Georgia should be one of college baseball’s premier pitching-and-defense combos once again in 2020, giving the Bulldogs reason to hope this is the year they return to Omaha for the first time since 2008 and the No. 5 ranking in D1Baseball.com's preseason top 25.
Below are a few facts to consider when breaking down the 2020 Georgia club:
2019 record: 46-17.
Coach (record at school): Scott Stricklin (189-157-1, 6 seasons).
Ballpark: Foley Field (3,291).
Postseason history: 12 regionals (active streak: 2), 6 CWS trips (last in 2008), 1 national title (1990).
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In this preview of Georgia's 2020 season, we've graded the Bulldogs 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 Georgia in 2020.
Georgia's projected lineup
|C||Mason Meadows, Jr.||.190/.322/.295||3||15||1|
|1B||Patrick Sullivan, Sr.||.263/.350/.360||3||24||0|
|2B||Riley King, Jr.||.295/.403/.440||8||43||5|
|3B||Garrett Blaylock, Jr.||Tr. — St. John's River (Fla.) JC|
|SS||Cam Shepherd, Sr.||.231/.333/.386||8||33||7|
|LF||Tucker Bradley, Jr.||Redshirted (3 games)|
|CF||Randon Jernigan, So.||.248/.338/.301||1||12||11|
|RF||Connor Tate, So.||.270/.304/.459||3||19||0|
|DH||Chaney Rogers, Jr.||.256/.379/.338||1||13||0|
Georgia's projected weekend rotation/closer
|SP #1||Emerson Hancock, Jr.||8-3||1.99||90.1||97||18||0|
|SP #2||Cole Wilcox, So.||3-2||4.07||59.2||64||38||0|
|SP #3||C.J. Smith, Jr.||3-3||4.30||46||38||20||0|
|Closer||Ryan Webb, Jr.||1-0||3.75||24||27||11||1|
Grading the Bulldogs: 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.
Georgia was a middle-of-the-pack offensive club a year ago, and it must replace its top three hitters in the departed Aaron Schunk, LJ Talley and John Cable. This lineup isn’t loaded with star power, but it is well stocked with experienced, gritty veterans who should string together quality at-bats and hit situationally. The Bulldogs got a huge boost when Riley King and Cam Shepherd elected not to sign pro contracts last summer and instead return for another year in Athens. King is a tough out who makes consistent hard contact to all fields, and Georgia expects him to serve as a key run producer in the cleanup spot. Shepherd hit .307/.354/.452 as a freshman, but his offensive numbers dipped over the next two years. But Georgia can count on him to work counts, get on base and deliver timely hits, and his production figures to rebound as a battle-tested senior.
Randon Jernigan is a speedy slasher with a knack for working deep counts and putting the ball in play, making him a good fit in the leadoff spot. Tucker Bradley missed all but three games last spring after tearing the labrum in his non-throwing shoulder while chasing a fly ball, but coach Scott Stricklin said he thought Bradley might be the team’s best offensive player going into last season. He also said Bradley looks “better than ever” in the fall. Expect him to hit for average and rack up doubles in the 3-hole.
Fellow upperclassmen Chaney Rogers and Patrick Sullivan are seasoned blue-collar players who should turn in plenty of competitive at-bats even if they don’t post flashy numbers. Connor Tate, a redshirt sophomore, is a prime breakout candidate who was Georgia’s most consistent hitter in the fall. Garrett Blaylock, a bounceback from Vanderbilt who spent last year in the junior college ranks, is expected to serve as one of the offensive pillars this year as well. And 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 after transferring to Georgia at the semester break last year. He’s eligible and ready to go this spring, and Stricklin expects him to push for time in the outfield and vie for leadoff duties.
Schunk, Talley, Cable and Tucker Maxwell combined to hit 41 of Georgia’s 75 homers a year ago, and their departure leaves an obvious power vacuum — but there are several candidates to help fill that void. King and Shepherd combined to hit 15 long balls last year, and both offer obvious double-digit homer upside. Tate really started to tap into his intriguing raw power potential in the fall, making him another likely power source.
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Blaylock also showed promising right handed pop in the fall, and Rogers has some sneaky pop to the pull side. Sophomore catcher Shane Marshall put on 20 pounds of muscle and made a big jump at the plate this fall, making him a more offensive alternative to Mason Meadows at the backstop position.
Georgia has ranked near the bottom of the SEC in stolen bases each of the last two years, and steals don’t figure to be a big part of its attack this year either. But Jernigan is a legitimate speedster who should be able to put pressure on opposing defenses at the top or bottom of the lineup, and Bradley also has good speed and advanced base running instincts. Freshman spark plug Buddy Floyd brings additional speed off the bench, and his knack for putting the ball in play from both sides of the plate could earn him more regular playing time if one of the infield veterans should falter or get injured.
