Jason Jackson is in for a stressful January and first two weeks of February.
The University of Alabama’s baseball pitching coach has a starting rotation to figure out, one that will not be easy to assemble. UA lost the pitchers responsible for 22 of its 30 SEC starts last year, and the eight starts returning are spread among four pitchers that combined for a conference ERA of 7.20 in 2019. There are no assumptions going into this position battle.
That rotation to be named later will get its first action beginning Feb. 14 with a three-game series against Northeastern.
“There’s going to be a lot of fresh faces and a lot of innings up for grabs. That can be fun,” Jackson said. “There is no clear-cut answer on any of it right now. I wish you and I were sitting here saying we know this is our three dudes, we know these are our late-inning guys. We don’t have that luxury.
“It’s a little unnerving, because in 10 minutes we’ve scripted out 15 scenarios there could be, but it’s also fun to watch some of those young guys battle for innings.”
One layer of the competition is that many of its participants did not pitch in the fall. Freshman Antoine Jean, sophomore Tyler Ras and sophomore Jacob McNairy all had limited falls after heavy summer workloads, Jean for the Canadian national team, Ras in the Cape Cod League and McNairy in the Alaska Baseball League. Garret Rukes, Brock Guffey, Casey Cobb and Chase Lee were all limited in the fall to some degree, as well.
Jackson said all of them are where they need to be health-wise going into preseason practice.
“Our job is to try to put some guys in different roles and see how they look,” Jackson said. “See how this guy handles coming out of the pen with runners on base, see how this guy handles starting, can this guy turn the lineup over. There’s different pieces to how guys respond to different situation.
“Their mental makeup can determine what their role is, too. Some guys really amp up and do better in a high-pressure, tense situation. Other guys do better when they prepare throughout the week.”
Jean and fellow freshman Connor Prielipp are two highly talented freshmen that could be in the mix as starting pitchers early in their careers, possibly as early as opening weekend of their freshman seasons. Both are left-handed and both started the fall exhibitions UA played against Southern Miss in October.
Two right-handed sophomores — Connor Shamblin and Dylan Smith — could balance those two freshmen left-handers. Both had down moments as freshmen in 2019, both with ERAs above 6.00, but both had impressive falls and are showing growth from their freshman seasons.
Development could also boost Ras into a weekend rotation spot after several quality outings in midweek games last year; better performances against SEC competition would make him a viable weekend starter. The same can be said for senior William Freeman as he enters his second season out of Jones County Junior College.
McNairy, Guffey and redshirt freshman Landon Green — who spent last season rehabbing from Tommy John surgery — will also get looks at longer stints in the event starting fits them. All are likely to have significant roles on the team, but whether those roles are starters are bullpen pieces remains to be seen.
There is also Rukes, who has 21 career starts to his name and, as Jackson put it, “There’s something to be said for experience.”
Neither Jackson nor head coach Brad Bohannon are confident enough to know for sure what will come of this battle. There is also no guarantee that, with this many participants, the battle is settled by opening day.
“As long as it takes to get it figured out, I guess,” Jackson said. “We have an idea of what should look like and the best-laid plans, we’ll see, but we’ll probably try a few different combinations early in the season.”