After COVID-19 shut their 2020 season down, Butch Thompson’s squad is eager to get back on the field. With the season starting on Friday, here’s a look at what to expect from the Tigers in 2021.
One of the many changes that COVID-19 brought to baseball was a massive reduction in the number of players drafted, dropping from 40 rounds to only five. Thus, the Tigers return the vast majority of starters, with only four players from the 2020 squad signed professional deals.
“This is the deepest roster we’ve had since we’ve been here.” said Thompson, who is in his sixth season at Auburn. “It’s going to be really neat, to try to get more people at-bats than we ever have.”
The most glaring difference from last year's team will be seen on the mound. Senior southpaw Jack Owen is the only returning starter from last year’s weekend rotation, as Tanner Burns and Bailey Horn were both drafted into the AL Central. Owen holds a 2.91 ERA over the last two seasons. Though, Owen is nursing an injury to his throwing hand and will miss the first few weeks.
The second spot will be taken by converted closer Cody Greenhill. Despite not having a start, he has pitched 128.2 innings as a Tiger, and has shut-down stuff, as batters only his .232 off of him.
The third spot is technically up for grabs. Junior Richard Fitts is the most likely option, as his low 90's sinker turned into a mid-to-high 90s four-seamer in 2020. He’s currently listed as the number 15 prospect for this year's MLB draft on MLB Pipeline’s ranking. Sophomore Mason Barnett would be next in line to start, but he looks to be the replacement for Greenhill as closer. Barnett boasts a four pitch mix with great depth on his breaking balls.
As for the bullpen, Thompson and pitching coach Tim Hudson will use a committee of Carson Skipper, Brooks Fuller, Seb Thomas and Blake Burkhalter to close out games. Skipper will see the most innings from this bunch He posted a .89 WHIP in 9.0 innings last year. However, we may see a whole variety of relievers throughout the year, as COVID-19 concerns will continue to plague coaches throughout the season.
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Another change will take place behind the plate, as stalwart backstop Matt Scheffler signed a free agent deal with his hometown Mariners. Nate LaRue looks to start at the catcher’s spot this season, as he did catch a few mid-week games last year. While his defense was not entirely impressive in those stints, the coaching staff believes he can be an everyday catcher for this squad. Ryan Dyal, fresh off Tommy John surgery, may also catch a few innings, but might be relegated to a DH role.
The entire 2020 outfield, made up of Judd Ward, Steven Williams, and Kason Howell, all return to Plainsman Park this season. Together, they had an average slash line of .316/.395/.523 in 2020. Look for Ward to become more consistent of a hitter this season, and his solid walk rate should help the Tigers score at the top of the order. Williams will return his great pop into the middle of the lineup.
The infield returns Rankin Woley at the hot corner, Ryan Bliss at shortstop, and both Garrett Farquhar and Brody Moore at second. Moore appeared to have a great fall camp, so he appears to be the primary choice in the lineup, but that position battle may go on all season. Highly touted freshman Cole Foster will most likely also see some appearances this season.
Thompson has a platoon of players to fill the first base and designated hitter roles, including two-sport athlete John Samuel Shenker, and JUCO transfer Bryson Ware.
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