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Aaron Fitt | | February 5, 2020

Georgia baseball enters 2020 led by a cadre of flame-throwers

A look at the top college baseball matchups you don't want to miss before conference play

JACKSONVILLE, FL  Scott Stricklin prepped me before I made the trip to see Georgia this fall: I wouldn’t see his top draft-eligible power arms. Flame-throwing righties Emerson Hancock and Cole Wilcox — two strong candidates to be drafted in the top half of the first round next June — were both shut down to get some extra rest, and so were likely 2020 rotation mates C.J. Smith and Will Proctor. Hard-throwing lefty Ryan Webb, the favorite for the closer job, also didn’t throw in Georgia’s scrimmage against Florida in Jacksonville on Nov. 1.

And yet, I walked out of the Baseball Grounds of Jacksonville feeling like the UGA arms I had just seen could match up with just about anybody. Indeed, even without those five big veteran arms, the Bulldogs largely went toe-to-toe with Florida’s parade of velocity — and the insanely talented Gators threw all of their big guns. It was a sign that Georgia will remain very deep on the mound even after losing four key arms from a team that rode premium pitching and defense to the No. 4 national seed last year.

“We do have depth on the staff, and we lost quite a few guys from last year’s pitching staff: Tony Locey and Tim Elliott were starters, then Aaron Schunk and Zac Kristofak were the two biggest guys in our bullpen,” said Stricklin, Georgia’s seventh-year head coach. “So we have some roles to fill, but we feel like our freshman class is loaded with talent, a lot of big arms, and we saw in the fall that these guys can really pitch too. We’ve just got a lot of really good arms that are going to pitch for us. The nice thing is I don’t think they necessarily have to go into a big role, but they may work their way into the mix.”

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Georgia’s most impressive performance of the night came from freshman right-hander Jonathan Cannon, who struck out all three batters he faced in the sixth inning. Josh Rivera chased a slider down and away, Jordan Butler flailed at an elevated 96 mph fastball and then Cory Acton froze on an 85 mph slider.

A 6-6, 207-pounder with a lightning-quick arm, Cannon pounded away at 94-95 and bumped 96, flashed a plus slider at 82-85 and used an excellent changeup with good arm speed at 86.

“Jonathan Cannon was absolutely lights-out, and his last few outings he was like that,” Stricklin said. “Originally we thought he may end up being a starter for us, but with Wilcox and Hancock and C.J. Smith, and we feel Will Proctor’s gonna be healthy, that’s what we hope will be our starting rotation.

"Ryan Webb is an elite arm, we feel like he’s going to be a high draft, a left-handed guy, think he could be the back-end guy. Cannon was 91-93 touching 4 early, then last three times out it was 5s and 6s, and it’s all strikes, and a really good slider and changeup. His stuff reminds me of Aaron Schunk with more velocity. Schunk was 90-92, filled up the zone with three pitches. Cannon’s doing the same thing but it’s 95-96. So he could be a candidate to be that back-end guy, or maybe give him the ball in the seventh and let him finish the game.”

Cannon was followed by another exciting freshman, athletic 6-3, 205-pound righty Michael Polk, who struck out one in a 1-2-3 seventh. Polk worked at 92-94 and touched 95, working downhill from a high three-quarters slot with big-time extension. He also showed the makings of a quality curveball at 77 and an advanced 83 mph changeup that he was comfortable throwing right-on-right. He’ll be a key building block for the future and could log valuable innings as a setup man or possibly a midweek starter as a freshman.

The same is true of fellow freshman righty Will Childers, who didn’t pitch against Florida but has been 94-96 with explosive life (high spin rate around 2500 rpm), per Stricklin. His breaking ball was inconsistent in high school, which is one reason he’s in college and not pro ball right now, but he’s working with pitching coach Sean Kenny on a spike curveball this fall. It’s showing more velocity and better rotation.

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Freshman righty Brandon Smith is a little bit more of a project, but he also has a high ceiling because his power arm really works. He sat 92-94 in a rough four-run inning against Florida, but his command was erratic. He needs to refine his strike-throwing ability and become more consistent with his 74-76 mph curveball, but he did show some feel for an 81 mph changeup that served as the out pitch on his strikeout of Florida’s Nathan Hickey.

Then there’s redshirt freshman Garrett Brown, a 6-7, 209-pound righty who is oozing with upside. Brown also sat 92-94 from a short three-quarters arm action, and his second pitch appeared to be a changeup at 84-86, which he used to record two strikeouts. It helped him minimize the damage after allowing a run and having men on the corners with one out.

