Five things to know about Alabama baseball entering 2021 season: Breakout year upcoming?

Brett Hudson
Tide Sports

A promising season cut short leaves the Alabama baseball program ready to finish what it started, now just weeks away from its 2021 opening day.

Here are five things to know as the Crimson Tide begins official team practice Friday leading up to opening day on Feb. 19 against McNeese State.

Optimism is high after last season

The shortened 2020 season was enough to generate some buzz around UA’s resurgent program: a 16-1 start with two freshmen in its starting rotation and several freshmen in its lineup with consistency. That optimism recently came to pass in a No. 25 preseason ranking from Baseball America.

The timing of the cancellation of the season — days before UA was supposed to open SEC play — never allowed the Crimson Tide to test that optimism, but with little in terms of significant losses that optimism has more than carried over into 2021.

ALABAMA BASEBALL:Crimson Tide 2021 season schedule

There are holes to fill in the bullpen

Casey Cobb led all UA relievers with 12⅓ innings, handling those innings with a 0.73 ERA and nearly double the strikeouts (14) as hits allowed (eight). Garret Rukes did not allowed an earned run in 10⅔ innings.

Cobb is now in the Boston Red Sox organization, and Rukes is a Florida International Panther.

Alabama is likely to be strong in its late-game bullpen options, with Chase Lee and Brock Guffey returning, but it will need more options for when Tyler Ras cannot bridge the gap from starter to closer. Jacob McNairy, William Freeman, Dylan Smith and Landon Green are options from last year’s team, plus the incoming freshman class.

ALABAMA BASEBALL:Tide earns No. 25 spot in Baseball America's preseason rankings

Connor Prielipp is one of the nation’s best starting pitchers

Prielipp is already seen as a possible first overall pick in the 2022 MLB Draft after a strong start to his freshman season: no runs, five hits and six walks allowed in 21 innings, striking out 35.

He has yet to be tested by SEC competition, but his place as UA’s Friday night starter is unquestioned. That status will put him in pivotal matchups with some of the best college pitchers in the country, against the best lineups in the country.

There aren’t many breaks in the schedule

UA is taking on a more challenging non-conference schedule with McNeese State, the Southland Conference champions in 2019, on opening weekend and Wright State, which has made three of the last five NCAA Tournaments, the following weekend. The Crimson Tide also has a road series against College of Charleston, consistently one of the best teams in the Colonial Athletic Association.

All SEC schedules are rigorous and UA’s is no different, especially ending the season with weekend series against No. 6 Vanderbilt, No. 10 LSU and No. 8 Mississippi State, as ranked by Baseball America. It does, however, get consecutive series against four of the five preseason-unranked SEC teams — Texas A&M April 9-11, Auburn April 16-18, Kentucky April 23-25 and Missouri April 30-May 1 — giving it a chance to stack wins in between tough tests.

Potential for a great run-producing team

Alabama is returning 61% of its hits, 68.2% of its home runs and 66.6% of its RBIs, and in many cases doing so with players it can expect to have beyond 2021.

Draft-eligible catcher Sam Praytor was in the midst of a strong comeback season, with six home runs in 16 gamest. Several freshmen were off to strong starts, including outfielder Owen Diodati (.309 batting, .673 slugging) and utility player Peyton Wilson (.333 batting), who could prove valuable defensively at center field, catcher and second base.

Outfielder T.J. Reeves had nine hits in the final seven games,  and first baseman Drew Williamson is poised to contribute more power, which UA needs after losing right fielder Tyler Gentry to the Kansas City Royals.

Reach Brett Hudson at 205-722-0196 or bhudson@tuscaloosanews.com or via Twitter, @Brett_Hudson