Jan. 24, 2002
Atlanta – Gone is the 2000 National Player of the Year. Gone are nine players who signed professional contracts last spring. Even gone is the familiar confines of Russ Chandler Stadium that Georgia Tech’s fans and players had grown so accustomed to over the last 17 years.
But don’t let all of those departures mislead you. Tech head coach Danny Hall is as positive and upbeat about the 2002 season as he has been in any of his previous eight years in Atlanta.
The Yellow Jackets are coming off another 40-win season and their 16th NCAA Regional appearance in the last 17 years. Despite the loss of third baseman Mark Teixeira and four other starters from last year’s team that set an Atlantic Coast Conference record with a .347 team batting average, six everyday players return for this season. Add to the mix a highly regarded and talented 17-member freshman class, and the prognosis for 2002 looks bright indeed.
“We do have some talent,” said Hall, a two-time Atlantic Coast Conference Coach of the Year. “I feel very comfortable with the position players that we can put on the field. There are a lot of unknown things about our pitching staff – there are some guys that I can definitely count on, there are some other guys that we are going to count on and we hope step up when given the opportunity, and then there are some freshmen that are going to have to contribute as well.”
“The biggest concern for me entering the season is our inexperience on the mound,” Hall continued. “Even though we lost our top three starting pitchers from last season, I still think this team will be very competitive.”
Also new to the mix this season are three new assistant coaches – associate head coach and pitching coach Bobby Moranda, assistant coach and recruiting coordinator Scott Stricklin and volunteer coach Jon Palmieri.
But the biggest addition to the Tech program for the 2002 season is the opening of a completely reconstructed, $7 million Russ Chandler Stadium. Built on the location of the old facility, construction on the 4,354 seat state-of-the-art ballpark was completed in less than nine months after the conclusion of the 2001 season. The new stadium now ranks among the best collegiate baseball facilities in the nation.
Even with all the new players, new staff and new park, the goals for Hall and the Georgia Tech baseball program remain the same – win the Atlantic Coast Conference, be in a position to host a NCAA Regional, and advance to the College World Series to play for the National Championship.
“Those goals never change,” said Hall. “Even though a lot of the faces have changed from the last couple of years, these guys came to Georgia Tech because we are one of the teams to beat in the ACC and we are in regionals with regularity. Now we have a chance with a new stadium to put or mark on that stadium and get ourselves into position to host a NCAA Regional.”
Despite Tech’s youth, the Yellow Jackets still have plenty of national respect entering the 2002 season. Tech checks in ranked 13th in the nation in Baseball America’s pre-season poll, 19th by USA Today/Baseball Weekly, and 22nd by Collegiate Baseball.
A position by position look at the 2002 Yellow Jackets:
The old baseball adage goes that pitching and defense wins championships. They have been key areas of emphasis during pre-season practice for Hall and his staff.
“If you look at the teams that play for the national championship, you need to have guys on the mound that can get it done,” said Hall. “That’s been a key focus for us during the fall, shoring up our pitching and team defense. If you are good in those two areas then you have a chance to win a lot of ball games.”
Heading up the Georgia Tech pitching staff, both in stature and performance, is 6-9 sophomore lefty Kyle Bakker (Omaha, Neb.), the ace of the staff and the tallest player in the ACC. Bakker earned freshman All-America honors last spring after posting a 4-1 record and a 2.78 ERA in 45.1 innings. The best control pitcher on the Tech staff, Bakker walked just nine batters while registering 49 strikeouts.
Bakker made just one appearance after the end of April last spring and did not pitch in the postseason after battling tendinitis in his left arm. He was impressive in fall practice, however, and clearly staked his claim as Tech’s top starter.
“There is no question that Kyle Bakker is our number one pitcher,” said Hall. “He had a great freshman year and he ran off some impressive victories. He rested all summer, and he came back in the fall with improved velocity and better breaking stuff. Bobby Moranda has done a great job of making him better. He’s a guy that we are going to count on Friday nights to get every series started in the right manner.”
Junior righty Jeff Watchko (Roswell, Ga.), Tech’s closer with 12 saves over the last two seasons, is expected to make the conversion to the starting rotation this spring. He has made 57 appearances over the last two seasons, all but two in relief, and owns a career 3.35 ERA. He is 2-0 in his two career starts, both coming during his freshman season. However, Hall feels that Watchko has the makeup, command and repertoire to be a very effective starting pitcher.
“Jeff Watchko has been our closer for the last two years, and this fall we moved him to the starting rotation,” said Hall. “He kept getting better in that role, and right now he’s my No. 2 guy.”
