Okay, so it really doesn't matter that the Longhorns came out on top of the Bears 10-8 in a 14-inning scrimmage on a perfect fall Austin day at Disch-Falk Field. So little that the number of scouts in the building almost outnumbered the fans enjoying some Texas baseball in the fall, a preview of the team that should begin competing for another national championship just a few months from now. Speaking of scouts, I went over and pestered one from the Oakland A's for his radar gun readings on the Longhorn pitchers and insights on Texas players and ended up talking to him for half the scrimmage about Longhorn football -- it turned out he played baseball at Johnston and committed to Texas before turning pro. Many thanks to him for putting up with me.
A look at the pitching staff
The strength of the 2010 team will be the deep pitching staff featuring proven arms like Chance Ruffin, Taylor Jungmann, Cole Green, and Brandon Workman, as well as newcomers like Keifer Nuncio, Josh Urban, Hoby Milner, and Paul Montalbano. First, the proven guys:
Taylor Jungmann, sophomore starting pitcher. For most of his freshman season, Jungmann operated as the weekend long reliever, putting out fires if a starter struggled. This season, the coaches won't be able to keep the lanky sophomore out of the weekend rotation. The story out of fall camp last week was that Jugnmann put in a lot of time in the weight room to get stronger while resting his arm, supposedly helping him add several miles per hour to his fastball. Even though Jungmann didn't look noticeably bigger, he did seem to have some pop to his fastball, a sentiment supported qualitatively by the unholy pop of Cameron Rupp's glove reverberating in the nearly-empty shell of the stadium -- my first impression upon walking into the game. Quantitatively, the radar gun readings confirmed my aural reaction, as Jungmann was sitting at 94-96, indeed several miles an hour faster than he was throwing last season.
It wasn't the most efficient performance for Jungmann, as he had trouble putting some hitters away and had some sporadic moments of being unable to control his fastball. An error by Kevin Keyes helped prolong one inning and Jungmann ended up giving up a couple of runs, though no one hit the ball particularly hard against him. Overall, a solid performance considering that he hasn't pitched competitively in a game-like situation since shutting down LSU in the second game of the championship back in June. He will be dominant this season.
Chance Ruffin, junior starting pitcher. As always, Ruffin exuded intensity on the mound -- his body language gave the impression of a College World Series game. It is perhaps that quality that I admire most in Ruffin, much like Houston Street, Ruffin is as intense a competitor as anyone in the college game. He was sharp on the day, keeping his fastball down, which is a must for him to maintain his natural sink, and sat at his usual 88-92 during the game. The offspeed offerings where as sharp as his fastball -- he looked like he was in mid-season form and appeared ready to go out and win a baseball game for Texas on Sunday had it been necessary.
Brandon Workman, junior starting pitcher. Like Ruffin, Workman was working at his normal velocity from last season, at about 92-94 consistently, The curveball had good bite to it and Workman controlled it well, also mixing in his cutter and a change up. When Workman got in trouble and gave up a home run, it was because he left a fastball up and over the plate, something he kept from doing throughout most of the two innings he worked. The most heartening sign was that he controlled his pitchers so well -- it would be a huge boost to the staff if Workman has finally worked through the control problems that have held him back through his first two years at Texas.
Austin Dicharry, sophomore reliever. Not sure if there will be a big leap from Dicharry this year and there isn't necessarily anything wrong with that, but I get the sense that he is what he is as a pitcher at this point. His fastball sat about 92, which was down a bit from what the gun was reading at the CWS, but may have been closer to what he was consistently throwing at last season. He gave up a long home run on his fastball. His changeup is still good and he throws it a lot, so even though it's his best pitch, it still gets hit sometimes. Maybe that just means that it's not quite as good as advertised sometimes or hitters have a chance because they have a lot of chance to sit on it.
Stayton Thomas, junior reliever. To be honest, I wasn't that interested in seeing Thomas pitch since he may well be passed in the reliever rotation by freshman like Josh Urban and Keifer Nuncio and wanted to see Nuncio and fellow freshman Hoby Milner. However, Thomas was more impressive than I expected and drew comment from the scouts about his fastball velocity, sitting consistently at 92, a pitch that generally tops out at around 89-90 for him. His changeup looked solid and if he can maintain his control, he could contribute for Texas out of the bullpen this season.
