Wait 'Til Next Year

It's a refrain more worthy of a Chicago Cubs fan than a Longhorn baseball fan. As Augie Garrido says repeatedly, Omaha is the minimum expectation for his baseball team. His statements explain the massive disappointment felt by fans after Wednesday's loss to LSU in the CWS Finals, even though the Longhorns had failed to make it to Omaha since 2005.

As much as the failure against LSU still stings, the refrain mentioned above is the cooling, healing salve that will help remove that sting in the grueling, barren landscape of the off-season. Wait 'til next year. The reason is simple -- the 2010 version of Texas baseball could be even better than the thrilling, yet flawed, Heart-Attack Horns of this season.

Key Departures

The Longhorns will miss several key players who contributed to this year's team, especially the leadership of seniors like Preston Clark, Keith Shinaberry, and Austin Wood. Travis Tucker and Michael Torres, also seniors, were the table-setters at the top of the order and both provided a steadying presence in the lineup. Junior Brandon Belt, drafted in the fifth round by the San Fransisco Giants, was the best hitter for most of the season until completely losing his ability to hit fastballs and looking terrible at the plate for most of the post-season and is universally expected to sign with the Giants.

Drafted Signees

Texas signed some excellent players in the 2010 baseball recruiting class, but several of them probably will not make it to campus.The Longhorns will be excellent regardless of which players do decide to attend college, but players like Everett Williams and Colton Cain could be the pieces that put Texas over the top.

Everett Williams, the outfielder from Austin, was always projected as a top draft pick and ended up going in the second round to the Paedres, lower than expected, still probably still high enough to sign. There is little chance that he ever suits up as a Longhorn, though that might be increasing, as there are whispers that the idea of going to college is growing on him. The risk for Williams is that he's a toolsy player, but strikes out too much and doesn't do anything exceptionally, meaning that he could be somewhat exposed as a college player and hurt his stock.

Jacob Cowan, a right-hander from San Jacinto Junior College, fell further in the draft than expected (10th round), but will likely sign because he doesn't have a guaranteed spot in the weekend rotation and has some qualification concerns.

Left-handed pitcher/first baseman Colton Cain may be the most interesting story to follow. Regarded by many as a Top 40 high school talent, Cain fell to the eighth round because of signability concerns. However, the team that picked him, the Pirates, will have a huge impact on whether or not he makes it to Texas. After drafting Tony Sanchez in the first round, Pittsburgh saved several million dollars and is aggressively looking to add minor-league depth as an organization. The well-above slot demands of Cain for a signing bonus of around one million dollars may not be high enough to scare the Pirates away.

Likewise, right-hander Josh Urban also fell to the 19th round because of similar signability concerns, but Urban was also drafted by the Pirates and fits the power-pitcher profile that GM Neil Huntington loves, meaning he could end up signing if given a big bonus as well.

The other players drafted are expected to attend college, a group that includes catcher Jonathan Walsh, who may have a chance to play first base if Belt leaves and Cain signs, right-hander Keifer Nuncio, catcher Nick de Santiago, outfielder Cohl Walla, and left-hander Hoby Milner. Of those players, Walsh is the most likely to sign, but concerns about his ability behind the plate dropped him in the draft, as well as his strong desire to play at Texas.

