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Selected Player Breakdowns
By Stephen Igoe
There’s no shortage of proven returning talent, or breakout candidates, heading into the 2023 ECU baseball season, and most of those players have grabbed the headlines this preseason. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t some new faces to watch as well.
Heading into his ninth year at East Carolina, Cliff Godwin has shown he’s not afraid to play freshmen if they prove they are ready. But they’ve got to earn it. Last year, Jacob Jenkins-Cowart went from an unknown to a difference-maker in the heart of the order early in the season. Could someone be capable of such a performance this year?
Godwin’s staff also added three transfers in pitchers Jonathan Childress (Texas A&M), Tyler Bradt (VMI), and Willie Lumpkin (Winthrop). ECU also re-added College of Central Florida (JUCO) transfer Landon Ginn, who was with the team in 2021, exited last year, and is now back in the mix. Below is a look at six newcomers (freshmen or transfers) who have a chance to make an impact this season followed by potential breakout candidates for 2023.
INF DIXON WILLIAMS
Williams is one of the most talented young hitters in ECU’s program, and he’s shown why with a strong fall and preseason. The 6-foot-1, 200-pounder from DH Conley has excellent pop in his bat from the left side and he hits for average. During his prep career, he hit .432 with 55 RBIs and 64 runs scored. He was ranked the 26th-best prospect in North Carolina by Perfect Game. He batted .500 as a junior with 10 bombs to showcase his power, and then showed off his speed with 17 stolen bases as a senior. Where Williams fits in defensively is the question. He profiles right now as a third baseman, and has been working there behind veteran Alec Makarewicz. But he’s athletic enough to potentially play some other spots as well. And he can always DH. Williams is another strong left-handed hitting option in a lineup full of them, giving Godwin some tough decisions to make.
SS NATHAN CHRISMON
The team’s shortstop spot is wide open this season following the losses of Ryder Giles and Zach Agnos this past offseason. In step a couple of freshmen, including Chrismon. The 5-foot-8, 161-pounder is known as more of a the glove-first, defensive shortstop, ahead of fellow freshman Connor Rasmussen (more on him below). Chrismon does hit from the right side, and he had a strong prep career offensively for South Rowan High School, batting .340 for his prep career with 61 stolen bases. As a senior, Chrismon hit .369 with 35 RBIs and 23 stolen bases. The step up to Division I pitching has been an adjustment for Chrismon at times this preseason, but he still has shown the ability to put together quality at-bats. He’s just seen as the more defensive option of the group currently. We’ll see how much the coaching staff wants to put on his shoulders as a first-year player.
SS CONNOR RASMUSSEN
Rasmussen is the other freshman competing for playing time at shortstop, going head-to-head with Chrismon and returner Joey Berini for the job (with Makarewicz also capable of sliding over from third and playing some shortstop as well). The 5-9, 180-pounder is another left-handed hitter, but is known for a smooth, contact-oriented swing that is capable of driving the ball into the gaps and consistently producing line drives. He played his high school ball at Fort Mill High School in South Carolina and was also a member of the Canes on the travel circuit. Rasmussen has been described by Godwin as a pure hitter. Where he’s trying to make progress now, as quickly as possible, is on the defensive end. That’s particularly when it comes to covering ground up the middle. Rasmussen has a good arm, but range is the question mark.
RHP TYLER BRADT
Bradt’s numbers on the surface aren’t all that impressive from last season with an ERA well over 6, but a deeper look shows his potential. His strikeout numbers jump off the page, with 61 punch outs in 54.1 innings last season. Command and hard contact have been the issue at times, as he allowed 21 extra base hits last season and 35 walks. But the Pirates believe there’s certainly upside there if he can hone his skill-set, and that’s been a big point of emphasis this offseason. The 5-foot-11, 196-pounder has experience serving as a weekend starter and as a key reliever for the Keydets. He posted two saves last season and had a team-best 3.20 ERA in 17 games (six starts) during a more consistent 2021 campaign at VMI. At ECU, Bradt has primarily been utilized as a back-end bullpen arm in scrimmages. He throws in the low to mid-90s and could be one of the many candidates for the closer-by-committee role early in the season.
