It was a busy off-season for Coach Loren Hibbs and staff as they continue to steward the program. Several key developments promise to pay dividends for years to come. First, the long-anticipated indoor practice facility opened, giving the program a much-needed player development tool. You’ll see the new facility down the right field line at Hayes Stadium. Also, the Niners were able to add a staff member to direct baseball operations. While the position is new, you’ll recognize Charlie Muchukot as he has been a regular fixture in the dugout as a student manager for the last several seasons. Both of these commitments to baseball on behalf of the athletic department help bring the Niners into line with many of their regional and conference peers as the program continues to grow.
The following is an analysis of the what the Diamond Niners could look like as Coaches Hibbs, Robinson, Doty, and Simmons lead the team into the 2019 season. Make sure to take all of these predictions with a grain of salt. We’re just speculating and let’s face it, we’ve been wrong before.
As the 2019 season prepares to kick-off, the Niners have some key holes to fill. LHP Josh Maciejewski (9-2, 2.25 ERA) will no longer anchor the pitching staff as Friday night starter after graduating and being selected in the 10th round of the MLB draft. The Niners will also need a new center fielder after junior Reece Hampton (.302, 37 RBI) went to the Detroit Tigers in the 12th round. Hampton’s defense will be hard to replace, as he covered more ground in center field than just about anyone in the nation over the past three seasons. The left side of the infield will be completely new this season as 3B Jackson Mims (.328, 9 HR, 40 RBI) graduated in December and chose not to continue his baseball career, while SS Hunter Jones (.220, 29 RBI) finished his college career after holding down short for the past several seasons. Behind the plate, backup catcher Zack Smith (.235, 2 HR , 25 RBI) transferred to the University of Mount Olive for his junior season.
The bullpen will miss RHP Jonah Patten (4-1, 9 SV, 3.53 ERA) who began the season in a starting role but migrated back to his natural spot as the reliable closer. The pitching staff will also miss lefty Matt Horkey who logged 40.1 IP with 3 Saves and righty Phillip Perry, who logged 35.1 IP out of the bullpen. Overall the bullpen lost 142 IP from last season.
Catcher – The Niners return one of C-USA’s best catchers in senior Harris Yett (.323, 6 HR, 37 RBI). Yett started 38 games behind the plate and 18 as the DH in 2018. The Johnny Bench Award Finalist for Nation’s best catcher was also a 2nd team all-conference selection. The lack of buzz about Yett in this year’s conference previews has us baffled. No matter, we’ll just let him do his talking on the field. You can count on Yett continuing to start the majority of the games behind the plate and occupying a spot in the heart of the batting order. Jacob Whitley, a sophomore transfer from Gardner-Webb, will likely see playing time when Yett takes a day off. Whitley will finally get his chance to step on the field for the Niners after being with the team last year and sitting out, per NCAA rules. Freshman Carter Foster, a 2nd team all-state selection as a high school senior, could also push for playing time, although he has been working in right field during the preseason. Opening day prediction: Harris Yett.
First Base – The Niners had 3 regular starters at 1B in 2018 and only 1 returns for 2019. Dominick Cammarata (.265, 8 HR, 30 RBI) settled in towards the end of the season after playing RF for much of the season. Dom is likely to shift back to right field, leaving an open competition for playing time at 1B. Senior Jesse Gonzales will be a candidate after making 3 starts last season and compiling 16 at-bats. A player for fans to watch will be newcomer Rafi Vazquez, a juco transfer from Florence Darlington Technical College. Vazquez led FDTC in most of the offensive categories last season (.419, 43 R, 10 2B, 13 HR, 46 RBI, .829 SLG%) on his way to earning Region X Conference Player of the Year & NJCAA All-American honors. A left-handed batter, Rafi has shown that he has power to all fields, hitting multiple homers in preseason practice. Opening day prediction: Rafi Vazquez.