Sophomore Brian Burks (Alpharetta, Ga.) was the workhorse of the Tech bullpen last season in middle relief, and he will get some strong consideration for a starting rotation assignment. Despite standing at just 5-9, the righty has excellent movement on all of his pitches and can be very tough on opposing hitters. As a freshman, Burks posted a 4-1 record with two saves and a 4.08 ERA in 26 appearances.
“Brian Burks is probably our third starter right now, but I would also be comfortable using him in some relief roles,” said Hall. “He’s a guy that you can put into any position, and he will compete and give you a chance to win.”
Another veteran in the mix for a spot in the starting rotation is junior Philip Perry (Marietta, Ga.). The right hander had an outstanding freshman campaign as a midweek starter, finishing 4-0 with a 2.93 ERA in 43 innings, but struggled with nagging injuries as a sophomore that limited his effectiveness and availability. Perry pitched in just 11 games in 2001, going 2-2 with a 6.39 ERA while dealing with a pulled muscle in his rib cage. Perry, however, has shined in big games when healthy, making two outstanding starts in the ACC Tournament over the last two seasons.
“Philip Perry made great strides during the fall,” noted Hall. He’s had flashes, particularly in the ACC Tournament, where he’s shown that he can be a dependable starting pitcher.”
Other candidates for starting assignments could come from Tech’s 11-member freshman pitching corps.
“There are a couple of freshmen who can make a run at a starting job,” said Hall. “Jeff Kindel (Marietta, Ga.) was not an overly hyped guy coming out of high school, but he may have the best stuff of any of our freshmen and has the potential to be very good. Kyle Schmidt (Palm Harbor, Fla.) has a very good fastball with a curve ball that he could tell hitters that it’s coming and they would still have trouble hitting it.”
The southpaw Kindel was impressive during fall practice, displaying excellent poise and command for a freshman. Schmidt hails from the same hometown as Kris Wilson, a former Tech All-America and current member of the Kansas City Royals starting rotation. The 6-3, 219 pound righty has a powerful frame with the potential to be very effective at the collegiate level.
Freshman right hander Kevin Guyette (Paradise Valley, Ariz.), like Schmidt, was drafted out of high school but elected to enroll at Tech instead. Guyette had a solid fall practice and showed the coaching staff that he could help in either a starting role or out of the bullpen.
With Watchko moving to the starting rotation, Tech’s bullpen will have different look in the closer’s role. Help for that spot has come from the most unlikely of places – shortstop.
Tech’s two shortstops, junior Chris Goodman (Marietta, Ga.) and senior Victor Menocal (Gainesville, Ga.) both approached the coaching staff about working on the mound during fall practice. Both of them were impressive.
Goodman, who sat out last season after transferring from NC State, caught the eyes of pro scouts after throwing his fastball as high as 93 miles per hour with a tight slider. Menocal pitched in the upper 80’s with very good breaking pitches. Both are expected to be factors.
“Goodman and Menocal can certainly help us in some short relief work,” said Hall. “Right now Goodman is my closer going into the season.”
Also in the mix in the bullpen from the left side are sophomore Aaron Walker (East Palestine, Ohio) and freshman Drew Taylor (Toronto, Canada). Walker made 13 appearances out of the Tech bullpen last season and showed improvement down the stretch when he was unscored upon during his last six appearances. Taylor, standing 6-4, is the son of Ronald Taylor, who spent 11 years in the Major Leagues as a relief pitcher for the Indians, Cardinals, Astros, Mets and Padres.
From the right side, Hall can turn to Mike Andreas (Hanover, Pa.), Jordan Crews (Valdosta, Ga.), Andrew Kown (Marietta, Ga.), Chandler Miller (Dawson, Ga.) and Nick Wagner (Springfield, Ohio) out of the bullpen. The quintet all had bright spots during fall practice and could all help in relief roles this spring.
“I think we have a lot of bodies on the pitching staff,” said Hall. “It’s just a question of who is going to get it done when it’s time to compete.
“I hired Bobby Moranda as our pitching coach because wherever he has been, he’s developed great pitching staffs. He has worked very hard with these guys, and the players have put a lot of time in. We are going to have a good pitching staff. There may be some bumps in the road, but I’m convinced that we will figure out who needs to be on the mound and they will do a great job for us.”
“I think we have two great catchers and that’s a strength of our club,” said Hall. “Tyler Parker is going to be a high draft pick, and he’s a winner – he won a national championship his senior year in high school, and he won a national championship in Connie Mack baseball. He went through a frustrating time last year with all his injuries, but he’s in great shape now. He’s one of the best athletes on our team, and I fully expect Tyler to have a big year.”