3B/DH CAM BURGESS
Burgess is a power-oriented bat from South Brunswick High School in North Carolina. The 6-1, 220-pounder has shown some big pop this preseason, hammering home runs in consecutive weekends, including one to dead center this past weekend. Defensively, he’s likely limited to a corner infield spot, but he’s also capable of stepping in at DH as a right-handed option. According to Perfect Game, Burgess was ranked the 31st-best prospect in the state of North Carolina, and the third-best third baseman. He launched 14 homers during his high school career. Posting more consistent at-bats from plate appearance to plate appearance, in addition to his power, will likely determine how much playing time Burgess gets on an experienced team this spring.
LHP ZACH ROOT
A former University of Florida commit, Root ended up switching to the Pirates fairly late in the recruiting process. The Fort Myers High School product was a top prospect nationally and eventually turned down potential MLB Draft money to attend school at East Carolina. The 6-foot-1, 177-pounder throws in the high 80s/low 90s and he has strong secondary pitches. Consistency and mentality, like with all young pitchers, will likely determine Root’s fate as a freshman. Root spent some time in the fall competing for a spot in the starting rotation, but he was up and down performance-wise. This preseason has featured much of the same results. He may be on the outside looking in at the weekend rotation to begin with as he learns the ropes at the college level, but he could start off as a midweek option, or a key bullpen arm early in his career.
2023 BREAKOUT CANDIDATES
1B/OF CAM CLONCH
Clonch was a candidate for a breakout season last year, and at times, he showcased he was certainly capable of such a performance, but he never quite got the consistent at-bats. He played in 48 of the team’s games with 32 starts (26 coming at DH), hitting .283 with six homers, four doubles and a .478 slugging percentage. The 6-4, 195-pounder has shown he’s got above average power, but needs to cut down a bit on the strikeouts (26) and improve his eye (four walks). Clonch has had a solid offseason for the Pirates and has put himself in position to compete for playing time again at first base, DH, and corner outfield. It’s Clonch’s third year in the program, which is typically the time many Pirate players in the past have put it all together. We’ll see if this is his year.
INF JOEY BERINI
Berini has primarily been a bench piece over his time with the Pirates, proving to be one of the team’s best pinch hitters. This year, he’s competing for a starting spot at shortstop along with freshmen Nathan Chrismon and Connor Rasmussen. Berini is a dependable defender who’s got solid range. He hit .240 last season with 10 runs scored and seven RBIs. Berini may not emerge into an all-conference player, but he’s got the chance to grow into a starter for the Pirates with the right progress this season. The shortstop competition is likely one that will continue into the regular season following the losses of Zach Agnos and Ryder Giles.
C RYAN MCCRYSTAL
McCrystal came to East Carolina with high expectations as a standout from Fuquay-Varina High School, but had to mature a bit as a freshman. The sophomore catcher has seemingly done just that entering this year. Following a campaign where he took a backseat to senior Ben Newton and got just 27 at-bats, McCrystal has emerged as a candidate to start at catcher along with Justin Wilcoxen. The 6-2 lefty slugger posted a monster summer with an Appalachian League-leading 1.120 OPS and 48 RBIs. McCrystal has continued that success into the fall and spring and is a candidate to hit in the heart of the order this season, and serve as a team leader behind the plate.
RHP JORDAN LITTLE
ECU has a bevy of arms, so it’s tough to include them all (especially when so many are realistic breakout candidates). But Little is one of the young talents many will be keeping a close eye on this season. Little made just one appearance last year, allowing three runs and recording just one out in the season opener. But he continued to progress behind the scenes throughout the year and eventually posted a dominant summer for the Bethesda Big Train of the Cal Ripken League with a 2-1 record and 0.80 ERA out of the bullpen. Little has a wiry frame at 6-4, 190 pounds and a fastball that sits in the mid-90s. He’s had his ups and downs this offseason, but has shown when he’s on, he’s tough to hit. Consistency and fastball command will likely determine what type of role he has this season, but it wouldn’t be a shock to see him develop into a back-end bullpen piece in time.
