In further contemplating my thoughts from the other day about next year's version of the Texas baseball Longhorns, some notable absences and glaring omissions became apparent. The purpose of this post is to tie up some of those loose ends as much as possible -- of course, all of this is pure speculation and many of these questions will not satisfactorily be answered until the deadline for drafted players signing contracts passes, fall baseball, and, for most of them, until the season starts many months from now.
Even though it is so long until the next baseball season, the pure potential of the team is extremely exciting, and, hey, it's the off-season, so why not talk about it...The Left Field Competition
Perhaps the most egregious omissions occurred in my treatment of the battle for playing time in left field next season. The only player I mentioned was Cohl Walla, the former football player and outfielder for Lake Travis. Of course, that left out junior-to-be Tant Shepherd, the starter for most of the season, David Hernandez, Shepherd's replacement in left field, and Tim Maitland, known mostly as a pinch-runner and defensive replacement.
Shepherd lost the job after the second game of the series against the Aggies and only started two games for the rest of the season after a stretch in Big 12 play when he went 1-20 (.050). In conference play, Shepherd only hit .247 -- of the regulars in the lineup, only Preston Clark (.210) and Russell Moldenhauer (.216) were worse and both of those players were heroes of the postseason. It's hard to say why Shepherd struggled so mightily in Big 12 play -- it might be that advanced scouting detected a major hole in his swing that Big 12 pitchers exploited or Shepherd might have just gone through one of the periods of tough luck that characterize the cruel game of baseball. Whatever the case, Shepherd was one of the best hitters on the team as a freshman, hitting .357. As much as he may have struggled in 2009, there is precedent to suggest that Shepherd could have a strong junior season and regain his starting job in left field.
Displaced by the smooth-fielding Brandon Loy at shortstop after committing eight early errors (including four in the first game against Texas State), senior-to-be David Hernandez was nearly as ineffective as Shepherd when he replaced the struggling sophomore for the last game of the season after Tim Maitland had received two consecutive starts in left field. Until he was replaced by Preston Clark for the third game of the super regional against TCU, Hernandez went only 4-27 (.148). Of greater concern was the slugging percentage for the former shortstop -- .273, exactly the same as his season batting average. That's right, over the course of 99 at-bats and 27 hits, Hernandez did not have a single hit go for extra bases.
While that fits the stereotype of the classic slick-fielding, weak-hitting shortstop, Hernandez has been neither during his time at Texas. During his first season with the Longhorns, Hernandez failed to live up to his reputation as having a good glove by committing 20 errors, but surpassed expectations at the plate, hitting .291. Most surprisingly, considering his power outage in 2009, Hernandez had nine extra-base hits on the year, including four home runs, as many as Cameron Rupp, the bull-strong Longhorn catcher. As a hitter, the former shortstop likes to extend his hands, so any pitches on the inner half of the plate tie him up in knots. Given that major hole in his swing and lack of power, Hernandez is unlikely to receive much playing time as a senior and another transfer may be in order for the former Fresno State Bulldog.
That leaves sophomore-to-be Tim Maitland as the only returning candidate for the starting job. Mainly used as a pinch-runner and late-inning defensive replacement, Maitland scored 11 runs on the year on only six hits and had only 31 at-bats, even though he appeared in 59 games. Those 31 at-bats represent too small of a sample size to become overly concerned about his .194 batting average, but Maitland did demonstrate that his best offensive attribute may be his ability to get hit by pitches -- Maitland was hit by six pitches on the year, half as many as noted plunkee Travis Tucker in only 12% of the at-bats.
Given the small sample size for Maitland at the plate, returning to his high school scouting report and production can further illuminate Maitland as a player. The numbers are impressive, as Maitland hit .474 as a junior and .469 as a senior. More surprising were his power numbers as a senior -- Maitland hit six home runs and added eight triples. His scouting report is equally promising, noting that Maitland used his solid bat speed to spray the ball around the field (necessary for a slight left-handed hitter), made consistent contact, and demonstrated gap power. An off-season in the weight room would greatly benefit such a lanky kid, but his true value to the 2009 Longhorns could be in providing speed to a relatively slow lineup and anchoring the lead-off spot after the departures of Michael Torres and Travis Tucker, the two players who filled the top spot in 2009.