Cole Green, junior starter. Green closed out the game with two solid innings, but at that point I was having trouble concentrating. His fastball was his normal velocity, topping out at about 91 -- it's a pitch that he will have to develop more confidence in to take the next step, as last season he often relied, sometimes almost exclusively, on his plus changeup. If he can locate his fastball down and not overthrow it, the natural sink on it should make it hard enough to hit that Green can throw it more often this season.
Sam Stafford, sophomore reliever. Kirk Bohls caught my attention this summer by mentioning that Stafford had been hitting 95 with his fastball in a California league, a comment that got my hopes up about the sophomore contributing as the first lefty out of the bullpen -- finding that lefty will remain a priority leading up to the season. Based on what Stafford was running up to the plate, someone gave Bohls some bad information. His fastball sat at 86-88 and his changeup looked average at best and was a pitch that he hung a couple of times. Maybe it was a curveball. Whatever it was, it didn't look that good. He did get through his inning of quickly facing left-handers, so at least the results were positive.
Josh Urban, freshman reliever. I neglected to ask the scout what he thought of Urban's ability to contribute, but from my perspective, he didn't look overwhelming by any means. He's a big kid and had a nice downward plane on his fastball, which he threw between 89-91, and a change and a curve that need some development, as he threw several rolling curveballs that he won't be able to get away with during the season. After he settled in, he got better movement on his pitches and he may be able to add a bit to his fastball as he gets stronger in the strength program and works with Skip Johnson on generating more power in his delivery. He'll probably get a chance to start occasionally during the week and then possibly some spot work out of the pen on the weekends.
Paul Montalbano, junior reliever. The buzz surrounding the late-addition JUCO lefty increased my expectations coming into the scrimmage and it's safe to say that he was a disappointment. I didn't expect much with his fastball based on what I had heard and didn't get much -- 85-87 with Montalbano appearing to overthrow at times to get it to the top end of that spectrum and losing his control. He's a small, skinny dude listed at an extremely generous 6-1, 175 pounds. Yeah right. The secondary stuff wasn't particularly impressive either, as his normally-whippy delivery on his fastball slowed considerably when throwing his straight change. He also had a curveball that looked average. If the dumpy lefty from Arizona State can be effective without much in the way of better offerings than Montalbano, then I guess he can effective, but the takeaway here is that he's far from a world beater.
The position players
It's probably too length to go through and analyze every position player, but several things stood out. First, the starting outfield consisted of Tim Maitland in left field, Connor Rowe in center, and Kyle Lusson in right field. Second, relatedly, Kyle Lusson is a good fielder, but he's a terrible hitter. Terrible. Has been ever since he got to Texas. Third, that outfield as a whole is terrible offensively and I can't imagine that group starting together unless Augie has gone batshit crazy. Fourth, Tim Maitland also appears to be terrible, with several extremely poor at bats,
In other words, he looked overmatched, just like he has pretty every time he's stepped up to the plate as a Longhorn. I mentioned to the scout that I had read a report about Maitland having some gap power in high school and hitting line drives. I received perhaps the most incredulous look i've ever seen. Priceless. Basically, Maitland, like the older Lusson, is just not good at baseball.
Connor Rowe is who he is and still fights a consistent battle with his back leg and his general inability to lay off of or hit breaking pitches. Relatedly, I asked the scout if Robbie Grossman would have put the Longhorns over the top against LSU back in June. He quickly nodded and I silently cursed the Pirates. Also, Colton Cain is the real deal. I silently cursed the Pirates.
Kevin Keyes got the start at first and promptly booted an easy, slow-spinning ground ball. He looked like an outfielder trying to learn how to field, but he did make the only other play that came in his direction. I've always seen Keyes as a solid outfielder with a solid arm and the scout agreed that he's a fine corner outfielder, so the move is more about a need at another position than poor defense by Keyes in the outfield. Playing the position is clearly a work in progress for Keyes, so it's too early for any real judgments about it. At the plate, he looked like he has continued to improve his approach at the plate and took two hits, while also lacing a ball nearly 400 feet into the power alley where balls go to die at the Disch.
