around that pair, but they are sure to receive heightened attention from opponents now that all the other veterans are gone. How they handle the added burden will be critical to UNC’s fortunes.
“We lost a ton of at-bats and a ton of games with Busch and McGee and Martorano and Ike, all those guys. I think we’re a work in progress, just a work in progress offensively,” Fox said. “I think we’ll see. With Aaron and Danny, we’ve got two highly touted sophomores that had a lot of success as freshmen. So for me, with my experience as a coach, that’s gonna go one of two ways. I’ve seen it go one of two ways. I don’t like having that much pressure on sophomores, but it is what it is. There wasn’t really any pressure on them last year because we had those veterans, so they just got plugged in there and did their things. Now, it’s gonna be different for you.”
There are some other veterans on this roster who have seen action in part-time roles but no other proven bell cows. Assuming Harris plays center, the two corner outfield spots are up for grabs, so fifth-year senior Dallas Tessar and redshirt sophomores Earl Semper and Angel Zarate will have opportunities for increased playing time. Semper is an athletic switch-hitter who took a medical redshirt last spring, but Fox said he’s taken a nice step forward this fall. Zarate had a great summer in the Coastal Plain League, getting hit after hit, and Fox said he has improved his speed and made huge strides on defense. True sophomore Will Schroeder, an athletic freak with huge raw power potential and good speed, could also factor into the mix, though he still has work to do with his offensive approach.
The gritty Tessar appeared in 52 games but logged just 61 at-bats last spring. He seemed to find a way to make an impact whenever he got the chance to play, whether by coming up with a key pinch-hit or laying down a good bunt or making a big play in the outfield. He’s been limited to DH duties this fall while working his way back from a torn labrum, but he still found a way to come through in the clutch at the scrimmage I caught, delivering a leadoff double in the final inning and then scoring the walk-off run.
“How could you not love him? He sat up there at that press table [in the postseason] and made that comment about being ready, and how that was his job— he got two or three of our biggest hits last year after not playing,” Fox said. “How could any coach not love that? It’s a living example of what you tell all of them. So we put his picture up with that quote in our locker room: ‘It’s my job to be ready. Sometimes you can blame whoever you want to but it’s your responsibility to be ready, you have to look yourself in the mirror.’ Of course you can say that quote, it doesn’t mean much if you don’t back it up, and he backed it up by being ready and producing.
"… To me, he’s our team leader just by his actions. You saw it today. He hasn’t had a great fall because he can’t run, he can’t dive, he can’t fall on the shoulder, can’t throw from the outfield. But he’s there every day, and he steps up there in a fall world series game that really matters to these kids. There he goes, he laces a double and his team wins. There’s another, there you go. I mean, he should probably be the one talking to the team in the locker room, not me.”
Another “program guy” that Fox can’t help but root for is junior Clemente Inclan, who recorded 22 at-bats a year ago. He will have a chance to win the third-base job next spring. Inclan has improved defensively, but hasn’t quite gotten his timing down at the plate this fall. Fox said the key for the super intense Inclan is to relax a little more, though he has shown encouraging signs of loosening up a bit this fall.
Fox described the third-base job as a wide-open competition between Inclan, sophomore Jake Holtzapple (who owns a pretty line-drive stroke), and freshman Patrick Alvarez, a 5-foot-7 dynamo who will also serve as Serretti’s primary backup at short.
“He’s a tough little kid, high school football player, and strong,” Fox said of Alvarez. “He’s just gotta learn how to calm down in the box because right now he kinda swings at everything. If he gets strike one on him, he gets a little anxious, but if he gets ball one, he’ll walk. He’ll pop a ball out now. He’s got some juice in his bat. Right now it’s just a little inconsistency, but every time we’ve led him off in these scrimmages, he walks. He’s tough to pitch to. We keep telling him, you’ve got a small strike zone, but you’re making it bigger. But he’s a competitor. If you ask Coach (Scott) Forbes, he’s going to play from Day 1 and not come off the field. That’s what he’s said from the time he committed to us: This kid’s gonna walk in here and play every day. It remains to be seen, but right now he’d probably play third if we started the season. But I want Inclan to play third. That’s just me wanting to reward a guy who’s sat there for two years but practices hard every day.”
Junior college transfer Mikey Madej looks like a sure bet to play second base, where he’s an instinctive defender with good actions. Fox, a former second baseman himself, said he could hit Madej ground balls all day, and he loves to watch Madej play because of his high motor and natural aptitude to learn. He’s also a switch-hitter with advanced bat-handling skills, sneaky pop and a mature approach at the plate.
Sabato and blue-chip freshman Tyler Causey should split the duties at first base and DH. Causey is a natural third baseman but arrived on campus with a shoulder issue that relegated him to first. At 6-foot-6, 190 pounds, Causey reminds Forbes of former Florida State star Drew Mendoza, but his smooth left-handed stroke reminds Fox of former UNC standout Colin Moran. He turned down big money in the draft to attend UNC, where he has a chance to be the next in a long line of first-round-caliber hitters.
It’s unclear who will take over behind the plate, where Martorano saw almost all the action last year. Sophomore Caleb Roberts seems like the natural successor, and Fox said he has worked hard on his defense this fall after volunteer assistant Jesse Wierzbicki (a former UNC catcher) lit a fire under him when he returned to campus. Roberts’ pretty left-handed stroke should get him in the lineup either behind the plate or in an outfield corner, but the Tar Heels would optimize their offensive potential if he proves able to handle the bulk of the catching duties.
Three freshmen are competing with Roberts for playing time behind the plate: Eric Grintz, Kyle Smith and Will Stewart. Grintz started off the fall slow offensively but has gradually improved, and he showed off a solid arm in the first game of the fall world series. Smith is a good athlete with some right-handed bat speed, and the left-handed-hitting Stewart is the most offensive of the three, though he’s a bit behind the other two defensively.
“We have four catchers, which we’ve never had before; three of them are freshmen,” Fox said. “So I think that’s our biggest question mark: who’s gonna emerge behind the plate? Honestly, I don’t think any of the three freshmen have been like, ‘It’ll be me.’ yet.”