Parker, a pre-season All-America pick, is recognized as one of the best players at his position in the nation and is att-racting plenty of attention from professional scouts. One of the top power hitters on the team, Parker blasted 11 home runs as a rookie, but was limited to just 52 at bats last spring while suffering a broken thumb and a fractured wrist in separate incidents. He did manage to hit .327 and drive in 16 runs in 16 games however.
Nickeas comes to Tech following a successful summer with the USA Junior Pan Am team that captured the silver medal at the Junior Pan Am Championships in Cuba. He was the leading hitter on that team of all-stars, and he continued his outstanding play during fall practice. In addition to his good bat, he has a strong, accurate arm and shows very good command of the pitching staff.
“Mike is also a great catcher and has great leadership qualities,” said Hall. “He can also play some other positions for us, and he gives us another great catcher that we can put in there to give Tyler a break from time to time and not lose a beat.”
With the loss of All-Americans and first round draft picks Mark Teixeira and Richard Lewis, Tech’s infield will have a somewhat new look in 2002. One constant, however, is senior Victor Menocal (Gainesville, Ga.), a four-year starter at shortstop who is a pre-season All-America pick this spring.
Menocal, who moonlighted at third base for a time last year after Teixeira’s injury, has steadily improved in each of his previous three seasons at Tech. Last year he was the Yellow Jackets’ second leading hitter with a .381 average and a team-best 102 hits. An ironman who rarely misses a game, Menocal is on pace to break the Tech record for career at bats this season.
“Victor is a quality guy, and we are fortunate to have a player like him back for his senior year,” said Hall. “He played the best defensively that I have seen him play in the fall, and he has made great strides offensively. I look for him to have an All-American type year and be a rock in the middle of the infield this season.”
Returning at first base is junior Jason Perry (Jonesboro, Ga.), who hit .337 with a team-high 14 home runs last season. Perry went on to turn in an outstanding summer in the Cape Cod League where he led all players in home runs and total bases while earning a spot on the all-star team. Perry, who belted 11 home runs in 52 at bats in fall practice intrasquad games, is one of the top power hitters in the ACC.
“Jason Perry may be the most improved player that we have on our team,” noted Hall. “He had a great summer in the Cape, and he hit several home runs during the fall. It’s now his year to shine, and he has the attention of a lot of pro scouts. We played him a lot in right field during the fall, and defensively he may be a better outfielder than a first baseman.”
What may allow Perry to play some in the outfield is the emergence of freshman Clifton Remole (Marietta, Ga.) at first base during the fall. Remole displayed a flashy glove defensively, and he has a track record as an accomplished hitter.
“Clifton Remole led the East Cobb Yankees last summer in hitting, and he gives us the option to get another left handed bat into the lineup,” said Hall. “We have two quality guys that can play at first base, and Tyler Parker and Mike Nickeas could also play there if needed.”
Fifth-year senior Matthew Boggs (Dalton, Ga.) returns for his final season after starting at second base last year. The left-handed hitting leadoff specialist spent much of the fall working at third base, the position where he will likely begin the 2002 season. Wherever he plays, however, Boggs will be in the lineup, batting leadoff. Last year he hit .345 and scored 56 runs, but more importantly he reached base safely 119 times in 56 games by either a base hit, walk or being hit by pitch.
“Matthew Boggs can play a lot of different places,” said Hall of the player who has seen time at second base, center field and left field in his career. “Right now were are going to try to shift him over to third base. He still has some work to do to get more comfortable over there, but he is more than capable of handling that position.”
“What allowed us to try Boggs at third was the play of Eric Patterson (Ken-nesaw, Ga.) at second base,” said Hall. “He’s a great athlete and is the fastest guy on the team. I think he is going to be a solid hitter, but more importantly he is a very good defensive player. He reminds me a lot of Richard Lewis, a guy who came into Tech without a lot of notoriety. You look at Eric, and his notoriety is that he is Corey Patterson’s little brother. But I think in three years he will be known because he’s a great player and a great athlete.”
Also in the mix on the infield are junior Chris Goodman (Marietta, Ga.), sophomore Davis Myers (Duluth, Ga.) and freshman Jake Hall (Raleigh, N.C.). Goodman, who will also see action on the mound, is a shortstop by trade and sat out the 2001 season after transferring from NC State.
“Goodman is our next best defensive player behind Menocal,” said Hall. “He’s got good range, good hands and a good throwing arm. The biggest question on him is his ability to hit consistently, but he had a good summer and showed improvement in the fall. But a lot of his playing time in the infield may really come down to how much we’re depending on him to close games on the mound.”
Myers hit .250 in 21 games as a freshman in 2000 and redshirted during the 2001 campaign. A fine defensive player, Myers spent much of fall practice at third base.