Speaking of power, Russell Moldenhauer picked up where he left off last season by hitting two home runs, one a blast into left-center field and the other a high fastball out over the plate that he took into the Baylor bullpen opposite field. In addition to the home runs, he picked up another hit and reached base twice more on a walk and hit by pitch. He's just a really good, powerful hitter with good pitch recognition and some incredible power for being so short. The strength is apparent and he's ready for a break-out season if he can stay locked in.
After his prodigious clout, Cameron Rupp doesn't have much to prove at the plate, but behind it he still needs some work. Frustrated by his inability to consistently keep pitches in front of him in the early going, I began to wonder if he has a future at the position professionally. The scout was unequivocal about Rupp being a prospect at the position, saying he moves well for a big guy behind the plate and has an excellent "pop time" -- the time it takes him to get rid of the ball -- at under two seconds, and that he has an excellent arm for the position. Put that together with his bat and Rupp is a good catcher prospect, as the scout believed that teams can work with him on getting his body in front of the ball better.
With those three players in the middle of the lineup -- Rupp, Moldy, and Keyes -- the Longhorns should hit more home runs this year and put a ton of pressure on pitches when they come up to the plate. Batting Connor Rowe behind Rupp isn't going to provide the big catcher with much protection, so having someone like Cohl Walla or Tant Shepherd step up and earn a job to protect Rupp becomes of importance.
Leading off for the Longhorns was Brandon Loy, who looked like he will still struggle at the plate at times this season, but made a sensational play deep in the hole and an equally strong throw on the run to retire a Baylor player -- a big league play, no doubt. Jordan Etier followed and played second base, looking like he could approximate Travis Tucker pretty well, though he had a poor mental at bat when he sat on a first-pitch fastball and laced it into the corner fall and never got his head right after that, taking two bad swings at bad pitches to retire himself quickly. He does, however, have more pop than Tucker. Kevin Lusson played third and looked solid in the field, while taking his customary pitches and drawing two walks, but got little else going at the plate -- given his approach, he should be fine.
Of the young kids, Johnathan Walsh was the most aggressive at the plate, swinging at the first two pitches in each of his first two at bats before finally getting a hold of a pitch in this third and driving it out of the ballpark. He looked trim and athletic running the basepaths, but his arm is well below average, so it doesn't look like he has much of a future behind the plate and isn't a candidate in right field either as a result. He should get a look in left at some point.
Cohl Walla looked solid, though he needs to spend considerable time in the weight room and opposing pitchers can probably get him out consistently inside -- he looks like he wants to extend his hands to make good contact and drive the ball. If Rowe continues to struggle at the plate, Walla needs to get a look in center field.
Tant Shepherd isn't exactly a new Longhorns, but he's wearing a new number this season and hoping for a fresh start after a terrible sophomore campaign. At the plate, he looked more confident, bringing his hands in and turning on a pitch inside and driving it into the left-field corner, a good sign after a poor summer in the Cape Cod League. When he came into the game, he played first base and looked more comfortable there than Keyes, but his height is a concern there at 5-11. He may be better suited for left field, but also could get a shot at third base again if the younger Lusson struggles.
Enough of the pitchers looked sharp enough that it's encouraging to see the team play at a high level, though the staff as a whole needs to work on leaving fewer pitches up in the zone, as Baylor drove more than a few balls on the day. Defensively, the team was fine in general besides the miscue by Keyes at first and another ball he failed to cut off, allowing a runner to advance a base. Rupp needs work blocking pitches behind the plate, but that may continue to be a struggle for him at the college level. No answers yet on the closer, but Workman looked like he can start at a high level if he can continue controlling his fastball and the first left hander out of the pen is still to be determined. It was a disappointment not to see Nuncio or Milner work, but the scout thought Nuncio should contribute early.
Offensively, the team should be much improved with the murderer's row of Keyes, Moldenhauer, and Rupp in the middle of the lineup. The question is how well Loy fits at the top, but he should be fine there as long as he can swing the bat consistently and draw some walks. However, the Longhorns won't be improved offensively if Maitland, Rowe, and Lusson all play together, but that shouldn't be the case, though finding an outfield rotation will remain a priority.
Overall, despite some minor signs of rust, this team has the pitching to win a national championship and the hitting should improve enough this season that it isn't a consistent and major source of frustration. This team will be fun to watch.