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Early look at the 2023 baseball roster


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si.com
 

An early look at the 2023 Auburn baseball roster

Lindsay Crosby
9-11 minutes

You'd think losing eight current players to MLB, as well as a key incoming transfer, would have had Auburn baseball head coach Butch Thompson disappointed with the numerous holes opened up in the roster, but Thompson was excited that they are getting to pursue their dreams.  "That's program development. They're supposed to come through here, and I want every person to get their degree and go to pro ball, and that's happening," he said. "You love these boys, and they give us so much," Thompson said. "When you see them develop like that, man, that's the goal."

Auburn's drafted players include key relievers RHP Blake Burkhalter (Round 2C, Atlanta Braves) and LHP Carson Skipper (Round 11, Colorado Rockies), most of the weekend rotation in RHPs Mason Barnett (Round 3, Kansas City Royals) & Trace Bright (Round 5, Baltimore Orioles), LHP Hayden Mullins (Round 12, Boston Red Sox), and hitters 1B Sonny DiChiara (Round 5, Los Angeles Angels), 3B Blake Rambusch (Round 15, Seattle Mariners) and SS Brody Moore (Round 17, St. Louis Cardinals). Additionally, incoming transfer RHP Jonathan Brand of Miami (OH), who was expected to compete for a weekend starting spot, was selected in the 8th round by the Boston Red Sox and is expected to sign. 

Now that we know the eight draftees all plan to forgo their remaining eligibility and begin their professional careers, we can begin piecing together Auburn's 2023 roster. In a major coup, Auburn managed to get all of their incoming recruits to campus, no easy feat when you have five players who went through the USA Baseball prospect development pipeline. 

Catcher Ike Irish, the headliner of the group, was projected as a Top 100 talent, with centerfielder Chris Stanfield & LHP Zach Crotchfelt inside the Top 200 and RHP Hayden Murphy and Alabama's 2022 Gatorade Player of the Year, LHP Drew Nelson, receiving interest from scouts but being firm in their commitment to Auburn. “We have a good class coming in, but we had four guys that we thought would all be tough to get to school. We don't get one of the four, two of the four, three of the four. We get all four guys coming in,” said Thompson.

INFIELD

Returning in the infield will be switch-hitter Cole Foster, expected to switch from 2B to SS with the graduation and drafting of SS Brody Moore, and catcher Nate LaRue, who spurned multiple overtures from MLB teams during the draft process. Joining them will be junior college addition Caden Green (.425 w/ 13HRs & 49 RBIs at Seminole State) and transfer 1B Cooper McMurray from Kansas (.248 w/ 9 HRs). 

McMurray will compete with returner Cam Hill for first base duties, with Ike Irish competing with Ryan Dyal for backup catching duties and Green competing with senior Mason Land and sophomore Brady Moss for third base.  True freshman Irish is an early favorite for occasional DH duties - he's considered a rather polished offensive contributor for a freshman, with a contact-oriented, line drive swing and gap-to-gap power from the left hand side.  

The coaching staff is particularly high on Kansas transfer McMurray, a 6'4, 250lb rising redshirt sophomore with noteworthy power. Playing first base all year, the lefty hitter committed zero errors in 287 chances, and could work in the outfield in a pinch. "You want them to play as much athletically as you can," Thompson said. "Because only one person can DH. So you want them to be able to play the field as much as they possibly can." 

Getting a player with a mix of experience and remaining eligibility is a major win for Thompson, who can rely on more than one season out of the Tusla, Oklahoma native. "I think that's a huge piece because now this kid's got potentially three years in our program, and he's played at a high level. Three years, left-handed power: It really covered the checklist."

OUTFIELD

Auburn's outfield has quickly transitioned from a spot of questionable depth to a strength. Finishing the 2022 season, left to right, was freshman LF Mike Bello, CF Kason Howell, and RF Bobby Peirce. Neither Howell or Peircewere selected in the draft, with Peircedeclining multiple overtures from MLB scouts and front offices. There's a belief amongst the program that a quality year in the SEC can catapult Bobby Peirceinto an early Day 2 draft selection, and he intends to put together a full final season - he hit .284 w/ 10HRs and a .912 OPS despite not seizing a full-time starting spot in right field until early April. 

