Tide pitching concerns paramount

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- In 2011, the University of Alabama baseball team faced more questions than answers. There was a shaky bullpen, an overhaul of the batting order and a slew of season-ending injuries before conference play ever began. Somehow, despite hovering at or near the bottom in several key offensive categories and having no power pitching arms to rely on, the Crimson Tide finished seven games above .500 and advanced to an NCAA Regional. In all, an accomplishment.

With the 2012 season opener less than two weeks away, coach Mitch Gaspard doesn’t have near the same number of question marks to consider. There will be plenty or arms in the bullpen and the offense that struggled to put runs on the board is poised to experience a renaissance of sorts with new materials -- the old Nike thudsticks are gone -- and new personnel with junior college transfer Kenny Roberts chief among them.

But that doesn’t mean the fourth-year head coach is sleeping well at night. There’s one hole left to consider and it has the potential to be a cavernous one. Starting pitching, arguably the lone strength of the Tide last year, was wiped out over the offseason. Nathan Kilcrease, Jonathan Smart and Adam Morgan are all gone, taking with them more than 50 percent of the wins and total innings pitched. Junior Tucker Hawley, who won six games in 2011 was set to become a front-line starter this year, had his season snatched away with Tommy John surgery and won’t be able to pitch again until 2013.

So what’s left for Alabama? Well, only the entire weekend rotation to fill and a few wide-eyed freshmen that couldn’t tell an SEC cleanup hitter from a batting cage attendant.

First-year starters Taylor Guilbeau and Justin Kamplain are early frontrunners for two of the spots in the rotation. Freshman Spencer Turnbull, who is coming off a battle with mono, could sneak in as a third option. All three have the talent to blossom into quality SEC pitchers, but when that will happen is anyone’s guess. In and ideal world, you’d like to give them a year to mature, running through the weekday non-conference circuit before diving headlong into a weekend starter’s role. But time is not a luxury the Crimson Tide coaching staff can afford.

“For us to really make this pitching staff complete, we are going to have to run some guys out there that are inexperienced into those tough situations to see what we have,” Gaspard said. “That has to happen in the first month of the season before we hit SEC play. It was nice, as I said last week, when you had Kilcrease, Morgan and Smart, who developed last year into a tremendous pitcher for us. We don’t have that. We are really relying on young guys or unproven guys.

“It’s going to be on the job training for a lot of these guys and we have to do a good job of continuing to put these guys in those spots to let them develop so this pitching staff can be really good as we move into the middle part of the season.”

Gaspard and pitching coach Dax Norris will have 20 games to find the best starting rotation before league play starts up. Sophomores Trey Pilkington and Taylor Wolfe are fighting to add a veterans touch to the weekend rotation. The two have three wins between them and an ERA of more than 4.00. Wolfe pitched well in an intrasquad game on Sunday and Pilkington has shown signs of development in fall and spring practice.

Whoever ends up starting will be aided by a much-improved offense. All-American Taylor Dugas turned down the pros to return for his senior season and Roberts looks to become a major contributor at second base. Jarred Reaves will return to shortstop where he hit .340 last season and Austen Smith will resume his duties at first base, looking to improve on a freshman campaign where he hit a hair shy of .300 and drove in 44 runs. Freshman A.J. Cole will move in at third to replace Brett Booth who returns to his natural position at catcher. Andrew Miller will return to right field and the remaining corner outfield spot will be a mix-and-match group with Jon Kelton, Hunter Gregory, Cameron Carlisle and Jeremiah Tullidge competing for time.

Gaspard has been nothing if not optimistic about the batting order’s potential. Roberts, who came to Alabama with high expectations out of Mississippi, seems to have won over the coaching staff in a few short weeks of practice.

“I think Kenny is going to be a tremendous player for us,” Gaspard said. “He’s a very good offensive player and obviously a good base runner. ... He’s going to be an explosive offensive player, I think both in the box and on the bases.”

Offensively, Gaspard will have plenty of toys to play with -- a welcome change from the year before. But would he trade back if he could, surrendering runs scored for runs prevented?

“In our sport you always want a pitching staff that you can trust and believe in when you go into the season,” Gaspard said, hoping he could really have the best of both worlds. “That’s going to give you a chance because they have the ball in their hand all day.

“We are running out some really good young arms so this isn’t a situation where we are wondering if they are good enough. These guys are good enough, it’s just a matter of them really learning the craft of pitching and being able to execute in those tight spots for us.”