Sam Stafford, Ace? via www.austinchronicle.com
The last few years we have kicked off our Texas baseball coverage with a multi-part preview featuring looks at the offense, defense and big picture items facing the Longhorns in the year to come. A more detailed breakdown of the Horns will be forthcoming before the first pitch against Duke. But as we gear up our countdown to the start of the 2012 college baseball season, we thought it'd be fun to chat Texas and the Big 12 with one of the finest collegiate baseball writers around, Baseball America's Aaron Fitt.
Many thanks to Aaron. Be sure to check out his weekly Monday chats and much more at Baseball America once the season gets going.
40AS: What are your general thoughts on Texas in 2012? Will they be improved offensively? Can they overcome the loss of (2011 ace) Taylor Jungmann?
Aaron Fitt: I think they can overcome the loss of Jungmann, to answer your last question first. If you talk to the coaching staff, I think they believe this pitching staff has a chance to be as good as or better than the staff that they’ve had over the last three years, and that’s saying something given the talent that’s passed through. They’re going to miss Jungmann for sure, he’s a world class ace, and there’s some question of whether Stafford can play at that level. Stafford is a very talented player and he’s a senior so he’s experienced. He's a left hander, has good stuff and certainly gives them a chance to have a quality ace at the top of the rotation.
Then you’ve got Hoby Milner, another left handed guy who can really pitch. Milner has an advanced feel for pitching. Mixes three pitches well. He's a really nice guy to have. Austin Dicharry could be a Sunday guy. You can remember how good he was his freshman year, and he seems to have put himself together this summer. (40AS note: Dicharry was 2-0 over the summer with a 2.38 ERA in 4 starts for the Santa Barbara Foresters)
Texas has brought together an incredible group of freshman pitchers and amazingly they may not need any of them to start in the weekend rotation right away because they’re really deep. The pitching staff is the strength, it's going to carry them.
Offensively, losing Bell was a tough loss and so was (losing) CJ Hinojosa. The key for Texas is how Christian Summers does at shortstop. It's the most important position in the diamond, other than maybe catch, and Texas had a guy in Brandon Loy that they never had to worry about. Loy meant a lot from a leadership perspective, from a table-setting perspective and from a defensive perspective. Summers has a lot of defensive ability but needs to prove he can consistently do the job. (40AS note: Hinojosa, a high school senior had planned to enroll at Texas this spring and could have been a starting infielder from day one. He will now finish high school and could be a very high draft pick in 2012, potentially permanently derailing his time in burnt orange)
I think this can be a competent offensive team. I don’t expect that they’ll be explosive but this program is never constructed that way, they always win with pitching and defense.
40AS: Is anything wrong with Sam Stafford’s arm?
Aaron Fitt: My understanding is that he is healthy. Maybe the Yankees saw something they didn’t like but Texas expects him to be fine. I don’t think there is any short term concern. He’s a guy who has had injury problems in the past but Texas sounds optimistic. They aren't worried about it.
40AS: You mentioned the strength of the freshmen pitchers, any in particular to watch for on this year’s team?
Aaron Fitt: Ricky Jacquez is an undersized righthander with an electric arm. I maybe see him as a bullpen guy to begin the year. John Curtiss is another pitcher with a premium arm. Overall there are four freshman arms that’ll make an impact in some role or another. Curtiss, Jaczuezz, (Parker) French and (Dillon) Peters are really premium arms. Extremely talented.
40AS: Can Erich Weiss improve on his stellar freshman campaign?
Aaron Fitt: It'll be hard to improve upon it, he had such an incredible freshman season. It seems he’s legit and can perform at that level again. You're hoping he can do something similar if you’re Texas. Maybe a little better or worse but anything in that neighborhood and you’re alright. The key, besides Summers, is for those outfielders (Jonathan Walsh, Cohl Walla and Mark Payton) to take steps forward. They're physically talented players who need to elevate their performance and there's reason to suspect they’ll do that. (40AS Note: Walla blew out his ACL and will miss the season. This chat took place before the injury occurred)
40AS: Any chance Cohl Walla returns to 2010 form?
