Another great year from Erich Weiss may make the difference between a trip to Omaha and a lonely June.
We'll be previewing Texas baseball in three parts. The first part was a chat with Baseball America, the second is a preview of Texas baseball's position players and the third will take a look at the pitchers.
When it comes time to write next year's Texas baseball preview, here's what we're going to write: Augie Garrido will field a ballclub with both elite pitching and very good defense, but the fate of the Horns this year will be decided by their ability to establish just a mediocre offense. We know this because this has been the story of Texas baseball since the Horns won a title in 2002 behind freshman closer Huston Street's arm and Omar Quintanilla's glove.
With the exception of 2006-2008 (when Texas had the benefit of Kyle Russell breaking the Texas HR record and piss-poor pitching on the mound) Texas baseball's offense has revolved around the concept of Augieball: the principle that Texas will win games in the cavernous Disch-Falk Field by being very strong on the mound and in the field while using smallball to put immense pressure on less talented defensive squads. If Texas can manufacture a few runs a game, the strategy goes, then Texas will win a whole lot of games on the strength of just its arms and gloves. Augieball draws is detractors from lots of critics who have read how the concept of Moneyball fits in the Major League game, but no criticism ever fully accounts for Garrido's six CWS appearances and two national titles at Texas.
Texas will need Augieball to be at its best this year much like every year of the past decade only moreso. The Horns won six games in the 2011 postseason and scored five, four, nine, five, five and four runs in those wins. As a matter of fact, Texas would've lost just 10 games last season if they had scored five runs each game. And considering how good the Texas pitchers are expected to be again in 2012, getting to five runs a contest is a worthy goal that will produce a whole lot of wins if achieved.
Before looking at the specifics of the Texas roster for 2012, it's worth noting that Texas failed to score and recorded just four hits in January 28th's Alumni Game. The pessimist just reads that box score while the optimist points out that the Horns faced Roger Clemens, Huston Street, James Russell and Chance Ruffin, all of whom have pitched in the Majors. But hey, at least Texas's defense didn't have any errors. Things are looking up!
After the jump a look at the guys who will be looking to spark the scoreboard.
Catcher - Barring injury, Jacob Felts will be behind the plate for the Horns in 2012. Felts was pretty good defensively his freshman year, throwing out a substantially higher number of base stealers than both Cameron Rupp and Taylor Teagarden managed in their freshmen campaigns while catching a generally solid game. Felts wasn't quite disastrous offensively, but his .215/.247/.293 BA/OBP/SLG slash made him last on the team in all three categories. Throw in a .152/.203/.230 mark in conference play and, well, Felts was a disaster at the plate. True freshman Hunter Redman was a highly regarded catching prospect and may see time if Felts continues to struggle at offensively, but freshmen catchers are always shaky defensively. The Horns also added JuCo transfer Landon Steinhagen who hit .463 with a .550 OBP and 10 home runs a year ago with Howard University but he may be destined for DH. Blake Swihart may have been an option to start from day one had he not signed with the Red Sox at the last minute. Alas...
First Base - Tant Shepherd proved to be an extremely reliable bat and glove at first base for two years and replacing him will be a major challenge. Gauging by the Alumni Game, Kevin Lusson will at least begin the year there. Lusson started the year off strong on offense but his .198/.281/.300 slash only looks good when compared to Jacob Felts's. Sophomores Kirby Bellow and Alex Silver both saw time in Fall Ball at first, but neither appears to be an obvious replacement for Lusson should he continue to struggle. It's worth noting that Lusson put up .263/.389/.522 and .310/.405/.491 his freshman and sophomore seasons, so there's hope to be had that he can improve his senior year.
Second Base - This would obviously be Jordan Etier's position to lose had he not been kicked off the team just before Fall Ball began. Word is that Etier has been reinstated (while losing his scholarship) but freshman lefty Brooks Marlow had a very good Fall and may be the starting second baseman on opening day. You may recall that Etier hit a three-run homer that sealed Texas's first win over Arizona State in the Super Regional and dramatically cut down on his strikeouts in 2011. Second is one position that Texas has some good options at, huzzah.
Shortstop - Brandon Loy heading to professional baseball leaves a huge hole to fill at a position that has been defended as well as can be expected for the past three years. Things would have been solved had CJ Hinojosa made it to the 40 Acres, but academic difficulties prevented him from graduating a semester early. Christian Summers is a good option defensively, but he only managed one hit in five preseason contests (four Fall Ball games and the Alumni Game). Freshman Jackson Mellina played a bit of shortstop in the Alumni Game, but it appears that the job is for Summers to lose. Sophomore Alex Silvers could also be a candidate to see time at shortstop should Summers falter.
Third Base - Erich Weiss, praise the lord. In Weiss the Horns have a legitimate offensive threat whose .348/.483/.518 led the team in 2011 by quite a wide margin. Not bad for a freshman. Can he make a leap or is he due for a sophomore slump? If it's the former then the Horns have a frontrunner for Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year. If it's the latter then the offense's job gets all the more harder.
Left Field - Junior Jonathan Walsh spent 2011 in left field and wasn't terrible offensively with a .254/.350/.392 line. Had Josh Bell not signed with the Pirates he would have been the favorite to start in left field from day one and provided a pretty great 1-2 punch with Weiss, but his $6 million defection leaves the position open a tad. If Walsh can improve offensively he's a nice option for DH, but the former catcher is not the ideal outfield candidate. Freshmen Collin Shaw and Taylor Stell both saw action in left during the preseason and both should get opportunities to show they deserve to play. Stell in particular has the prototypical outfielder body (6'4" 190 lbs) and could be a star.
Center Field - Few players had a more disappointing 2011 season than junior CF Cohl Walla. Walla hit .316/.357/.491 as a freshman and showed good power with 8 HR. A year later, due to an injury-plagued season and new bat rules Walla managed just .229/.321/.292 with a maddening 40 strikeouts in 144 attempts. Walla was a measly 2-14 in preseason at-bats but a big season from him could have earned him a lot of money and be a huge boon for Texas baseball. Unfortunately, a knee injury will sideline Walla for the season. Senior outfielder Tim Maitland provides a stopgap at center as a solid defender, but Maitland's .190 career batting average is terrifying. Shaw and Stell are both options to replace Walla as the injury at least opens up a spot for any number of potentially talented players to get their chance.
Right Field - Mark Payton was the guy we highlighted as the likely freshman phenom who would steal Texas baseball fans' hearts in 2011. While Weiss turned out to be the real phenom, Payton put up a respectable .263/.353/.325 and led the team in sacrifice bunts. Payton's 31 walks were also second on the team behind Weiss, and Payton was a huge bright spot offensively in preseason action with a .600 batting average. Payton making the leap could give the Horns a nice punch at the top of their lineup and make five runs a game a realistic goal. JuCo transfer Matt Moynihan could also see time in the outfield although Orangebloods reported on twitter that he may not be cleared academically by the NCAA. Moynihan hit .452 a year ago at Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa, California and hit .388 in 2010 as a freshman at San Diego, but Payton will likely see most of the starts in right.
Next up: the pitchers.