The bullpen headlines North Carolina baseball in 2020, forging the Tar Heels a spot in D1Baseball.com's preseason top 25. Earning a spot at No. 23, North Carolina possesses what might be the best bullpen duo in all of college baseball, one year after reaching the super regional round and then being eliminated by Auburn.
Below are a few facts to consider when breaking down the 2020 North Carolina club:
2019 record: 46-19. RPI: 12.
Coach (record at school): Mike Fox (936-399-1, 21 seasons).
Ballpark: Bryson Field at Boshamer Stadium (4,100).
Postseason history: 32 regionals (active streak: 3), 11 CWS trips (last in 2018), 0 national titles.
NORTH CAROLINA FALL REPORT: How the Tar Heels are preparing for the 2020 season
In this preview of North Carolina's 2020 season, we've graded the Tar Heels in each characteristic of the game: Hitting, power, speed, defense, starting pitching, bullpen and experience/intangibles. But before we begin, let's present our projected lineup for North Carolina in 2020.
North Carolina's projected lineup
|C||Kyle Smith, Fr.||HS — Wilmington, N.C.|
|1B||Aaron Sabato, So.||.343/.453/.696||18||63||0|
|2B||Mikey Madej, Jr.||Tr. — Northwest Florida State JC|
|3B||Clemente Inclan, Jr.||.227/.394/.273||0||4||2|
|SS||Danny Serretti, So.||.299/.373/.424||3||45||4|
|LF||Angel Zarate, R-So.||.100/.182/.100||0||0||0|
|CF||Dylan Harris, Sr.||.268/.397/.423||7||29||5|
|RF||Caleb Roberts, So.||.227/.374/.280||0||17||2|
|DH||Tyler Causey, Fr.||.186/.265/.233|
North Carolina's projected weekend rotation/closer
|SP #1||Gianluca Dalatri, R-Jr.||1-1||2.25||32||35||8||0|
|SP #2||Max Alba, R-Fr.||DNP — injured|
|SP #3||Will Sandy, So.||2-2||5.52||58.2||41||31||0|
|Closer||Joey Lancellotti, Jr.||6-4||3.12||52||56||29||3|
Grading The Tar Heels: Just as scouts grade prospects using the 20-80 scouting scale, we use a 20-80 scale to evaluate teams in our top 25. A score of 50 in each category is average, relative to a typical NCAA tournament team; 55 is slightly above-average; 60 is above-average (plus); 70 is well above-average (plus-plus); 80 is top of the scale, historically strong. Accordingly, 45 is fringe-average or slightly below-average; 40 is below-average; 30 is well below-average; and 20 is the extreme in that direction.
The Tar Heels return just three proven hitters from last year’s super regional team, so they’ll be counting on a number of former part-time players to take big steps forward and newcomers to hit the ground running.
Dylan Harris, a dirtbag who always plays full throttle, excels at working deep counts (53 walks and 45 strikeouts last year), making him an excellent catalyst at or near the top of the lineup. Danny Serretti and Aaron Sabato are legitimate stars in the sophomore class; the switch-hitting Serretti has a quick line-drive stroke from both sides of the plate and should continue to rack up doubles. Sabato is simply one of the best hitters in the nation, a potential first-round pick as a draft-eligible sophomore.
🚨BREAKING🚨 @SabatoAaron can still crush baseballs.— Carolina Baseball (@DiamondHeels) October 2, 2019
And yes, that’s the sound of the ball denting the batters eye 420 feet away 👀 👀 #SCTop10 @BleacherReport @SInow @SportsCenter @espn @BaseballAmerica @UNC_Humor @awaytoworthy @DocHeelfire pic.twitter.com/ZcRw7eIy4v
Aside from that trio, there’s a lot of uncertainty here, but plenty of promise. Mikey Madej was a key addition from the junior college ranks. He's a switch-hitter with advanced bat-handling skills and a mature approach at the plate, making him a likely table-setter in one of the top two slots in the order in front of Serretti and Sabato.
The 6-foot-6, 190-pound Tyler Causey reminds associate head coach Scott 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 — and UNC is counting on him to provide immediate protection behind the sophomore stars.
Caleb Roberts looks like a breakout candidate as a sophomore thanks to his silky-smooth left-handed stroke and good pitch recognition (as evidenced by his 29-23 BB-K mark last year). Look for him to become a doubles machine this spring in the 5- or 6-hole.
There’s plenty of competition for the other three spots in the lineup, but hard-working upperclassmen Clemente Inclan, Angel Zarate, Dallas Tessar and Earl Semper all figure to get real opportunities to win everyday jobs after biding their time as bench players so far in their careers. 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, making him the front-runner for the left field spot. The gritty Tessar appeared in 52 games but logged just 61 at-bats last spring — but 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. His toughness and bat-handling skill are assets.
Inclan has some strength in his swing but needs to do a better job staying relaxed in order to fend off talented freshman Patrick Alvarez at the hot corner. Alvarez is a 5-foot-7 fireball with a quick stroke and a small strike zone, giving him a chance to be an impact player if he can become a little more consistent with his approach.
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Three more freshmen are competing with Roberts for playing time behind the plate: Kyle Smith, Eric Grintz and Will Stewart. The physical Grintz started off the fall slow offensively but has gradually improved, while Smith is a good athlete with some right-handed bat speed. And the left-handed-hitting Stewart is the most offensive of the three.
