After an unceremonious departure from the Lexington Regional in 2017, Pack the Bases dusts off the crystal ball and looks ahead to 2018.
With a regular season that spans 56 games, it can be difficult to pinpoint what milestones can be met. It’s an arduous task to say the least, and some dare not attempt. That won’t stop me for making my bold predictions for 2018.
1. The Outfield Will Hit for 25 Home Runs or More
When Josh McLain and Brock Deatherage opted not to sign for the Dodgers and Pirates respectively, NC State’s hopes for 2018 got a huge boost. Though not a huge spot on many teams’ radars, McLain was consistent all season as one of the Wolfpack’s most reliable hitters. He can hit for contact with the occasional flash of power, and his speed is almost unmatched.
Deatherage, on the other hand, looked as if the eye of the Major Leagues was on him all season, and it appeared to get to him. His 2017 was inconsistent, and in spite of showing clutch moments of power, he slipped into tendencies that saw him strike out more often than put the ball in play. However, with the junior year jitters behind him and the fact that he got drafted despite a sloppy year, he should rebound with a huge senior year that will see him not only compete with McLain for most stolen bases on the team but also see his home run totals hit double digits.
Then there’s Brett Kinneman. Though Joe Dunand was the poster child for NC State’s power in 2017, Kinneman was no slouch at the plate either. He finished second on the team in home runs, and despite the pressure to perform at a higher level to draw the eyes of MLB scouts, I don’t see a potential drop on numbers at the plate since most criticism of his play comes on defense. Kinneman should not only hit double-digit homers again, but I predict he’ll flirt with 20 home runs by himself.
2. Shane Shepard Will Finish His Senior Year on the Bench
I don’t want to come across as a Shane Shepard hater. I think he’s got great defensive talent and strong power at the plate. However, there’s more into this prediction that the raw potential Shepard has.
State picked up a huge addition from junior college in Evan Edwards. Also a first baseman, Edwards has shown much more consistency at the plate and appears to be a more valuable asset to keep in the batting order. “So why not keep Edwards at DH and have Shepard stay at first,” a knowledgeable reader may ask. That brings me to behind the plate.
Brad Debo had an outstanding freshman year. He ended the season as the Pack’s best hitter and was tabbed as an All-ACC performer and All-American in multiple publications. His only weakness is that, as a catcher, he wasn’t exactly the best defender. Jack Conley, Brady Gulakowski, and Patrick Bailey are all viable candidates to unseat Debo as Andy Cosgrove‘s successor behind the plate. When the season is all said and done, I don’t see Debo keeping his job there, but I do see him remaining as State’s designated hitter. Unfortunately, that will ultimately put Shepard on the pine to end his collegiate career.
3. Brian Brown Will Earn First Team All-ACC Status
When speaking about Brian Brown in his first appearances of 2017, Elliott Avent referred to them as his “spring training.” After getting scratched from his presumed opening day start against Hawaii with an injury, that put a damper on State’s starting rotation and Brown’s overall success for the season.
Despite finishing the year 4-3 with a 3.76 earned run average, Brown didn’t really get into his stride like many expected for his junior year. That presumably gave scouts a bad impression as Brown was left undrafted 40 rounds later. However, this year can give the Wolfpack’s ace a chance to rebound.
With a full season of pitching, Brown will have his chance to give it all he can on the mound. He’s shown the potential to be a dominant left-hander, and he’s going to prove to be one of the most dominant pitchers in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
4. Reid Johnston Will Pitch in the Weekend Rotation
Based only on the returning staff and last season’s success, my projected opening series pitching rotation has Brown, Johnny Piedmonte, and Michael Bienlien. All three had dominant starts throughout 2017 and, in the case of Brown and Piedmonte, in seasons prior. The trio should carry that into 2018, but there’s always room for doubt.
As mentioned before, Brown started 2017 with an injury. Piedmonte has had lingering health issues after missing 2014 due to surgery. Then, there’s Bienlien. He picked up All-ACC Freshman honors, but his starts hadn’t alway been consistent. He finished last year with a 3-3 record and a 4.66 ERA. If anyone on the rotation is on the hot seat based on performance, it’s Bienlien.
This begs the question: should any of the trio get hurt or underperform, who’s next up? Had it not been for a fall series injury, my first choice would have been Dalton Feeney who was trending more toward the upside than down. However, he blew out his elbow in a scrimmage against the Czech Republic. The chance he returns for the season still exists, but it will happen later rather than sooner. In the meantime, there’s arms such as Joe O’Donnell and Kent Klyman, but it wouldn’t surprise me if someone from the incoming class, much like Bienlien a year ago, would rise to the occasion.
Reid Johnston comes into the program as a two-way player, and his performance on the mound during the fall series was impressive. There are other pitchers new to the program that look promising, but my bold prediction is that Johnston will emerge as one of the newer additions to the starting rotation.
5. NC State Will Finish 2018 With 40 or More Wins
It’s a mark that hasn’t been hit since Carlos Rodon and Trea Turner donned Wolfpack uniforms, but these are bold predictions for a reason.
State has a tough road ahead of it, and playing in the ACC will always ensure that. However, this is one of Avent’s balanced teams in terms of talent and experience. The pieces are there for a successful year. The Pack just needs to capitalize on it.
As is in football, the Atlantic division is full of national contenders. Even the bottom-feeders can break through with a pummeling if their opponent is off their game. However, the Pack has broken through with waves of success. If everything falls right into its hands, NC State should have its most successful season since 2013, and fans of the team know what happened that year.