Aaron Fitt: That's a major x-factor for this team. Walla is a really good athlete, he can fly, but he needed to get stronger, has always always needed to get stronger. Reports I’d gotten this fall were that he hasn’t added as much weight as people would like. If he can add strength I think he can be a really good player, but some guys have a harder time doing that then others.
40AS: What's your opinion of Corey Knebel?
Aaron Fitt: I think he’s special. To me, the way he pitches reminds me of Huston Street, but he’s got a lot better stuff than Huston. Knebel attacks guys with the fastball, he is fearless and his stuff is better than it is because of his command and mound presence. When you can throw a mid-90s fastball with outstanding command and that mean streak, I think he’s the best closer in the country this year. He's really, really good. Him versus Huston, Huston did it with an 88-92 kind of fastball, Knebel fits easily in the mid-90s, so he’s got a bigger upside than a guy like Street who’s a big league allstar.
40AS: What are your general impressions of the Texas program?
Aaron Fitt: It is a remarkably consistent program. We did a survey three years ago where we ranked the top programs of the 64 team era (beginning in 1998). We used all type of criteria (all-American success, draft picks, etc), and Texas came out #1. And they've had even more success since then. Texas has been to CWS, they were one win away from a title two years ago. It's a fantastic program, good every single year. They don’t have a year where they’re in the toilet, the fans wouldn’t accept it in Austin. It's incredible that the coaching staff has kept the program going at such a high level year in and year out. Especially since they’ve had competition in the Big 12. OU has come on strong, Texas A&M under Childress has emerged. Now you’ve got TCU and Rice in the state, of course, there’s a lot of competition in that state and I think Texas is clearly the best program in that state and maybe the country.
40AS: Where do you think Texas will rank in the preseason poll? Will they win the Big 12?
Aaron Fitt: They'll be in the mix for a top 10 ranking. This program has a track record. They win with pitching and defense. Maybe their offensive numbers won't blow anyone away but it's not an impedement to these guys. I like their arms, I like their defense. They should be top of the Big 12, maybe the top two or three teams in the conference, maybe behind Texas A&M.
40AS: Speaking of A&M, what’s the future of Big 12 baseball with them and Missouri being replaced by West Virginia and TCU?
Aaron Fitt: You're not gonna see much of a drop off with TCU. They're an elite program now and have been for the last couple of years. TCU was a good program for a lot of years and have become elite the last couple. Getting over the hump was a huge step for that program. TCU is a machine right now, they've got great facilities, a great coaching staff, they develop talent, and are just as good as A&M on a national level. From Missouri to West Virginia is a step down. Missouri has made a regional in the last 7 years. They're a very good program, maybe not an elite national program, but a very good program. WVU is not at that level. I'm trying to think the last time they were in a regional, it’s been a while. Would have been 1996, they're just not a factor on the national team. Maybe they’ll devote more resources (to baseball), but in the short term at least they’re going to be a doormat.
If you look at the way that Kansas and Kansas State have elevated their programs in the last five years or so, both have been in regionals. KSU hadn’t been in a regional until two years ago, but those programs are no longer doormats. So I think the league will be OK. Baylor has a solid program, Texas Tech is in good hands with its coaching staff. It's still a pretty deep league that's going to have elite teams at the top.
40AS: Any inkling of how long Augie will hang around?
Aaron Fitt: I have no insight. Only Augie knows, and maybe not even Augie knows. He doesn’t seem to be a guy whose slowing down at all. I don’t have the answer to that one. Augie strikes me as the kind of guy who’s going to do it as long as he can. But we’ll see.
40AS: How will the new MLB draft rules affect college baseball? Will Texas benefit more than most?
Aaron Fitt: You have to imagine it’ll help college baseball. I don’t think anyone knows quite yet how much of an impact the new CBA will have because we don’t know what kind of spending caps teams may have. Spending allotments may be roughly in line with what they’ve been in recent years but the biggest impact will be guys who fall outside the top 10 rounds. They won’t get big bonuses like they do now.
40AS: Have you been to Austin to catch a game? What were your thoughts?
Aaron Fitt: I was out there last year for the Stanford series, it was my first time since they renovated the park. They’ve done a great job with that ballpark, I really enjoyed it. I was there for a Sunday afternoon and even then it was a great atmosphere, it’s just a beautiful park, just a lot of fun. Certainly one of the best parks out there.