After busting down the door to Omaha for the first time in 22 years, Auburn returns a bushel of experience in the lineup and serious star power on the mound, as the No. 8 team in the country, according to D1Baseball.com's preseason top 25.
Below are a few facts to consider when breaking down the 2020 Auburn club:
2019 record: 38-28.
Coach (record at school): Butch Thompson (141-104 in 4 seasons)
Ballpark: Plainsman Park (4,100)
Postseason history: 22 regionals (active streak: 3), 5 CWS trips (active streak: 1).
AUBURN FALL REPORT: How the Tigers are preparing for the 2020 college baseball season
In this preview of Auburn's 2020 season, we've graded the Tigers 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 Auburn in 2020.
Auburn's projected lineup
|C||Matt Scheffler, Sr.||.260/.331/.342||2||28||5|
|1B||Rankin Woley, Sr.||.277/.336/.387||3||45||2|
|2B||Garrett Farquhar, Jr.||Tr. — Shelton State (Ala.) JC|
|3B||Brody Moore, So.||.333/.379/.444||0||4||0|
|SS||Ryan Bliss, So.||.281/.367/.369||3||37||11|
|LF||Judd Ward, Jr.||.272/.377/.393||5||34||5|
|CF||Kason Howell, So.||.262/.340/.307||0||28||14|
|RF||Steven Williams, Jr.||.247/.355/.413||9||36||3|
|DH||Conor Davis, Sr.||.290/.351/.448||8||36||2|
Auburn's projected weekend rotation/closer
|SP #1||Tanner Burns, Jr.||4-4||2.82||79.2||101||23||0|
|SP #2||Jack Owen, Jr.||4-2||2.75||68.2||59||14||0|
|SP #3||Bailey Horn, Jr.||4-2||5.97||37.2||31||20||0|
|Closer||Cody Greenhill, Jr.||2-3||3.45||57.1||44||18||12|
Grading the Tigers: 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.
Auburn’s offense under-performed for much of last season, finishing ninth in the SEC in batting and 10th in scoring. But seven everyday regulars are back in the fold, and there’s reason to believe many of them will take steps forward with another year of experience under their belts. It might not be a flashy offense, but Auburn figures to get plenty of competitive at-bats up and down the lineup.
The Tigers have a trio of gritty, athletic fire-starters with good bat-handling skills in Judd Ward, Ryan Bliss and Kason Howell, who could all compete for time in the top two spots in the batting order, but Auburn hopes all three can reduce their strikeout rates in 2020. Ward, a compact left-handed hitter with a nice line-drive, gap-to-gap approach, is a warrior in the batter’s box and could be the favorite for the leadoff spot. Bliss and Howell are contact-oriented hitters from the right side, but Howell in particular stood out this fall for his strength gains, making him an obvious breakout candidate.
Hitting coach Gabe Gross identified Rankin Woley as one of Auburn’s most improved hitters this fall, so look for a jump from last year’s decent production. Steven Williams and Conor Davis figure to be the centerpieces of the offense; Williams also put on good weight in the offseason and showed a much-improved ability to drive the ball middle-away.
Matt Scheffler’s calling card is his defense, but he also made noticeable strength gains after spending the summer working out with Williams and Howell. Junior college transfer Garrett Farquhar turned in one quality at-bat after another in the fall, and his line-drive stroke should play well in his first season at the Division I level. And Brody Moore looks poised to take a step forward as a sophomore after showing glimpses of offensive potential as a freshman.
Auburn ranked next-to-last in the SEC in home runs and slugging a year ago, and it lost its top two home run hitters in Edouard Julien and Will Holland. But Williams has light-tower power from the left side and could realistically double his eight-homer output from a year ago now that he’s added strength and made strides with his offensive approach. The physically mature Davis offers double-digit homer ability from the right side and has a knack for delivering the timely hit. It’s reasonable to expect Woley and Ward to hit for a little more power this year as well, though neither profiles as a true slugger. Freshman two-way talent Nate LaRue, the likely backup catcher, brings exciting bat speed and power potential from the right side, but it’s unclear how many at-bats he’ll log as a freshman, particularly since he could wind up as a key bullpen arm.
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Expect this to be more of a doubles team than a long ball squad.
The Tigers were an efficient base-stealing team a year ago, swiping 63 bags in 76 attempts (an 83 percent success rate). Howell (14-for-16) and Bliss (11-for-13) are the top two threats on the basepaths — both are above-average runners who pick their spots well. Ward is a solid-average to slightly above-average runner, while Moore and Farquhar move around fine, though neither is a burner. Scheffler also runs well for a catcher, showing fringe-average run times from home to first. But the speed game doesn’t figure to be a big part of Auburn’s attack, overall.
