Texas Baseball Season Preview -- Part I

Will 2011 end like this?

Baseball is a funny game. The Horns outscored TCU 16-8 over three postseason games last June. Texas lost. Texas fans were disappointed. You could probably count on one hand the number of schools that would be disappointed in a 50-win season and hard fought Super Regional exit against a team with two potential future Major League starters. Yet Texas is one of those schools and Texas fans weren't happy with missing out on Rosenblatt's final hurrah.

The 2010 season was supposed to be the glorious ending to the 2009 season's postseason magic, but it wasn't. Then the 2010 MLB draft was supposed to usher in the end of the group of players that brought Texas baseball back from the dark times that followed the 2005 national championship, but it didn't quite. Occasionally Texas gets a high school player like Jordan Danks, Kyle Russell or Taylor Jungmann to tell the pros he's coming to Texas no matter where he's drafted. Very rarely does Texas get lucky with a key player returning for his senior season, and to have two juniors forgo the money for another year on the 40 Acres is remarkable.

Tant Shepherd returning was really no huge surprise; he was a very late round draft pick and had nowhere to go but up in coming back for another year. Shepherd hit a team best .337 last season and was solid defensively at 1B, one of our big question marks entering the 2010 season. Cole Green coming back is another story. It should be no big shock that some of Augie's best offensive teams (2006-2008) were least successful, while his best pitching teams (2004-2005, 2009) saw postseason success. Green's numbers in 2010 were impressive: 11-2, 2.74 ERA, .218 BAA, and as we noted in the 2010 wrap up, Green was on an insane tear near the end of the season. In six starts against Oklahoma, Kansas, Texas A&M, Oklahoma State, Baylor and Kansas State, Green pitched 50 innings, threw three complete games (including a one-hitter), gave up 24 hits and ONE earned run. Green joining future first round pick Taylor Jungmann on the mound may be the difference between a rebuilding year and a trip to Omaha in 2011.

Summing up what we know about the 2011 Texas baseball squad: two All-American starting pitchers, one of the best defensive shortstops, a solid first baseman, and a center fielder who can really run. This Texas squad certainly has the talent and coaching to make it to Omaha, but there are a lot of question marks as we start the year. After the jump, the big questions for the 2011 baseball season.

The last two years we've started off the season preview with a look at the major issues facing the team (2009 and 2010 versions). This season? More of the same! Surely Augie knows the answers to some of these, but he has failed to return AO's repeated late-night phone calls and we are forced to wing it once again.

1. Where will the offense come from?

  • The wording here is critical. Looking back at the 2009 preview, this question worded exactly the same, was the #2 big issue facing the team. Other programs might word it differently, perhaps worrying where the next .400 hitter or 20 home run slugger will come from, or maybe wondering how college baseball's new bat rules will affect their offense. For Texas though, if the pitching is as good as it should be then just a mediocre offense is needed to bring success. Augieball may lead to fewer crooked numbers, but when your pitching is elite and you only need 3-4 runs to win then taking the one run at a time makes sense. The offense doesn't have to come in spades, it just needs to show up.
  • While two of Texas' most consistent hitters from 2010 return for 2011, Shepherd and likely starting CF Cohl Walla, the Horns lose three of its biggest power hitters. Texas probably won't be able to replace the power of LF Kevin Keyes, C Cameron Rupp and DH Russell Moldenhauer in 2011, but it could certainly improve its offense. Texas hit a decade-worst .286 in 2010, so more singles with fewer homers may actually lead to more runs in 2011. Paul Montalbano flashed clutch hitting in a limited number of at bats, and it seems multiple freshmen will have to contribute (see question 4) if Texas is to reach the vaunted offensive mediocrity.

2. Who will be the third starter?

  • As noted above, Texas' two All-Americans are back, meaning the Horns should be in good shape for the first two days of each series. But who will pitch on Sunday? If the last few seasons are any indication then one shouldn't read too much into whoever starts the first Sunday. Last year it was Austin Dicharry before he was derailed by a shoulder injury and Cole Green took over. Last season's midweek starter Hoby Milner is the most likely candidate to start Sundays, but Dicharry will almost certainly get another chance to prove his freshman year wasn't a fluke. Sam Stafford is another third starter candidate. Stafford's stuff is very good and he had a really good summer in California (1-0, 0.32 ERA in 28 innings, .106 BAA). If he can throw strikes then he may be the team's second best MLB prospect, but if he can't then he's unlikely to see many meaningful innings. The guess right now is it'll be Milner, but that's mostly based off of the Alumni Game which began with Jungmann, then Green, then Milner on the mound. Much more on the pitching staff in a later preview.