Obviously North Carolina has one of the nation’s very best sluggers in Sabato, who owns prodigious right-handed power and has a rare knack for putting that power to good use. But the Tar Heels lost their other big bopper in Michael Busch, plus other power threats like Brandon Martorano and Ashton McGee.
Harris has plenty of strength in his compact frame and should match or exceed last year’s seven-homer total. Causey has serious leverage in his stroke and projects to hit for big power as he matures, but it’s unclear how much that power tool will play as a freshman. Roberts has the strength to drive the ball more as a sophomore, but he’s a natural line-drive hitter.
This team figures to rely more on doubles and situational hitting than the long ball, with the obvious exception of Sabato.
UNC ran even less than usual last year, ranking 237th in the nation in stolen bases per game, but we expect them to be much more aggressive on the basepaths with a less powerful club this spring. Harris, Serretti, Madej and Alvarez are all at least solid- to above-average runners and capable of swiping double-digit bases if UNC cuts them loose. Zarate has worked to improve his speed. Zarate, Tessar and Semper are all decent runners as well. There aren’t any true burners here, but most of the Tar Heels are at least decent runners with sound instincts.
Defense was a liability for North Carolina last season, as errors tended to come in bunches, costing the Heels some important wins in ACC play. They ranked 140th in the nation with a .968 fielding percentage, and improving in that regard was a point of emphasis this fall.
UNC does have a high-end shortstop in Serretti, who has the range, arm strength and instincts to be one of the better defenders in the country. Madej is a human vacuum cleaner at second, giving UNC a potentially elite middle-infield tandem, and Harris is an aggressive center fielder who takes great routes.
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But the catching position is an unknown after the departure of Martorano, as UNC has four catchers for the first time Fox can remember. Roberts has finally started to focus on his defense the way UNC wants him to, but he still needs refinement. Smith and Grintz look like the most polished of the freshmen, though Stewart is the most offensive, so who knows how that competition will play out?
The Tar Heels should be strong at the outfield corners no matter who wins those jobs, and the same goes for third base, where Inclan and Alvarez are both plenty capable. Sabato and Causey could platoon at first base and DH; Causey is the more athletic defender and could wind up on the left side of the diamond as his career unfolds.
Starting Pitching: 50
There’s a wide range of potential outcomes for UNC’s rotation — it could be very good, but there’s significant risk as well. The biggest wild card is Gianluca 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 did not pitch in scrimmage action this fall while rehabbing from April hip surgery, but he started his throwing program late in the fall and is now working to build up his strength just in time for the season to start 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 this spring.
Max Alba also has a high ceiling but still has to establish himself as a Division I pitcher after missing last season with Tommy John surgery. He came back strong in the fall, working downhill at 92-93 with good life, a putaway breaking ball and good feel for a changeup.
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, a strong-bodied 6-foot-3 right hander with a simple, repeatable arm action. In five scoreless innings in our Fall World Series look, Oh spotted up to both sides of the plate with an 84-86 fastball from a conventional high slot, but 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.
The bullpen will be UNC’s greatest strength, led by twin pillars Joey Lancellotti and Austin Love, who might be the best relief duo in college baseball. UNC stretched Lancellotti out in the fall to give him a chance to compete for a starting role, but he’s just so valuable at the back of the bullpen that we expect he’ll wind up back in that role. With a 92-96 mph fastball and a filthy power slider in the mid-80s, Lancellotti has strikeout stuff and competes hard in tight spots.
The same is true of Love, a 6-foot-3, 232-pound redshirt sophomore with a fastball that reaches the mid-90s, a premium changeup and a quality slider. Like Lancellotti, he’s a bona fide All-America candidate, and both of them have proven they can work multiple innings at time, shortening the game when UNC has a lead. Battle-tested left-hander Caden O’Brien, a funky, deceptive changeup specialist, returns as a key bridge/setup guy who shined on the big stage of Omaha as a freshman, though he walked too many as a sophomore.
One thing UNC lacked a year ago was a southpaw with a knockout breaking ball to come in against dangerous left-handed hitters. Coach Mike Fox hopes that freshman Nick James and/or fourth-year junior Chris Joyner can fill that role next spring. 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-quarters slot and a quality short, late slider. He seems well suited for a matchup lefty role.
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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 (looked tired this fall).
Charles is a higher-upside 6-foot-3, 220-pound righty with a power fastball that could easily soar higher than its mid-90s peak in high school, and the breaking ball is a true swing-and-miss offering that is downright devastating when on. The key for him is refining his command.
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, a fearless competitor who attacks with his fastball and hammer 12-to-6 curveball.
Elliott is the real X-factor, with a lively 91-93 fastball, a vicious power curveball and a firm changeup that has solid movement. It’s just a matter of harnessing that exciting repertoire and throwing more strikes.
Dalatri, O’Brien and Lancellotti give UNC’s pitching staff a trio of veterans who have experienced the College World Series in 2018, and the lineup features three mainstays and several part-time players from last year’s super regional club. So there are some key players back in the fold who have proven they know how to win in the postseason. But UNC is also relying on a bushel of first-time starters in the lineup and inexperienced arms on the mound. How those players progress will ultimately determine if the Tar Heels can make another deep postseason run.