2023 baseball preview: Improved Alabama team must back up the high expectations

Tzali Nislick, Staff Reporter

There’s a different buzz in the air around the Alabama baseball team as it enters the 2023 season. 

Opening day against the University of Richmond on Friday, Feb. 17, is inching closer, and the expectations are possibly the highest they’ve been in Brad Bohannon’s reign. Alabama finds itself ranked No. 20 in D1 Baseball’s preseason top-25 rankings thanks to an improved pitching staff and an experienced roster.  

The last two years have yielded similar results for the Crimson Tide, going 32-26 and 31-27 in 2021 and 2022, respectively. Alabama sported an identical 12-17 record in conference play both years, while also finishing 2-2 in the SEC Tournament each season. The program’s trajectory seems ready to take the next leap, despite the Crimson Tide needing to fight through a crowded SEC. 

“I think the league is as good as it’s ever been,” Alabama head coach Brad Bohannon said. “In theory you could be the 12th best team in the country and finish eighth in the league. That shows you it’s an incredibly difficult conference.”  

D1Baseball lists six SEC teams ahead of the Crimson Tide in its preseason top-25, with four in the top-5 including No. 1 Louisiana State University, No. 2 Tennessee, No. 4. Ole Miss and No. 5 Texas A&M. This begs the question: how does Alabama navigate its uphill battle in the SEC? 

The Crimson Tide’s success in 2023 relies primarily on its pitching. However, that strength took a hit after Bohannon announced Tuesday that last year’s ace, Garrett McMillan, will be sidelined indefinitely due to a muscle strain. Alabama expects him back at some point this year, but his return date is uncertain and will depend on how his rehab goes. Antoine Jean also underwent Tommy John surgery over the summer and is out for the year.  

That means the Opening Day — and presumably Friday night — keys are handed over to Grayson Hitt. The junior southpaw struggled last season to the tune of a 5.34 ERA and 1.58 WHIP, but his improvement throughout the offseason earned him a spot on Baseball America’s Preseason All-American 3rd Team. Hitt has also drawn MLB-draft buzz, ranking No. 43 on MLB Pipeline’s 2023 Draft Top 100. 

“I’m not ignoring it, I’m acknowledging it. But I’m not letting it affect my personality,” Hitt said. “I just worry about today.”  

Along with Hitt, Bohannon announced Ben Hess and Jacob McNairy as the other two opening-weekend starters for Saturday and Sunday, respectively. The former primarily started in midweek games last season before moving to the bullpen at the end of the year and the latter was a reliable starter, leading the team in wins, ranking second in innings pitched, third in strikeouts and sixth in the SEC in walks per nine innings. 

McNairy pitched well down the stretch too, owning a 3.21 ERA in his last five appearances. Hess’ calling card is a blazing fastball that has earned him the nickname “heater.” 

“He’s been up to 97, 98 [miles per hour] and he throws a lot of strikes with multiple pitches,” Bohannon said. “He’s been pretty dominant in the preseason, so we’re excited about him having a big role on our pitching staff.” 

Offensively, the lineup will look mostly the same with a couple new faces. Alabama snagged junior catcher Mac Guscette from Florida in the NCAA Transfer Portal. He had a .259/.320/.395 slash line in 57 games over two years with the Gators, but he is a defensive upgrade over Dominic Tamez, and should he see the bulk of the catching duties. Zane Denton transferring to Tennessee left a hole at third base, but Bohannon has floated out a few names as his replacement, including transfer Ed Johnson, Bryce Eblin and freshman Colby Shelton, who has drawn high praise from his teammates. 

“He’s rock solid. He had a crazy good foundation before he got here and he just kept getting better,” shortstop Jim Jarvis said. “Every time I’m playing defense against him, you never know where the ball is going to go. It’s going to get hit hard and it’s going to get put in play.” 

Otherwise, it will be the usual names who are expected to carry the bulk of the offense in 2023. Andrew Pinckney broke out last year, leading the team in OPS (.883), slugging (.500), runs (48) and doubles (14), and finishing second in batting average (.303) and hits (63). Drew Williamson and Caden Rose figure to be factors once again too.  

That trio has nearly 400 games played between them and are all juniors or older. Experience has been something Bohannon has lauded all throughout the offseason.  

“What I really like about this group is just the maturity. It’s not just the average age of the kids on the field or the number of innings and at bats they have under their belt, but just the way they go about their work and prepare and the way they’re competing,” Bohannon said. “It’s just a really mature group.” 

These are the bright spots. An emerging ace in Hitt and an experienced lineup, revolving around Pinckney and others, but the challenge the SEC poses could expose some weaknesses as well. With the departure of Dylan Ray in the 2022 MLB Draft, who will Bohannon turn to in the ninth inning? Does Alabama have the pitching depth to hold down the fort until McMillan comes back?  

Conference play doesn’t start for another month, so Alabama has time to figure that out. But with a fan base hungry for a deeper NCAA Tournament run, the Crimson Tide must start strong. And that starts in two days.  

First pitch against Richmond is Friday, Feb. 17, at 3 p.m. CT on SEC Network+.