North Carolina Tar Heels Season Preview

By Carter Hicks

The 2017 version of the Diamond Heels enters the season in some uncharted waters. After missing the post-season in the previous two seasons, only one player (Adam Pate, senior) comes into 2017 with any kind of post-season experience. A program that has reached the College World Series in six of the previous 11 seasons, will have to lean on it’s veteran coaching staff to guide them back to the promise land. The Tar Heels return seven returning everyday players and two weekend starters from last season’s team that went 34-21.

As all great Tar Heel teams have been assembled, the strength of this team is it’s pitching depth. Headlined by ace J.B. Bukauskas, this year’s staff boasts plenty of power arms and looks to carry a team that lacks a proven line-up threat. Bukauskas, who projects to be a top pick in the 2017 draft, relies on a 93-95 mph fastball and has a plus breaking pitch in his slider. After pitching with the USA Collegiate National team last summer, Bukauskas has found a change-up that has proven to be deadly during the pre-season, especially to left-handed hitters. Another returning weekend starter is Jason Morgan. Morgan’s struggles last season are well documented, but it appears as if he has figured something out during his summer on the Cape. The 6-6 junior pitches at 91-93 with sink and arm-side run; the change-up is firm, yet effective, at 83-85 and his slider is a viable third pitch. The third weekend rotation spot appears to be down to Cole Aker and Luca Dalatri. Aker, a sophomore, sits in the low 90’s and can bump 94-95 when he needs and has shown improved command on his off-speed. A highly touted prospect in the 2016 draft, Dalatri elected to come to school and looks to be the front-runner to start on Sunday’s, as of now. His 87-90 mph fastball won’t blow you away, but has the ability to throw four pitches for strikes. What Dalatri lacks in experience, he makes up with his polish and savvy.

In the field, the Tar Heels return seven everyday starters from last season. Pre-season all-American Brian Miller has successfully made the move to centerfield and looks to be the table setter at the top of the Tar Heel lineup. Fellow juniors, Logan Warmoth and Zack Gahagan will pose a strong duo up the middle at second and short stop respectively. The only question in the Carolina lineup is who will hold down the first base position. It appears as if Michael Busch has won that job during the pre-season. A pleasant surprise for the Tar Heels after the fall, Busch possess gap-to-gap power and good feel for the strike zone. Cody Roberts proved to be the steady hand at catcher last season and looks to improve in 2017. Roberts will be tested by Brandon Martorano who is earning playing time during the pre-season. The freshman product from New Jersey has a strong bat from the right side and handles the pitching staff well. Right now we project Martorano as the designated hitter, but provides a legitimate back-up catcher should the Tar Heels want to give Roberts a day off from behind the plate.

Some other intriguing prospects to watch out for this season are Austin Bergner, Ashton McGee, Josh Hiatt, and Brandon Riley. Bergner and Hiatt both look to fit into the back end of the bullpen; however, Bergner does possess the ability to move back and forth between the bullpen and starting rotation giving the coaching staff some flexibility. Bergner works with a fastball 89-92 but has been up to 94. He has a deceptive delivery that he pairs with four pitches, his fastball and sharp curve being his best. After red-shirting last season, Hiatt has surprised the staff and looks to fit into a set-up role. Hiatt owns a 90-91 mph fastball, frisbee-like slider, and a change-up that rivals the best in the conference. McGee early enrolled this spring out of high school and looks to play a role in the Tar Heels success this season.  McGee has worked at first, second, and third base in the infield but projects more as a second basemen. He owns big power from the left-side and peppers the right-center field gap routinely. Riley is another left-handed bat that has some homerun pop but is more geared as a gap hitter. Riley will be playing left-field this season.

If Carolina can limit the oppositions scoring with their loaded pitching staff and get the timely hits offensively that it lacked last season, the Tar Heels look to be right in the mix for an ACC title and deep run into the post-season.

Projected Lineup

8 – Brian Miller

6 – Logan Warmoth

5 – Kyle Datres

4 – Zack Gahagan

7 – Brandon Riley

DH – Brandon Martorano

3 – Michael Busch

2 – Cody Roberts

9 – Adam Pate

Starting Rotation

Friday – J.B. Bukauskas

Saturday – Jason Morgan

Sunday – Luca Dalatri

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