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February 14, 2013- -
AUBURN | John Pawlowski knows all about the expectations being placed upon his team this season.
Or, more accurately, the lack of expectations.
The Tigers finished 31-28 last season, which included a 13-17 mark in Southeastern Conference play, despite leading the league in batting average and finishing third in runs scored. Pitching was an issue - and now starters Derek Varnadore and Jon Luke Jacobs are gone forever.
Auburn recently was picked by league coaches to finish last in the Western Division. Pawlowski seemed surprised by the slight, but said he won't discuss the issue until March.
"I haven't talked to the team about external expectations. We'll use that as motivation (later)," he said. "When it comes right down to it, you have an opportunity to play the game - and that's a great thing."
Everything starts with the batting order.
The team's top four hitters return, which gives Pawlowski a solid base upon which to build. The key is centerfielder Ryan Tella, who led Auburn in batting average, on-base percentage and slugging last season while providing plus range in the outfield.
The fielders beside him could be show-stealers as well.
Cullen Wacker again will handle left field while providing value in the batting order. The senior provides exquisite strike-zone judgment and on-base percentage to the Tigers' lineup.
Sam Gillikin is expected to take the reins in right field. The freshman from Hoover High was projected to go in the first 10 rounds of the 2012 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft, but fell to the 33rd round because of concerns about his allegiance to Auburn.
He's expected to provide speed and a discerning batting eye.
First baseman Garrett Cooper brings some middle-of-the-order brawn while Tanner Cimo (second base), Dan Glevenyak (shortstop) and junior-college transfer Damek Tomschea (third base) round out the infield lineup. Catcher Blake Austin returns as well.
All in all, Tella said, the Tigers still have what it takes to top the leaderboards in offensive categories.
"We do have the capability to do it again," he said. "We return so much of our offense this year."
The pitching staff remains a work in progress.
Sophomore Daniel Koger has been moved into the Friday role after a solid first season. He seemed to tire during the season's second half, which elicited a loss of velocity and control of his two-seam fastball.
The Huntsville native walked more batters than he struck out in league games. To help reverse those trends, Koger took the unusual step of skipping the East Coast summer college league season.
"I just wanted to give my arm a break," he said.
Koger added some weight - he now has 180 pounds on his 6-foot-5 frame - and hopes he'll be able to maintain his mid-80s velocity into the middle innings and beyond this season. Sophomore Rocky McCord and junior-college transfer Mike O'Neal round out the weekend starters.
Pawlowski also managed to upgrade a bullpen that was a strength last season. A pair of junior-college transfers, Terrence Detrick and Conner Kendrick, are expected to serve as closer and primary set-up man beginning this weekend against Maine. Pawlowski said both players demonstrated control of strong off-speed pitches during fall practice.
He expects the Tigers to protect even more late-inning leads this season.
Will Kendall, who was the team's best starter last season before tearing an elbow ligament in April, was added to the 35-man roster on Thursday. He recently was cleared to begin throwing breaking balls during bullpen sessions and could be available for game duty beginning in March.
Pawlowski still isn't sure how he'll deploy Kendall once the junior receives full clearance. Possibilities include mid-week starts or perhaps a long-relief role.
"He's making great progress," Pawlowski said. "He wants to do it, he wants to be out there, he wants to help. I've been so encouraged by what he's been able to do in such a short period of time. He could be a big part of our team before it's all over."