Pitching and defense have been the backbone of Georgia’s back-to-back regional hosting clubs, and that figures to be the case again in 2020. Georgia ranked ninth nationally in fielding percentage in 2018 and 11th in 2019 (.980), and most of the key playmakers are back. Shepherd has a strong case as the premier defensive shortstop in college baseball; he won the Rawlings Gold Glove Award for the nation’s top defensive shortstop after fielding .987 last year, and he did not commit an error in SEC play. Shepherd and the instinctive, strong-armed King give Georgia an elite double play tandem, half of a premium up-the-middle group.
Meadows is a valuable veteran leader behind the plate who handles the pitching staff very well and is a reliable receiver and blocker, while Marshall has a bazooka arm and very good receiving skills in his own right. Jernigan’s biggest asset is his exceptional defensive ability in center field, where he gets great jumps and uses his speed to cover abundant ground. Bradley is effectively another center fielder in left, and Tate is a good athlete with arm strength in right.
Georgia also has one of the nation’s best defensive first basemen in the 6-4 Sullivan, who has a great wingspan, quick feet and sure hands around the bag, helping him save the rest of the infield plenty of errors. And the coaching staff has been very pleased with Blaylock’s defense at the hot corner, where he’ll have to replace another high-end defender in Schunk. There is no weakness in this defense, which seems likely to be the best in college baseball this spring.
Starting Pitching: 70
There might not be a rotation in the country with more pure talent than Georgia’s, which is fronted by a pair of potential top-10 overall picks in flame-throwing righties Emerson Hancock and Cole Wilcox. Both of them attack with mid-to-high-90s fastballs (Wilcox repeatedly hit triple digits last year), and both of them have put on weight since last spring. Hancock’s four-pitch mix also includes an 83-86 mph slider and an 84-86 mph changeup that both flash plus and a solid 11-to-5 curveball at 75-78. Wilcox, a draft-eligible sophomore complements his top-of-the-charts fastball with a true power slider at 86-88.
C.J. Smith, a quick-armed three-pitch lefty with an 88-90 fastball, big-breaking 1-to-7 curve and quality changeup, pitched through a nagging back issue last spring and then spent the summer recovering, but he was back to 100 percent by the end of the fall. He’ll focus exclusively on pitching as a junior after arriving as a two-way player.
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Righty Will Proctor, who opened last season in the rotation before getting sidelined due to injury, had minor shoulder surgery in the offseason but is recovering well. 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. He figures to compete for midweek starts with freshman RHP Will Childers, who worked at 94-96 this fall with explosive life (high spin rate around 2500 rpm). 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 worked hard with pitching coach Sean Kenny on a spike curveball this fall, and it’s showing more velocity and better rotation.
The Bulldogs must replace Schunk (who recorded 20 saves over the last two years) and power-armed bulldog Zac Kristofak, the twin anchors of the bullpen over the last two years. Even so, this bullpen figures to be a major strength, especially as some of the talented young arms gain experience.
Georgia has an obvious closer candidate ready to thrive at the back end in Ryan Webb, a power lefty with a 90-93 fastball, quality curveball and changeup. He’ll be complemented by an exciting group of physical, flame-throwing young right-handers. Freshman RHP Jonathan Cannon really opened eyes in a fall scrimmage against Florida, striking out all three batters he faced with overpowering stuff. A 6-foot-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 even an excellent changeup with good arm speed at 86.
Fellow freshman righty Michael Polk worked at 92-94 and touched 95 in the same game, 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. 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 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 an out pitch for him.
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Then there’s redshirt freshman Garrett Brown, a 6-foot-7, 209-pound righty who is oozing with upside. Brown also sat 92-94 from a short three-quarters arm action, and he can miss bats with an 84-86 changeup.
Athletic sophomore righty Jack Gowen has taken a step forward since focusing exclusively on pitching from a conventional high three-quarters arm slot, after varying his slot from submarine to sidearm to over-the-top last year. He worked at 91-93 this fall with good feel for a nice, big-breaking three-quarters curveball at 74. 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 useful swing man because he fills up the strike zone.
The Bulldogs also have three seniors and a fourth-year junior who give this staff valuable veteran presence and additional depth. Righty Logan Moody sits at 88-90 and bumps 92 along with a short cutter at 84-85. Six-foot-4 righty Trevor Tinder works at 86-91 with a decent 11-to-5 curveball in the mid-70s. Left-hander Justin Glover attacks at 88-89 with advanced feel for his 77-79 slurve and 78 mph changeup. And Georgia could also take more advantage of Bradley’s two-way ability this year because he’s up to 92 mph from the left side with plenty of deception and the ability to change arm angles, as well as a dogged competitive streak.
Eight of Georgia’s nine projected everyday players are third-, fourth- or fifth-year players who know how to handle the rigors of the SEC and maintain their poise in tight spots. Hancock and Smith are proven weekend starters, anchoring a staff that will be counting upon a number of unproven young arms, but there’s good veteran leadership in the bullpen as well.
After hosting back-to-back regionals but failing to win either of them, this group of Bulldogs is hungry to get the program over the hump to Omaha for the first time since 2008. And there’s plenty of reason to believe this is the year they do just that.