3. Wanna have a catch?

  • Replacing Cameron Rupp will be arguably the biggest challenge facing the 2011 Texas baseball team. Rupp was an elite defensive catcher, not to mention having a few prodigious hits in his career. The top two candidates to replace Rupp's production are sophomore Jonathan Walsh and freshman Jacob Felts (or most likely, at least early, a combination of the two). Walsh mostly played outfield a year ago, and those pointing to his being listed solely as a catcher on the roster would be wise to note that he was only a catcher there as a freshman too. Walsh wasn't stellar defensively in 2010, but freshman collegiate catchers rarely are. His caught stealing percentage (one of the few stats casual college baseball fans can use to judge a catcher defensively) was actually better than Rupp's as a freshman, and Rupp showed steady improvement over his sophomore and junior years until he was one of the toughest guys to run against in the country. Felts was a very highly regarded high school catcher who scared teams away in the draft based on his strong commitment to Texas. Look for him to see the field a lot as a freshman, either at catcher or somewhere else, just to get his bat in the lineup. Texas isn't in bad shape at catcher, but it's never fun to replace such a solid known player with the unknown.

4. Will there be a 2011 version of Cohl Walla?

  • Put it this way, if a couple of freshmen don't produce then the 2011 Horns are in trouble. Cohl Walla didn't get his first start of the season until the 11th game, but freshmen will likely be contributing from the start on this team. Both the left and right field outfield spots are open to competition and newcomers Dex Kjerstad (Ker-stad) and Mark Payton will likely challenge Paul Montalbano and Tim Maitland for starting roles there. Kjerstad, a 50th round draft pick, and Payton, a 30th round pick from Illinois, couldn't be more physically different. Kjerstad is the 6'2" 205 lbs athletic outfielder with power while Payton is the 5'8" 165 lbs outfielder that makes Nick Peoples look big. Kjerstad was impressive offensively in the alumni game, with a single and triple, and Payton could be an immediate contributor after an impressive Fall. If history is any indication, Augie will likely start the upperclassmen in the beginning of the year before moving to the newbies.
  • The infield, in theory, returns in full in 2011, but there are several talented freshman that should push for playing time. Brandon Loy and Tant Shepherd are most likely not going anywhere. Shepherd was more than adequate at first in 2010 and Loy's glove is one of the finest in the country.  Kevin Lusson was hot and cold a year ago at 3B. His power suggests Augie really needs to find a way to get him at bats, perhaps at DH, but his defense at the hot corner was atrocious. Augie at some point could return Tant to 3B and have freshman Kirby Bellow take over at first, or Bellow and fellow frosh Ryan Ford could get a chance at 3B.
  • Jordan Etier was so frustrating to watch in 2010 that he deserves his own bullet in the preview. The polar opposite of Lusson in his first year as a starter, Etier performed at an elite level defensively but hit so poorly as to offend Ken Burns himself. Etier, a supposed contact hitter, ran away with the team's 2010 strikeout crown, fanning 12 times more than power hitting Cameron Rupp in 35 fewer at bats. Etier's .224 BA brought the team average down nearly 7 points and his strikeout total in 2010 was more than Omar Quintanilla had in his entire Texas career. With 73 strikeouts, Etier went down empty on 35% of his official at bats, and his .168 BA and 38 strikeouts in conference play made him a real liability for the team. Anyone familiar with Augieball knows that the strikeout is its kryptonite. Augie's offensive philosophy is all about putting pressure on overmatched college defenders, moving runners over, putting up a run here and there, and letting your superior pitching bring home the victory in a pitcher's ballpark. Etier is likely to start the year at 2B, but if he doesn't hit there's a good chance that Christian Summers will see the field. In addition, Alex Silvers could eventually see playing time although his bout with cancer will obviously limit his contribution this year. Get better, Alex!

5. Is Cohl Walla in a contract year?

  • The MLB draft normally requires a player to be in college three years before entering the draft, but it has a loophole that allows for some sophomores to be draft eligible. Unfortunately for Texas fans, Cohl Walla is one such player. Walla was fantastic offensively a year ago (.316 BA, 9 HR, 40 RBI, 14-16 SB) and could be a threat to bolt for the MLB draft with another solid year. He should be the ideal fit for the top of Augie's lineup, a speedy contact hitter that can also hit for power, but the very thing that may keep Walla from jumping to the Majors is keeping him from being an ideal leadoff hitter. During his freshman year Walla was ineffective at taking walks and bunting, two critical components for an Augieball leadoff hitter, drawing only 13 walks and putting down just 1 bunt. Walla's bunting won't prevent him from being a high draft choice, but learning to take walks may lead him to professional baseball. Walla will have had a good year if he is able to match his numbers from a year ago, but he could carry the Texas offense and make life a whole lot easier for everyone if he is able to make the leap offensively.

That's how we see the big questions facing this team, but there's lot more to discuss before the season kicks off in under two weeks. Next up the pitching and after that a quick look at the schedule and the guys who can't hurl it 95 MPH.

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