“Davis played a lot of third base in the fall and was fantastic,” said Hall. “Defensively, he’s a guy that we can put into the lineup late in a game and he will do the job. He needs to continue to improve his consistency swinging the bat.”
“Jake Hall is my sleeper. He’s a guy that makes all the plays and finds ways to get hits when you need them. He is going to be in the mix somewhere.”
Freshman Mike Trapani (Dunwoody, Ga.), who comes from a strong high school program at Marist, is a good athlete who adds depth at all the infield positions.
“We do have some depth,” noted Hall. “As we saw last year, even when you think you have a good team you are only one injury away from making a strength a weakness. We have to get better defensively, and that’s something that we have worked on very hard. I think this can do the job, making plays for our pitchers.”
Tech returns just one starter in the outfield in senior Wes Rynders (Marietta, Ga.) who has been the everyday starter in center field in each of the last two seasons. One of the better defensive outfielders in the ACC, Rynders hit .275 last spring while impressing Tech fans with his ability to track down balls that appear to be uncatchable.
“I’ve said it many times over, Wes Rynders is one of the better defensive outfielders that I have seen,” noted Hall. “I have complete confidence in him defensively. He’s a senior that wants to leave Georgia Tech on a high note, and he showed that in fall practice.”
Pushing Rynders for playing time in center field is the switch-hitting Brandon Boggs (Marietta, Ga.), who like Rynders is an alumnus of Pope High School. Boggs impressed during fall workouts with his own fine defensive play while showing some pop at the plate.
“Wes is getting fierce competition from Brandon Boggs,” said Hall. “He’s just a notch behind Wes defensively. Brandon is a great player in his own right, and he’s a guy that I would have a lot of confidence in playing in center field.”
Sophomore Matt Murton (McDonough, Ga.) started much of last year as Tech’s designated hitter and earned freshman All-America honors after leading Tech with a.385 average with seven home runs 35 RBI. He followed that up with an impressive performance in the Cape Cod League over the summer where he hit .324 with a league-best 24 RBI while using wood bats and was named the league’s MVP. Murton will likely grab a starting job in either right or left field this spring, and wherever he plays, he should be a force in the middle of the lineup.
“Matt Murton made a name for himself last summer in the Cape, but he made a name for himself in my eyes when he started playing for us last year,” said Hall. “He worked hard to get better defensively in the fall. He is a guy that will hit in the middle of the order for us and is a threat to hit a home run every time up. He will be in the mix somewhere, whether it be left or right field.”
Junior Jon Henry Kail (Pittsburgh, Pa.) is another veteran who returns this spring. Kail owns a career batting average of .296 in 62 games, and he has power. He has shined in part-time roles over the past two seasons, and he will be a factor at either of the corner outfield spots this spring.
“Jon Henry Kail is a veteran who is one of the hardest working guys on the team,” said Hall. “I look for him to put some pressure to challenge for playing time.”
Freshman Jeremy Slayden (Murfreesboro, Tenn.) turned heads during fall practice with his hitting abilities, and he will challenge for playing time in right field or as the designated hitter. Slayden led all Tech players in batting during the fall while also displaying good power at the plate.
“Jeremy Slayden may have the most power on the team behind Perry and Murton,” said Hall. “In my eyes he is a guy that has a chance to be a freshman all-American. He has great power potential, can hit for average, and has a great work ethic.”
Also in the mix in the outfield is freshman Garrett Groce (Columbus, Ga.), who has the ability to help in a number of different positions after also playing shortstop as a senior in high school.
“Garrett Groce is one of the best athletes on the team,” Hall said. “He can play a lot of different positions, and he is potentially a five-tool player. He is a great runner with a great arm. He is going to get opportunities because he can play defense.”
Add Jason Perry into the mix, and Hall will have many different looks that he can use in the outfield during the 2002 season.
“We have a lot of guys and a lot of options in the outfield,” Hall noted. “Scott Stricklin has done a great job with our hitters, and we have a great group of veterans and new guys. Even though we lost some big names that have been All-Americans, I still feel we will be a threat to score a lot of runs.”
As is custom, the Yellow Jackets will again take on a schedule that includes the nation’s top opponents. In addition to the usual Atlantic Coast Conference opponents, Tech will face defending national champion Miami in a three-game series, as well as Georgia, Georgia Southern, Auburn and South Carolina in key non-conference matchups.
In all, Tech has 16 games on the schedule against teams ranked in the pre-season Top 25, and the Yellow Jackets will play 30 games against teams that made the NCAA Tournament last season.
“I think our schedule is very tough,” said Hall. “But I hope that our schedule will help prepare us for the ACC season and for the NCAA Regionals, and hopefully it will prepare us for our ultimate goal of playing for a National Championship.”