ACC Baseball Preview: North Carolina

Leading up to the college baseball season, we will preview each of the Atlantic Coast Conference baseball teams.  You can view all of our team previews to date here.  This preview features the North Carolina Tar Heels.

Last season, the North Carolina Tar Heels finished the season with a 46-16 record, but was stunned by two losses to St. John’s in the Chapel Hill Regional.  The Tar Heels enter this season as national favorites in the eyes of Baseball America and Perfect Game, as they return plenty of talent from last year’s roster and will look for a sixth trip to Omaha in eight years.

Third baseman Colin Moran is the star of an offense that brings back six of nine starters from 2012.  Moran missed 21 games last season, breaking two bones in his right hand punching a door during a 3-1 loss to NC State.  Due to the missed time, Moran didn’t play enough to officially qualify as an ACC league leader in 2012. If he had, he would have finished fourth in the ACC in batting average (.365), 19th in slugging percentage (.494), and seventh in on-base percentage (.434).  Baseball America’s Freshman of the Year in 2011 starts the season as a Preseason All-American and one of the top prospects for the 2013 MLB Draft.

With catcher Jacob Stallings’ graduation, either Moran or first baseman Cody Stubbs becomes the greatest home run threat in the lineup.  The powerful lefty joined the Tar Heels last season as a junior college transfer.  In 2012, Stubbs batted .258, with a team-high five home runs, as well as 19 doubles.

Baseball America ranked North Carolina’s recruiting class as the fifth best in the nation.  Two freshmen who figure to have significant impact on the Tar Heel offense are shortstop Landon Lassiter and outfielder Skye Bolt.

Lassiter was drafted in the 16th round of the 2012 MLB Draft  by the Arizona Diamondbacks.  Lassiter batted .431 for North Davidson (N.C) High School and was Perfect Game’s sixth-ranked player in North Carolina.

Skye Bolt was taken in the the 26th round by the Washington Nationals.  The switch-hitting outfielder has speed to burn and proved he also has some pop, hitting a home run during UNC’s fall scrimmages.  People may talk about him on Opening Day for his unique name, but he hopes to have folks talking about his play by season’s end.

Overall, the Tar Heels were an average offensive team, middle of the ACC pack by most measures. However, they were a top-five team in the nation in drawing walks, second to Florida State in the conference.  It may not be as glamorous as the home run, but walks can place a lot of pressure on pitchers to hit spots and defenses to make plays.  This makes North Carolina’s patience at the plate one of its most valuable weapons.

However, nothing will strike fear into opponents like the pitching staff North Carolina carries into 2013.  The Tar Heels return all three of their weekend starters from 2012, and all three won at least seven games while posting ERAs below 2.00.

Kent Emanuel is the ace of the rotation.  As a sophomore last season, Emanuel was named Third-Team All-America by Louisville Slugger.  Emanuel was fourth in the ACC in ERA (1.96) and strikeouts (100). He dominates hitters by combining a low 90s fastball he can locate with a changeup that makes batters look foolish.

While Emanuel will get the headlines, sophomore Benton Moss and junior Hobbs Johnson will also look to follow up on strong 2012 campaigns.  Moss earned Freshman All-American honors last season, posting the ACC’s third-lowest ERA (1.94).  Moss also posted a better opposing batting average (.218) than Emanuel.

Hobbs Johnson started 2012 in the bullpen, but his strong performance on the mound earned him a spot in the rotation.  He didn’t pitch enough innings to qualify as a conference leader, but he finished the year with an even better ERA than Emanuel and Moss at 1.56.  He also finished third on the team with 69 strikeouts, averaging 1.2 strikeouts per inning.

If there is a hole in this year’s North Carolina squad, it is possibly the ninth-inning battery.  With Stallings’ graduation, catching duties will fall to either the light-hitting but defensively sound Matt Roberts (.111 in 20 games last year) or freshman Korey Dunbar.

Meanwhile, the Tar Heels will have to replace Michael Morin as the closer and R.C. Orlan as the reliable set-up man.  Morin led the ACC with 19 saves in 2012, posting a 1.40 ERA and striking out 55 batters in 58 innings.  Orlan was 8-1 with a 2.21 ERA in 38 appearances, fanning 66 batters over 57 innings.   There is plenty of talent in the UNC bullpen, with guys like Chris McCue, Tate Parrish, Chris O’Brien, and Mason McCullough all appearing regularly last season and posting sub-4.00 ERAs.  Will one of these arms perform well enough to secure the closer role, or will it be handled on a committee basis?

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