OF LUKE NOWAK
Nowak has been unfortunately slowed by injuries during his time in Greenville, but if he can get to 100 percent health, the sophomore from Wisconsin has the chance to become a key player for the Pirates. He appeared in just seven games last season as a pinch runner, showing off his speed. But he can also swing the bat. Playing for the Big Train of the Cal Ripken League this past summer, Nowak hit .360 with 22 runs scored, two doubles and nine RBI. He drew 19 walks and stole 10 bases. Shoulder surgery kept him out this fall, and he’s just starting to work his way back, so he’s playing catch up in a few regards. But don’t be surprised if he gets his chance and runs with it at some point.
RHP CHARLIE HODGES
Hodges is a bit of a wild card heading into this season, but an interesting one. He’s coming off Tommy John Surgery and sat out all of last season, but has pitched well since his return this offseason. The 6-2, 200-pound right-hander pitched in the bullpen and started during his two years at Parkland College, so he’s got the ability to do either. And he has solid stuff on the mound, with a fastball in the upper 80s/low 90s with good command and adequate secondary stuff. Hodges is competing for a starting spot heading into the season and he also has the capability to pitch in mid-relief. He went 1-1 with a 2.18 ERA over his time at Parkland.
OF CARTER CUNNINGHAM
Cunningham is competing with the aforementioned Nowak and Ryley Johnson for the starting spot in right field, and he would seem to have a leg up on the competition with opening day approaching. The 6-4, 210-pound junior had an up and down initial season with the Pirates. He played in 55 games with 19 starts (13 in RF, 5 at 1B, 1 at DH), hitting .227 with three homers, three doubles and 16 RBIs. Cunningham has a lot of tools. He’s got good speed with the ability to steal bases, and he can hit the ball out of the ballpark when he connects. He also has a solid eye at the plate. But consistency has been Cunningham’s biggest downfall. That’s the thing he’s searching for more of heading into his second year in Greenville. If he can find it, Cunningham has the talent for a breakout season.
RHP JAKE HUNTER
Hunter certainly didn’t have a bad freshman season, but the Pirates know there’s more there in the right arm of the 6-4, 230-pounder. He spent all offseason working on refining his secondary stuff, adding more consistency and sharpness to his slider. Last year, Hunter was reliant on his fastball, and while it’s a good pitch, it’s not good enough on its own to dominate. That’s why he ultimately struggled some as the season went on with a 5.18 ERA and nine homers allowed. But Hunter’s experience should serve him in a major way going forward. He got the chance to start 12 games as a freshman, which is significant. He also has excellent command (43 Ks to 7 BB in 41.2 innings last season). With just a solid growth in secondary pitches, Hunter could make a big leap as a sophomore.
C JUSTIN WILCOXEN
Wilcoxen has steadily improved each year in the program, serving as a reserve in 2020 and not appearing in any games, before seeing action in just three contests in 2021. Last year marked the first time he got significant action, and Wilcoxen ultimately had a solid year. The lefty-hitting catcher started 28 games (14 at C, 14 at DH), batting .276 with six doubles, two homers and nine RBIs. Wilcoxen was solid behind the plate, but has reportedly made a big leap this offseason, along with McCrystal. As a reverse-split hitting lefty on a lefty-heavy team, Wilcoxen could see more action against southpaws this season, just like he did often a year ago. He’s got the tools to form a solid one-two punch at catcher alongside McCrystal.
RHP JOSH GROSZ
In some ways, Grosz has already broken out. He’s posted two solid years with the Pirates, after all. But in others, he’s just scratching the surface. The projectable 6-4, 199-pound right-hander has a fastball that sits in the low 90s and a strong slider to go with it. Grosz has also had a changeup that has been somewhat inconsistent in the past, but seems to have improved a lot this offseason. After flashing talent as a reliever in 2021 across 14 relief appearances, Grosz stepped into a part-time starting role as a sophomore. He went 4-5 with a 5.65 ERA. He was mostly effective striking guys out (61 in 57.1 innings) and he limited his walks (19). But where he got into trouble was with hard contact. Opponents hit .272 against him with 12 home runs and 10 doubles. All of that points to inconsistent command in the strike zone, as well as the need for perhaps better sequencing when going multiple times through the order. Grosz is expected to open this year in the rotation. As a third-year player, look for him to grow from his past experiences and put together a strong campaign.
[Post edited by xflat at 02/12/2023 11:41AM]
Posted: 02/12/2023 at 11:32AM
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