“Garrett Brown has a spaghetti-loose arm, has been up to 96 for us. The potential’s all there for him to be a superstar,” Stricklin said. “He redshirted last season, needed to gain weight and get stronger, has put on 20 pounds. Now it’s kind of getting comfortable with that weight on him. Brown and Smith are both gonna be in the mix to have really important innings, but how many depends how consistent they are in the zone.”

I also saw good velocity from athletic sophomore righty Jack Gowen, who worked at 91-93 with good feel for a nice, big-breaking three-quarters curveball at 74. Last year he would shift his slot from submarine to sidearm to over the top, but he had a hard time finding consistency. Now he’s focusing exclusively on pitching from a more conventional high three-quarters slot, and his ball is heavy.

Another sophomore righty, Darryn Pasqua, has a long, loose three-quarters arm action and attacked the zone at 88-90 with a solid sweeping slurve at 76-77 and a serviceable changeup. A former true walk-on, who showed up at tryouts as a complete unknown after a year on campus as an engineering student, Pasqua has turned himself into a candidate for some midweek starts because he fills up the strike zone.

The Bulldogs also threw three seniors who give this staff valuable veteran presence and additional depth. Righty Logan Moody started and worked a scoreless frame, sitting at 88-90 and bumping 92 along with a short cutter at 84-85. Six-foot-4 righty Trevor Tinder was 86-91 and touched 91 with a decent 11-to-5 curveball at 75 mph in his scoreless inning, which included two strikeouts. And left-hander Justin Glover worked a quick 1-2-3 eighth, attacking at 88-89 with advanced feel for his 77-79 slurve and 78 mph changeup.

“Right now, you could say Glover might be our most dependable guy. What he did there in the eighth inning against Florida, that’s basically what he’s done the last two years,” Stricklin said. “He’s a senior and kind of acts like it. It’s been fun to watch him grow up. Last year he was a factor for us, and this year he’s definitely going to be at least a matchup left-hander down the stretch. But he throws so many strikes you could see him close out some games.”

Hancock and Wilcox, of course, could form the best 1-2 punch in college baseball this year with high-90s fastballs (Wilcox repeatedly hit triple digits last year) and putaway sliders. Both of them have put on weight since last spring, and they’re in great shape right now, throwing bullpen sessions in front of hordes of scouts now that scrimmages are over.

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Smith, a quick-armed three-pitch lefty, pitched through a nagging back issue last spring and then spent the summer recovering, but Stricklin said he’s back to 100 percent now too. He’ll focus exclusively on pitching as a junior after arriving as a two-way player. Proctor had minor shoulder surgery in the offseason but is extending his long toss program now and looks very good. His calling card is a hard low-80s breaking ball that Stricklin calls “a sizzler” because the catcher can hear the seams breaking the wind as it arrives.

Georgia will back up that marquee pitching staff with a top-notch defense once again after ranking 11th in the nation with a .980 fielding percentage a year ago. Getting shortstop Cam Shepherd back as a senior was a huge boon for the Bulldogs, as Shepherd won the Rawlings Gold Glove Award for the nation’s top defensive shortstop after fielding .987.

“He’s the best defensive shortstop in the country. He won the Gold Glove for a reason — the guy did not make an error in the SEC, I don’t think that’s ever been done before,” Stricklin said. “He’s so reliable, catches everything. The bat came on late, hit seven home runs. We thought we were gonna lose him, but he just made the decision he wanted to come back as a senior. He loves it here and wants to have a big senior year. We’re thrilled to have him back, certainly will be a main factor in our lineup.”

Georgia has another standout defender in fifth-year senior Patrick Sullivan, whom Stricklin calls the best defensive first baseman he’s ever coached. The 6-4 Sullivan has a great wingspan, good feet around the bag and sure hands that have helped him save his infielders from countless errors in his collegiate career. He also turns in competitive veteran at-bats, having hit .271 last year with more walks than strikeouts.

Fourth-year junior second baseman Riley King gives Georgia a third rock-solid veteran on the infield, as well as a key run producer in the heart of the order. King hit .295/.403/.443 with eight homers and 43 RBIs a year ago, and his value to this team goes well beyond the numbers.

“He is just a really good baseball player that plays like his hair’s on fire all the time. It’s fun to watch him play,” Stricklin said. “He’s the guy that when the scouts come to watch, they always come away saying, ‘Man I love Riley King.’ He sprints on and off the field at all times, always has a smile on his face. The joke is Riley only has good days and great days, that’s it. You just want to be around him. He’s a glue piece for us and certainly one of our better players.

"He has a really good approach, can hit the ball the other way, doesn’t strike out much, just makes a lot of hard contact. When the wind gets going a little bit in the spring, he could maybe be a double-digit home run guy.”