Second Base – Last season Tommy Bullock (44 starts) and Tate Pennington (14 starts) split time at 2B. Bullock’s move to SS opens up competition. Newcomer Carson Johnson is likely to emerge as the starter. The junior college transfer started both fall exhibitions at 2B and has continued to work there during the preseason. Johnson comes to the Niners after posting a strong summer league performance where he earned playoff MVP honors in the Western Major Baseball League of Canada (.355, 13 2B, 47 RBI, 72 R) with the Medicine Hat Mavericks. Sophomore Jake Whitcomb (.283, 2 RBI) looks to be the backup as he has gotten most of the reps there in preseason practice after appearing in 31 games a season ago. Opening day prediction: Carson Johnson.
Short Stop – The Niners lost 4 year starter Hunter Jones to graduation last season. For the 1st time since 2014 the Niners will have a new starting SS. Senior Tommy Bullock (.259, 37 RBI, 42 R) looks to be the guy. Bullock started every game, mostly at 2B, while only committing 5 errors in 2018. An all-tournament selection season, Bullock hit the game-winning HR against Southern Miss to force a decisive C-USA semifinal game versus USM. Backing him up will likely be freshman Riley Cheek, who has seen a lot of work there this preseason. Cheek comes to the Niners after earning conference player of the year and 2nd team all-state honors while at Crest High School. Opening day prediction: Tommy Bullock.
Third Base – The surprise retirement of third baseman Jackson Mims means the left side of the infield will be completely new for the 2019 season. Freshman Josh Haney and sophomore Tate Pennington (.250, 9 RBI) have been alternating at third both in the fall and this preseason. Pennington made 28 appearances last season, including 17 starts. Haney, joining the Niners out of SouthLake Christian Academy, was listed as one of the top incoming freshman for C-USA by Perfect Game. He also earned all-conference and all-state recognition and leaves SouthLake as their career leader in hits. Both of these guys have shown themselves capable of getting the job done this preseason. Who gets the start? Good question. Opening day prediction: Tate Pennington (went with experience on this one).
Outfield – Redshirt junior Drew Ober (.286, 41 RBI), junior Todd Elwood (.316, 16 RBI), and Dominick Cammarata are returning starters that anchor a deep outfield group. Unfortunately Elwood is recovering from an offseason injury and is unlikely to be available opening day, but looks to be back in the mix within a few weeks. Ober, who is underrated as an athlete, may well be the starter in center field. He has shown the ability to cover serious ground in center during preseason practice. Redshirt senior Dominick Cammarata has spent time in right field throughout the preseason, along with freshman Carter Foster, from Forbush High School. Foster joins the Niners after earning conference player of the year and all-state honors. Left field could be patrolled by one of two newcomers from the junior college ranks. Juniors Patrick Wheeler (Pitt Community College) and Austin Lynch (Redlands Community College) have both seen work in the outfield this preseason. Both Wheeler and Lynch were speedy outfielders with lead-off experience from their respective Junior Colleges. Wheeler has shown some power, homering against DAvidson in the Fall and going deep in spring scrimmages. Sophomore Eric Lansinger and freshman Alec Roberts also provide depth. After a quiet freshman campaign Lansinger will look to continue to develop and work his way into the mix. Roberts is an interesting prospect. Although only a freshman, he possesses a physicality most seniors would be proud to have. It will be interesting to see what Coach Patrick does with him in the weight room. Roberts comes to the Niners after earning conference player of the year, all-region, and all-state honors in his native Alexandria, VA. Opening day prediction (left-to-right): Wheeler, Ober, Cammarata.
Designated Hitter – The staff has a lot of different looks that they can go with here. When Yett takes a day off from behind the plate, he will likely be in this role. The lefty Vazquez and righty Cammarata would seem to be good candidates depending on the matchup. Gonzales provides another lefty bat that could be used if Vazquez at 1B. Vazquez and Gonzales split time at DH and 1B in the Fall. This could also be an opportunity for Elwood to provide some speed to the lineup as he works his way back from injury. The Niners had nine different players start in the DH spot last season, so expect more of the same in 2019. Opening day prediction: Vazquez/ Gonzales
Pitching – The keys to this season’s pitching will be returners stepping forward, new faces emerging, and left-handed pitching.
