In 2016, Alabama Crimson Tide baseball, after a hot start and being ranked No. 21 at one point, team missed the NCAA Tournament for the second year in a row in 2016. The team finished with a 32-26 overall record, and went 15-15 in the SEC. Many felt that a .500 SEC mark would be good enough to receive a bid. A late-season swoon, and a poor showing in Birmingham ultimately undid the Tide, however. After being rejected by the selection committee and amid pressure from many fans, coach Mitch Gaspard chose to resign. Mitch Gaspard did land on his feet though, and is now the associate head coach at Kansas State.
Meet the new coaching staff
Gaspard’s replacement would be Greg Goff, who Alabama hired away from Louisiana Tech. Goff hit the ground running assembling a staff staff, adding Terry Rooney (head coach of Central Florida,) as pitching coach and associate head coach; Jake Wells as an assistant; Derek Simmons as volunteer coach; Michael Chadwick as Director of Operations; and Garrett Walters as graduate assistant. Athletic trainer Joe Hoeffer and strength and conditioning coach Lance Ancar were the only holdovers from the previous staff. Goff has SEC experience as an assistant at Kentucky, and he staffed his coaching ranks with SEC veterans and those with baseball experience throughout the south.
Jake Wells played for Goff at Montevallo and coached under him at La Tech. He has been head coach at Marion Institute and an assistant at Mississippi State. Derek Simmons played two years under Goff at Montevallo before transferring to Georgia State to finish his eligibility. The Atlanta area product coached at Central Michigan and Kennesaw State, as well as coached Team USA 18-and-under teams in the summer. Terry Rooney was a pitcher at Radford before starting his coaching career. Prior to being in charge at Central Florida, Rooney coached under Paul Mainieri at both Notre Dame and LSU. He previously had stops at George Washington, James Madison (Presidential Tour), Old Dominion, and Stetson. Garrett Walters is the older brother of ‘Bama pitcher Jake Walters and played at Louisiana-Monroe before coming to Tuscaloosa for graduate school.
Goff inherited a team of players that he had not recruited, and for the most part knew next to nothing about. The lone exception being freshman outfielder Logan Carey, who was set to enroll at Louisiana Tech, but followed Goff to Tuscaloosa to play for the Tide.
The coaching staff used the fall workouts and practices to get to know the team and to implement their policies and philosophies. Goff is a hands-on, hard-nosed, taskmaster, and operates with a non-stop motor. The fall practices were high energy with little down time and a lot of attention given to details. Coach Goff seems to favor grinding teams that bunt, steal bases, hit-and-run and have a high on-base-percentage, while pitching well and playing good defense. He has been heard to say, “I’m not looking for the best nine, I’m looking for the nine that play my way.”
The Tide has a core group returning that should bode well for a successful season. Senior right-handed pitcher Nick Eicholtz was a 13th round draft pick by the Miami Marlins, but decided to come back, giving ‘Bama a true frontline starter. Eicholtz had a 4-3 record and a 2.30 ERA in 66 innings last season. Junior righty Jake Walters returns as well, and he leads the team in strikeouts with 84 over 84 innings with a 5-4 record (2.67 ERA.)
Sophomores Chandler Taylor and Cobie Vance, with junior Chandler Avant, are the big names returning on the offensive side. Taylor blasted nine home runs while hitting .274 and lead the team in walks, on-base-percentage, slugging percentage, triples, total bases, and runs driven in. Vance finished with a .258 average with three home runs and 23 driven in. Avant missed the last third of the season after breaking his ankle, and finished with a .278 average and 15 doubles. Look for these three to lead the way and all should have big seasons.
Based on how fall practice played out the opening day lineup will probably look like this:
- C Kyle Kaufman (JUCO)
- 1B Cody Henry and/or junior Hunter Alexander (JUCO, Alexander can also fill the DH role)
- 2B Cobie Vance
- SS Chandler Avant
- 3B Connor Short
- RF Chandler Taylor
- Sophomore Gene Woods, will most likely start in either CF or LF.
- Sophomore Sam Finnerty or freshman Logan Carey will battle for the other outfield spot. If Finnerty gets the nod, he would be more likely to play left field, while Carey could man either center or left. Senior Hunter Webb would have most likely started in center field, but has decided to give up baseball.
Bench / position battles
Senior Tanner DeVinny will battle for the catching position with Kaufman, as will R-FR Alex Webb and senior Taylor Poe. Two-sport outfielder and Tuscaloosa native, sophomore Keith Holcombe has a lot of ground to make up after coming over to baseball after the Tide’s loss in the National Championship game. Freshman infielder John Trousdale from Rogersville, AL looks to be the utility infielder and will fight for playing time. Tuscaloosa’s Zack Coker is a sophomore second baseman-third baseman that will also look for playing time.
Eicholtz appears to be the Friday night starter, with Walters again holding down the Saturday slot. The Sunday starting spot looks to be a battle between a pair of sophomores. Lefty Dylan Durate pitched in 21 games for the Tide in relief last year. Right-hander Brock Love pitched 30 innings in 11 games last season, before being lost with an arm injury. Love tallied 33 strikeouts on the season and had a 3.30 ERA. The one that doesn't get the weekend spot could fill the midweek starter position.
The bullpen is a mix of veterans a lot of very young players. Redshirt freshman Davis Vainer should begin in the closer roll that Thomas Burrows held down for the past three seasons. Junior college transfer RHP Garrett Suchey, freshman LHP Sonny Potter, freshman LHP Nathan Altstadt, freshman LHP Garret Rukes, freshman RHP Deacon Medders, sophomore Kyle Cameron, from Tuscaloosa, as well as Finnerty should all figure in the bullpen plans. Juniors Zac Rogers, Tyler Adams and Tyler McMurray all bring experience and will also battle for innings. RS senior Mike Oczypok is back for his final campaign after recovering from two Tommy John surgeries.
Individual workouts have already begun, and full team practice will start on January 27th. The season opens on Friday, February 17th with the first of 21 straight games at home to open the season. The first road game is a trip to Birmingham to play Birmingham University on Tuesday, March 21st. Presbyterian College is the first team to come to the New Joe for three games, February 17-19. Alabama should be able to build some momentum with the home slate to start the year.
It should be an interesting year at the Capstone. The team should have a stellar record heading into SEC play, but the schedule makers did them no favors in league play. The Tide drew South Carolina, Vanderbilt, Florida, and Missouri from the Eastern division. USCe, Vanderbilt, and Florida will all be top 10 teams, and Missouri has a likely top-five draft pick in pitcher Tanner Houck. To say nothing of the vicious West that will feature perennial powers Mississippi State, Arkansas, Ole Miss, as well No. 19 Texas A&M and No. 5 LSU.
Goff and staff have hit the recruiting trail hard and already have several commitments for the next three classes, 2018, 2019 and 2020.
Plan on coming out this season and checking out the team, they should be exciting.
Roll Tide, ‘Bama Baseball Fever, Catch It!
You can follow Roger on Twitter and get inning-by-inning updates and analysis during games. He also harasses the AL-DOT & City of Tuscaloosa into actually finishing road construction throughout town.