The First Base Competition
Since there is every indication that Brandon Belt will sign with the Giants, the first-base job will feature an extremely open competition next year. While Russell Moldenhauer is a possibility, his 5-11 height probably precludes him from playing there consistently, as most managers and coaches prefer their first basemen to be several inches taller. That leaves Colton Cain and Jonathan Walsh as the most likely alternatives.
Cain would be the prohibitive favorite, but the Pirates may be willing to meet his demands of a seven-figure bonus. His major advantage over Walsh is his previous experience at the position -- if Brandon Belt's struggles at first base in 2008 proved one thing, it's that sticking the tall guy at first base hardly guarantees success at the position. However, the concern with Cain is his mobility, as the big lefty has well below average speed. However, since Russell Moldenhauer is an even greater case of a player without a position and hits from the same side of the plate, Cain is much more likely to end up at first base than Moldenhauer ending up playing in the field.
Even with his poor performance behind the plate in the CWS, there is little doubt that Cameron Rupp will be behind the plate again in 2010. That leaves freshman Jonathan Walsh without a position. Though early scouting reports out of high school characterized Walsh as a strong defensive catcher, his play as a senior lefty many observers significantly downgrading the Coppell product's work behind the plate. At 6-3, Walsh has the size to play first base and is known as possessing above-average athleticism for a catcher, so learning first base may not be a major problem, though an off-season spent practicing there would certainly mitigate any potential rawness.
Midweek Starter and Long Relief
Two of the most likely candidates for the job of midweek starter are pitchers who saw little action on the weekend -- a telling commentary by Skip Johnson on their ability. Though Kendal Carillo and Stayton Thomas were instrumental in helping Texas beat every midweek opponent besides Rice, their 2009 usage probably indicates a similar role in 2010.
Of the two, Thomas is the most likely to fill a larger role within the bullpen, as he pitched well in 2008 when he saved three games and held opponents to a .194 batting average. The problem with Thomas has always been his control -- he walked 21 batters in 35.1 innings as a freshman, while hitting nine others. Last season Thomas managed to walk fewer batters (six in 21.1 innings), but still struggled to avoid hitting them, plunking five on the season. Until he can better command his pitches, control will be a major limiting factor for Thomas, although he also allowed opponents to hit .291 against him in 2009, another significant concern.
In the big midweek games, Austin Dicharry will probably continue to see action after starting five games as a freshman. Even if he continues to start games during the week, he will also play an important role in the bullpen on the weekend as a long reliever and primary set-up man. There is also a strong chance that he could end up as the closer if Brandon Workman does not end up with the job. Despite his struggles in Omaha, Dicharry still had a phenomenal freshman season, finishing with a 2.28 ERA and, most impressively, holding opponents to a .189 batting average, lowest on the team. Like Taylor Jungmann, opponents had an extremely difficult time hitting the ball hard off of Dicharry and his exceptional change-up, recording only one home run amongst 11 extra-base hits on the season. However, as Dicharry demonstrated in Omaha, his ability to control his fastball is a significant determinant of his success -- at the end of the season, for whatever reason, he just didn't seem to know where it was going.
- A few amazing tidbits about Taylor Jungmann: in 94.2 innings that encompassed 337 at-bats, opponents had only one home run among seven extra-base hits against the star freshman. In contrast, ace Chance Ruffin gave up 32, including 15 home runs and Keith Shinaberry gave up five in 12.2 IP. Jungmann also had a WHIP of 1.05 (Greg Maddux had a career WHIP of 1.14).
- Apparently Kirk Bohls was wrong about Sam Stafford being a redshirt freshman, as Stafford did pitch 2.2 innings in 2009. Those three appearances were not particularly encouraging -- Stafford had an ERA of 10.12 after walking six batters and hitting another on his way to three earned runs in his limited work. As appealing as his 95-mph fastball is, he clearly needs some work controlling it.
- The infield defense may improve slightly next season when Kevin Lusson replaces Michael Torres at third. After struggling mightily at second base in 2008, Torres worked hard on his defense and improved greatly in 2009, increasing his fielding percentage from .907 to .939. However, the major limiting factor for Torres was his height, which limited his range on sharply hit balls to his right or left. Lusson is between three and four inches taller than Torres, which should help him reach a few more balls next season.
- When Jordan Etier signed, Tommy Harmon compared him to Travis Tucker with his hustle and ability to handle the bat. He also showed a little bit of pop for a little guy in high school, hitting a combined 10 home runs as a junior and senior, good enough to rank 11th on the Inside Texas Prep Baseball Top 25 list. During his junior season, he hit over .400.