Junior Matt Brooks (3-7, 5.35 ERA), along with seniors Joey Cooner (3-5. 5.43 ERA), Chase Gooding (4-2, 4.34 ERA), and Carson Pinkney (1-3. 2 SV, 4.54 ERA), head up a group that will be looking to reestablish its identity early in the season. Brooks looks ready to take a step forward and reclaim the role of Friday starter after giving way to Josh Maciejewski early last season. Cooner and Gooding may be called upon to complete the weekend rotation while Pinkney may take over as closer. Junior Colby Bruce (5-1, 4.54 ERA) has been working on his arm slot angle and has looked good this preseason. Sophomore Patrick Szczypinski (1-0, 13.50 ERA) got off to a strong start in his freshman campaign before falling off. With the offseason to work on his game, he has looked confident on the mound once again. Another interesting returner is redshirt freshman Eli Ellington. After sitting out last season, the big left-handed pitcher has looked good in the preseason. If Bruce, Szczypinski, and Ellington can carry their strong offseasons into the 2019 season they could form the nucleus of a strong Niners bullpen.
Coach Doty has 7 new arms to work with this season (4 freshman, 3 juco). Freshman Will Palinkas is a RHP from Providence High School that earned all-conference honors his last 2 years in high school. Palinkas pitched well in both fall exhibitions and has been working near the top of the rotation during the preseason. He could well be in the mix to start on the weekend. Freshman RHP Bryce McGowan earned 1st team all-conference honors at Cary High School and has also had a solid preseason, getting early inning work in the preseason. He may figure into the weekend bullpen or potentially start during the week. Freshman RHP Justin Offshanka, from Hough High School will not be hard for fans to spot. His side-armed delivery will give batters a different look when he comes out of the pen. He has put together a solid preseason and, like the other fresmen pitchers, should contribute right away. Freshman RHP Mason Herbert received all-conference and all-state recognition while at Pisgah High School. Coming off an injury, Herbert has recently been cleared to resume activities and should begin to work his way into the mix as the season progresses.
Junior LHP Ethan Earhart (Seward County CC) figured to be a big part of the staff’s plans before tearing his ACL at the beginning of fall practice. Not one to stay down long, Earhart has done an excellent job rehabbing and is already throwing off the mound. He could be back in the mix as soon as March, barring no further setbacks. Junior LHP Spencer Ard comes to the Niners from Redlands CC and has looked good in preseason scrimmages. With lefty pitching at a premium, he will need to have a solid season. Junior RHP Ryan Czanstkowski previously played at Connors State CC (alongside fellow Niner newcomer Carson Johnson) and looks to provide depth to the bullpen in his first season on campus.
As mentioned earlier, lefty pitching will worth keeping an eye on all season. There are 4 lefties on the roster (Cooner, Ellington, Ard, Earhart) and one (Earhart) is coming off an injury. That makes Ellington’s solid performance in the preseason even more promising.
Opening weekend prediction: Friday, RHP Matt Brooks. Saturday, LHP Joey Cooner. Sunday, Will Palinkas.
Closer prediction: Carson Pinkney
Weekday starter prediction: Chase Gooding, Bryce McGowan.
Every team in the country would like to win their conference tournament and secure their league’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. The Diamond Niners are no different. What makes Charlotte’s position even more appealing is the opportunity to compete for an at-large bid due to the strength of both Conference USA and the Niners’ out-of-conference schedule.
Two games versus Clemson (@ Clemson, BB&T Ballpark Uptown), two games @ Arkansas, a matchup with NC State (BB&T Ballpark), a game @ South Carolina, and a home-and-home with Wake Forest give the Niners plenty of chances to build a resume. In league play, the 49ers’ season may well come down to the month of April. Yes, every league game is important, but the April schedule is absolutely brutal. Florida Atlantic and Rice come to town in back-to-back weekends before the Niners travel to Southern Miss and FIU.
Where do the Diamond Niners finish? We aren’t good enough to call our shot on this one. We’ll say this: the Niners have been picked to finish 6th in C-USA each of the past two seasons. They have finished higher in each case. Where did every preseason poll pick the team to finish in the league this season? You guessed it, 6th. We like our chances to keep the streak alive and surpass expectations. Will that add up to the 49ers first trip to the postseason since 2013? We’re about to find out.
Happy opening week, everybody!
Kevin and Nick