Key Replacements

  • Kevin Lusson, third base: Little Lusson was impressive in his limited opportunities as a freshman, hitting .310 with four doubles and 11 RBI in only 42 at-bats. Perhaps even more impressive was his strikeout to walk ratio -- 5:15, good for a .491 OBP. The switch-hitter is expected to step in at third base for Michael Torres and was simply a catalyst for the offense when he played, scoring 13 runs on the season. I didn't see enough of Lusson to get a good read on his range, but the Longhorn coaches could also look at him at second base if no other candidate emerges and give Tan Shepherd another shot at third.
  • Jordan Etier, second base: Since the Longhorns didn't sign a true infielder in the 2010 class, they will probably have to look for a replacement already on the team. Etier will likely have the first shot at the job. It's hard to take much from his small sample size as a freshman, but Etier was not particularly impressive, recording four hits in 15 at-bats, none for extra bases, while striking out four times. The Longhorns could also look at David Hernandez at second base, though he has struggled with his fielding at Texas and has a major hole in his swing (anything inside). Much like the coaches did after the 2007 season when they brought in Hernandez and Torres, they could look for a transfer to fill in at second base.
  • Cohl Walla, left field: Preston Clark started in left field throughout much of the post-season after both Tan Shepherd and David Hernandez struggled to hold down the position. Walla, the former favorite target of Garrett Gilbert before giving up football to focus on baseball has the athleticism to play center field, but will probably be given a look in left field to start out, as Connor Rowe's defense in center field was excellent for most of the season. Walla may help the Longhorns produce better offensively at that position, as he hit .371 and showed some pop with eight home runs during his senior season at Lake Travis. Tant Shepherd and David Hernandez may also compete for his position.
  • Brandon Workman, closer: Since Chance Ruffin, Cole Green, and Taylor Jungmann seem entrenched as the weekend starters, Workman may get the first shot at the closer's role. With his 95-97 mph fastball, he has the most protoypical closer's stuff on the team. However, Workman will have to develop better control before he can be trusted as a closer and will probably need to develop another pitch to throw for strikes besides his curveball, with often flattens out and spins when he tries to back-door hitters.
  • Sam Stafford and Andrew McKirahan, left-handed specialists: Perhaps the greatest flaw in the 2009 team was the lack of reliable left-handers out of the bullpen, a deficiency glaringly exposed by the LSU Tigers and their  cadre of left-handed hitters. After Austin Wood, the Longhorns had no one, as the other main option, Keith Shinaberry, dealth with shoulder problems for much of the year and never had particularly good stuff to begin with. McKirahan made 11 appearances, but struggled with an ERA of 5.68, giving up 17 hits in 12.2 innings and walking seven batters. Sam Stafford redshirted this season and may have even better stuff than McKirahan, as Kirk Bohls reports the the lefty is hitting 95 mph with his fastball in summer ball in California. Freshman Hoby Milner will also have plenty of opportunities to earn a role on the staff, while former starter Riley Boening is a long-shot to contribute after shoulder surgeries.

The case for improvement

The 2009 team had no experience in the College World Series. Now, this group of players knows what it takes to beat the best teams in the country. Their experience this season will give them the confidence in themselves to take the next step as players, as well as the hunger to return to complete their unfinished business. Augie Garrido spends a lot of time talking about nebulous concepts like confidence and baseball spirituality and if the incredible post-season run this year proved anything, it is that this team possesses all those intangibles in spades.

With Kevin Keyes, Cameron Rupp, and the rejuvenated Russell Moldenhauer anchoring the middle of the lineup, the 3-4-5 spots on the 2010 team will be incredibly difficult to navigate. Throughout the season, Keyes improved his approach at the plate considerably, cutting down on his swing to reduce his strikeouts and greatly improving his pitch selection. If he can continue to make those improvements, Keyes could find himself frequenting the nightmares of opposing pitchers. Rupp found his power stroke in the CWS, hitting three huge home runs in Omaha and challenging Keyes for the title of player with the most raw power on the team. Moldenhauer finally started tapping into the talent that made him a third-round draft pick out of high school and may have finally found his hitting strike. If he can remain dialed in at the plate throughout the summer and fall, he could be a much-needed left-handed presence in the lineup next season. Remember, as well, that Moldy hit .350 as a sophomore, a fact often forgotten during his struggles this season.

That leaves the pitching staff. And what a wonderful staff it will be. If Taylor Jungmann commits himself to gaining strength, the velocity on his fastball could improve by several miles per hour, which would probably make him the closest thing to unhittable in college baseball. Chance Ruffin will remain excellent, but needs to focus on keeping his pitches down in the zone more consistently in order to reduce the number of home runs he allows. Cole Green simply needs to build on his strong performances against Southern Miss and Arizona State in the CWS.

Where the Longhorns should be much improved is in the bullpen. Losing only Austin Wood, and with several incoming pitchers who should be able to contribue right away -- Josh Urban, Keifer Nuncio, and Hoby Milner -- Skip Johnson will have many more options at the end of games, a major problem in the CWS when Austin Dicharry couldn't control his pitches and Austin Wood lost his magic. And not just reasonable options like most teams have -- sidearm right-handers throwing batting-practice fastballs, for instance -- the Longhorns will have some seriously talented arms in the bullpen. The biggest question is whether any of them will actually get a chance to pitch on the weekends with the excellent starting pitching.

The defense should remain constant, with critical pieces like Brandon Loy and Connor Rowe returning, as well as a true third baseman in Kevin Lusson stepping in at the hot corner. Another area where the Longhorns should improve immensely is offensively, as Kevin Keyes and Cameron Rupp make jumps in their developments and talented youngsters like Walsh, a switch hitter, Cohl Walla, and possibly Colton Cain, a lefty with prodigious power, join the fold. Playing at home in UFCUDFF, they probably won't continue to mash like they did in Omaha, but the home run totals should go up next season.

So, just wait 'til next year. And until then, the Longhorns might just have some pretty talented athletes on the football field and basetkball court to help pass the time.

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