Joining them are two veterans with starting experience, seniors Bryson Ware and Josh Hall. Adding to this group are two newcomers, the freshman centerfielder Stanfield and Kent State transfer Justin Kirby (.323 w/ 15 HRs & 45 RBIs). Competition for starting roles will be fierce in fall practice, with Peirce, Kirby, and Howell the early favorites but Stanfield and Bello making strong cases for inclusion. 

Stanfield, described as a "true centerfielder" by Auburn assistant coach and recruiting coordinator Karl Nonemaker, is an early favorite to seize playing time by flashing his loud tools. Seen as a plus-plus runner, his blazing speed enables him to chase down balls from gap to gap and cover a lot of ground defensively, with his plus arm suppressing the scoring opportunities on base hits. 

Offensive questions may be what initially holds him back from starting early in the season as a true freshman - he has legit bat speed from the right side of the plate but there are some swing-and-miss concerns and he'll need to add some strength to his 6'2, 190 frame to upgrade his current gap power into home runs.    

PITCHING

It's no surprise that Auburn's pitching rotation took the brunt of the losses from the MLB Draft, with three starters in Mullins, Barnett, and Bright all leaving for MLB and incoming transfer Brand being intercepted before making it to campus. Auburn's got a returning ace in junior Joseph Gonzalez, who followed up a 7-4 2022 season w/ a 3.22 ERA by making the USA Collegiate National Team and representing team USA at Honkbalweek Haarlem in the Netherlands over the summer. 

The Puerto Rico native is joined in the weekend rotation by returning grad student LHP Tommy Sheehan, who transferred in from Notre Dame and is spending a second senior season in Plainsman Park. Having gone through a partial Tommy John repair his final season at Notre Dame, he came to Auburn and was slowly eased back into competition over the season, only pitching six times before April. In his final seven appearances, he pitched fourteen total innings with only seven hits and one earned run, striking out twelve. A three year-starter at Notre Dame, his veteran experience will be invaluable to this rotation and the challenge of starting in the SEC will be useful to him, as well.  

“Playing in the SEC, it’s the best conference in the country,” Sheehan told Jason Caldwell of 247. “You’re always going up against the best players each and every week. Hopefully I can have a full and healthy year and help out the team any way I can and get something out of it at the end of the year and move on to pro ball, which has been a goal of mine.”

Auburn's got multiple options for the third weekend spot, with both newcomers and returning veterans as candidates. Junior Carson Swilling and grad student Jordan Armstrong are early favorites, but freshmen RHP Hayden Murphy and LHPs Drew Nelson and Zach Crotchfelt could challenge for midweek or weekend spots with good showings in fall ball. 

Chase Isbell is the early favorite to replace Blake Burkhalter as closer, now that's he's a full season-plus removed from a partial TJ procedure, similar to Sheehan. Seldom used early in the 2022 season (he didn't make his season debut until March 22nd), Isbell pitched in both the Super Regional in Corvallis and in Omaha, going a combined 4.1 scoreless innings with one hit and seven strikeouts. He only allowed one earned run in his final nine appearances, spanning 13.1 innings with 6 hits and 18 strikeouts. Joining him in the back end will be a pair of sophomores, RHPs Chase Allsup and John Armstrong, who showed flashes of dominance in their true freshman seasons but also struggled at times with the transition from high school to the toughest competition in amateur baseball of the SEC.  

OUTLOOK

Following Butch Thompson's outline of building a competitive roster through pitching, "dominating the routine play", and timely hitting, the Auburn coaching staff has recruited a blend of power and pitchability arms, potential impact bats, and some quality defenders. 

There are multiple options to mix and match at multiple positions on the diamond, and fall ball is going to be crucial to sorting and separating those players who are ready for the step up in competitions versus those who need a bit more time to work on their game. When the class was initially finalized, Auburn assistant coach and recruiting coordinator Karl Nonemaker remarked about how many more players were prepared to contribute right away than usual. “In this league it’s so hard to come in ready to play, and there’s some guys that we think that are going to be ready to play. There’s more guys that we think are ready to play in this class than a typical class.”

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