ATLANTA -- It might not be ideal baseball weather this weekend, but defending ACC champion Georgia Tech opens the season with its annual Atlanta Challenge regardless of what the thermometer says.
The Yellow Jackets open at 4 p.m. on Friday against St. John’s, then plays Fordham in a noon doubleheader Saturday. The schedule was revised Thursday in anticipation of inclement weather Sunday.
Georgia Tech returns most of the position players from last year’s team that went 37-27 and won the ACC tournament. But there are major questions on the pitching staff, which explains why the Yellow Jackets were picked by the coaches to finish fourth in the Coastal Division.
The infield returns first baseman Thomas Smith, shortstop Connor Justus and third baseman Brandon Gold. That group was responsible for leading the nation in turning a program-record 77 double plays.
Smith hit .301 with 36 RBI last year, while A.J. Murray, who can play first base, catch or DH, hit with .283 with four homers and a .426 slugging percentage. Justus hit .254 with 30 RBI; he hit .309 against teams ranked in the top 20. Gold hit .246 with 12 doubles a year ago.
The Yellow Jackets are trying to make room for freshman Kel Johnson, who adds power to the lineup. Another freshman, Wade Bailey, is expected to replace Mott Hyde, who graduated. Bailey has been excellent in preseason games.
“We have a lot of guys capable of playing,” head coach Danny Hall said. “We’ll play a lot of guys early just to see who should be going where and then, by the time we start playing in the conference, we’ll have a pretty good idea of what guys’ roles could be and who can help and who can contribute.”
The Yellow Jackets return their starting outfield: senior Daniel Spingola, Matt Gonzalez and Ryan Peurifoy. Keenan Innis and Cole Miller are also expected to be in the mix for playing time.
Spignola, who batted a team-leading .319 last year, decided to come back for his final season despite being drafted by the Chicago Cubs. He led the ACC in hits and triples and batted .336 against ACC competition. Peurifoy hit .296. The two were among the top defensive players in the conference, as is Gonzalez, who had nine assists in addition to hitting .314 last season.
“All those guys are back, plus you throw Kel Johnson in there, it’s a good problem to have,” Hall said.
The starting catcher is expected to be Arden Pabst, who boasts a blue ribbon arm that threw out 41 percent of would-be base stealers last season. But he needs to improve at the plate, where he batted only .217.
The Yellow Jackets have uncertainty on the mound. Left-hander Jonathan King is coming back from a torn ligament in his left shoulder, and Cole Pitts is recovering from Tommy John surgery on his right elbow.
The rotation is likely to feature lefties Devin Stanton, who was 5-3 with a 2.24 ERA in 12 starts, and Ben Parr, who was 5-4 with a 2.62 ERA in 10 starts.
More questions exist in the bullpen. Replacements must be found for Dusty Isaacs, who was 8-5 with a 1.92 ERA and signed with Pittsburgh, and Sam Clay, who went 4-1 with a 1.26 ERA in 31 bullpen appearances and signed with Minnesota.
“If I’m going to lose sleep at night over something right now, it’s over who’s going to fill the roles of Dusty Isaacs and Sam Clay,” Hall said. “Those two guys were very instrumental in our success last year, and as of today, I don’t have the answer.”