The Tigers were an average defensive team last spring, ranking 78th in the nation with a .973 fielding percentage, but their returning experience should translate to more defensive consistency in 2020. Scheffler is a mature defensive catcher who blocks and receives well and owns a strong, accurate arm and quick release, though LaRue offers even more arm strength. Howell and Ward are outstanding in the outfield, and Williams owns a cannon in right field. Farquhar is a fundamentally sound, reliable second baseman, and Moore is a fluid athlete who looks the part at the hot corner, though he could also slide to shortstop if needed. The biggest question is whether Auburn will move Bliss from second (where he was very good last year) to short; his arm is a little light for the position, but he can make up for it by aggressively charging the ball and getting rid of it quickly and accurately.
Starting Pitching: 65
Pitching looks like Auburn’s greatest strength in 2020, and it starts with the loaded weekend rotation. Tanner Burns should be one of the nation’s premier aces, with a 91-95 mph fastball, a putaway slider, solid changeup and good command. The key for him is maintaining his strength all season long, and coach Butch Thompson suggested that something as simple as an added emphasis on hydration could help him do that.
Jack Owen is a finesse lefty with advanced feel for an 86-90 fastball, a plus changeup in the low 80s and a decent curveball, and he proved himself as a reliable SEC starter last spring after transferring in from the junior college ranks.
Bailey Horn, a fourth-year junior lefty, is the big pick to click after working his way back from injury and coming on strong down the stretch last spring. Physical and athletic with a nice three-pitch mix, Horn was overpowering in our look this fall, pitching at 92-93 with a good slider at 81-82, and he owns a quality changeup as well.
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A third lefty, sophomore Brooks Fuller, also has starting experience (eight starts among his 20 appearances last year). Like Owen, Fuller has a long, loose arm action and good deception that makes his 86-89 mph fastball play up, and his calling card is a very nice big-breaking curveball at 75-78. Fuller looks like the favorite to serve as the midweek starter.
Auburn’s pitching staff is deeper than it has been in years, giving Thompson an exciting collection of weapons to complement one of the SEC’s premier closers in Cody Greenhill. A proven warrior who competes as hard as any pitcher in college baseball, Greenhill’s bread and butter are his lively fastball and his aggressiveness. The Tigers are still trying to figure out how best to deploy him to get the most out of him because he has tended to show premium velocity (think 95-97) in his first appearance of a weekend, then lesser stuff (maybe 89-90) in his second outing. Perhaps the answer is to use him once per weekend for multiple innings as a stopper/long reliever hybrid.
Auburn will certainly have enough arms in the bullpen that it shouldn’t need to rely on Greenhill to close out multiple games per week. Senior righty Ryan Watson has loads of experience and decent enough stuff — a nice downer breaking ball at 73-77 with good bite to go along with his 89-90 fastball. Another intriguing returning arm is sophomore left-hander Garrett Wade, the highest-profile member of last year’s recruiting class. Wade made seven starts and eight relief appearances as a freshman but logged just 33.1 innings, as spotty command held him back. He has a quick arm and a promising slider and changeup, making him something of an X-factor on this staff and a potential difference maker if he can refine his command and continue to “get comfortable,” as Thompson put it.
Sophomores Carson Skipper and Richard Fitts each got a taste of starting in SEC play last spring, and Thompson said both of them made jumps this fall. Skipper, a 6-3 lefty with an over-the-top Iron Mike-style delivery, worked downhill at 88-90 and showed excellent tumble and arm speed on his 80-83 changeup in our fall look. Fitts really stands out for his advanced command of a low-90s fastball, but he also mixes in a decent low-80s slider effectively.
Auburn’s strong recruiting class brought a bushel of reinforcements for the bullpen. Freshman Hayden Mullins is one of the biggest names in the class, a 6-foot lefty who has been up to 94 mph with feel for a breaking ball and good pitchability. Trace Bright, a 6-4 righty, has looked even better than the Tigers expected this fall, working at 90-92 with a promising breaking ball and the ability to land his changeup for strikes. Freshman righty Mason Barnett missed time in the fall with a stress fracture in his back but was up to 95 mph last year. LaRue owns a clean high three-quarters arm action and worked at 89-91 with a wicked hammer curveball at 78-79 in the fall.
Expect low three-quarters righty Blake Burkhalter to serve as another big bullpen weapon. He sat 89-92 with funk and life this fall and has good two-plane action on his 78-81 slider. Lefty Peyton Glavine, the son of Hall of Famer Tom Glavine, is a 5-11 bulldog with a longer three-quarters arm action and some front-side funk that makes his 87-89 fastball play up, and the pitch has good arm-side run when it’s down in the zone. He also showed feel for a nice fading changeup at 82.
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Two more junior college transfers to watch are Jackson Reynolds and Drew Baker, the latter of whom showed big-time arm strength in the fall along with command that remained a work in progress. A three-quarters righty with a short, quick arm action, Baker sat 91-94 and touched 95 in our fall look.
The regular season was a grind for Auburn last spring, but the Tigers showed admirable toughness and resilience, and their high character really carried them through the postseason to Omaha for the first time since 1997. Those attributes figure to remain major strengths once again because this team is loaded with experienced veterans who now know the way to Omaha. Expectations will be higher entering this season than they have been in a long time on the Plains, but this group has the makeup and leadership to thrive under the spotlight.