Georgia lost four of its main power sources from a year ago in Aaron Schunk, LJ Talley, John Cable and Tucker Maxwell, who combined to hit 41 of the team’s 75 home runs. Redshirt sophomore right fielder Connor Tate (.271/.307/.429) is a prime breakout candidate and is expected to help replace some of that power production. Stricklin said he was perhaps the team’s most consistent hitter in the fall, and his pop has really started to emerge.

Junior Chaney Rogers, who can play anywhere in the outfield or at first base, also has the ability to hit for some power to the pull side as well as the opposite field. He does all the little things well to help his team win.

Junior college transfer Garrett Blaylock, a Division I bounce-back who spent his freshman year at Vanderbilt, has also shown some right-handed pop this fall and played good defense at third base, where he has big shoes to fill with the departure of Schunk.

Another newcomer who should factor into the infield mix is freshman Buddy Floyd, a 5-7, 160-pound dynamo with high-end athleticism and legitimate switch-hitting ability. He’s got a very bright future in Athens and figures to serve as a valuable utility player as a freshman, but he’s polished enough to make a bigger impact if given the opportunity.

“He’s 5-foot-7 but plays like he’s 6-foot-5. He’s one of those guys that can really play,” Stricklin said. “A lot of scouts have told us, ‘Hey coach, you’re gonna have a hard time keeping him off the field because he can really defend and he plays hard.’ His hands and feet are so good. He’s a plus-plus defender at second base, a switch-hitter, a tough out. Just a really good baseball player. If he were six foot he would have been a top-three-round pick. He plays with a chip on his shoulder because he’s always had to. He’s fun to watch.”

Junior Cole Tate, Connor’s twin brother, adds to the infield depth. He can ably play shortstop, second base and third, making him a nice utility piece.

The Bulldogs look strong behind the plate between fourth-year junior Mason Meadows and 6-4 sophomore Shane Marshall. Junior-college transfer Kaden Fowler serves as the third catcher, though he’s likely to see more action as a left-handed DH candidate or perhaps in a corner outfield spot.

Meadows endured a horrific injury against LSU last year when a foul tip hit his right eye, sidelining him for a few weeks and hindering his offense upon his return. He’s worked his way back to his old self and will serve as a valuable veteran leader behind the plate. But Marshall will push him hard for playing time after putting on 20 pounds of muscle and making a big jump.

“Marshall can really, really catch and throw, his arm strength is as good as anybody in the country behind the plate,” Stricklin said. “So the plan is to let them both catch early and have a competition for time, and when we get to SEC play, one of them will probably catch two out of three. That’s a luxury to have.”

Another key veteran coming back from injury is outfielder Tucker Bradley, who missed all but three games last spring after tearing the labrum in his non-throwing shoulder while chasing a fly ball. Stricklin said he thought Bradley might be the team’s best offensive player going into last season, and he said Bradley looks “better than ever” now, though he missed the Florida scrimmage after tweaking his hamstring. Bradley could also see high-leverage innings out of the bullpen because he’s up to 92 mph from the left side with plenty of deception and the ability to change arm angles.

The Georgia hitter who had the best day against Florida is sophomore outfielder Randon Jernigan, who worked a nine-pitch at-bat against Tommy Mace that ended in an HBP, laced an 83 mph slider off the right-center wall for a triple, singled through the right side on a high heater and scored two runs. He’s a high-energy speedster who could serve as a table-setter atop the lineup or help turn the lineup over from the nine-hole — but his calling card is his premier defense.

“Defensively he’s as good as there is. He’s made some unbelievable plays tracking down balls in center or left,” Stricklin said. “He can run so well, gets great jumps on balls. He’s a defense-first player, but the bat has started to come around. He had stretches last year he would swing and miss a lot, not having very good at-bats, quite frankly freshman at bats. But the game has slowed down for him.”

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Bradley, Jernigan and Connor Tate seem to be the likeliest trio in Georgia’s outfield, in some permutation, but Fowler could also be a factor. Also keep an eye on redshirt sophomore Ben Anderson, who hit .361 in 202 at-bats as a freshman at Furman but had to sit out last spring (and both outside scrimmages this fall) after transferring to Georgia at the semester break last year. He’ll be eligible and ready to go in the spring, and Stricklin expects him to push for time in the outfield and vie for leadoff duties. He hits the ball the other way well and has some pop in his lefty stroke.

“We’re gonna play probably 13 or 14 position players pretty consistently and will pitch 10 or 11 guys pretty consistently,” Stricklin said. “So we feel like we’ve got the depth, we don’t have to wear people out. I am excited about this club.”

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