A year ago, Texas baseball faced an uncertain future in attempting to replace three excellent starting pitchers, one of the most dependable shortstops in college baseball and extremely solid players at first base and center field. To make matters worse, Texas lost a pair of starting pitchers during the year to injury/stupidity, the new guys in the infield and outfield stunk offensively and the Horns had no quality depth from which to find replacements for ineffective players.
The result: no postseason. This team didn't fail because of Augieball, it failed because the players were either too young or too awful in every facet of the game.
Now 2013 is here and Texas fans enter the season hopeful that the experience of 2012 will make them a stronger team in the year to come.
2012's squad had the unenviable task of trying to replace 2011's starting trio of Taylor Jungmann, Cole Green and Sam Stafford. Those three pitchers had made an incredible 121 starts between 2008 and 2011 and started 79% of Texas games in 2011.
To replace that production Texas trotted out Hoby Milner, Nathan Thornhill and a bevy of freshmen totaling 14 combined career starts enter the year. It didn't go well. Thornhill made 11 mostly unremarkable starts (4-5, 3.87 ERA) as the Friday starter before heading to the bullpen with Milner (7-4, 2.64 ERA) to shore up a demolished unit. Closer Corey Knebel made three starts toward the end of the season and had a great start, a good start and a terrible start. Among the returning freshmen, both Parker French (6-2, 2.84 ERA, 66.2 innings, 9 starts) and Dillon Peters (4-1, 3.18 ERA, 39.2 innings, 11 starts) flashed potential as starting pitchers. French and Peters were the first two Texas pitchers in the Alumni Game.
Ideally, the Horns would be able to rely on French, Peters and a newcomer to be the weekend starting rotation allowing Knebel to return to the closing duties he does so well and Thornhill to anchor the middle and long relief roles. That's the plan at least to start the season. In this scenario, the Texas staff could slowly introduce up to six freshman pitchers that could see time this season. Of those, Chad Hollingsworth showed good velocity and command during Fall Ball and may be the first option in relief or starting midweek games for Texas this season. Not knowing Augie's plans for the rotation, we wouldn't be surprised if Hollingsworth begins the season as a weekend starter freeing up Thornhill to bring some experience to the bullpen. Similarly, Holden Helmink, Ty Culbreth and Travis Duke have the potential to develop into excellent pitchers but will need some seasoning on the 40 Acres before they get there. JUCO transfer Cameron Cox, a 25th round pick in the 2012 MLB draft, could also be part of the rotation in the season's early going.
First things first. Everyone knows that chicks dig the long ball. You want to see nine Kyle Russels step up and hit prodigious clouts every time at the plate. Texas didn't do that in 2012 and many will point to Augieball's premise of bunting men into scoring position as a key reason for offensive ineptitude. Of course that argument ignores just how bad Texas hitters were last year even compared to 2011's low marks. It also ignores the simple fact that Texas didn't really bunt all that much in 2012 because the 2012 Horns usually didn't have men on base. The Horns bunted just 67 times in 2012, down from 111 the previous year. This came in spite of more power on the 2012 lineup that missed the postseason than Texas had on 2011's CWS team.
Texas wasn't bad offensively last year because of some grand strategy gone wrong. Texas was simply bad on offense because many of the players couldn't hit, be it because of poor talent, coaching or too much youth.
Hopefully 2013 will see that improve.
Texas already has five players with the proven offensive and defensive skills to make the Horns successful at the plate and in the field. Erich Weiss and Mark Payton were among the conference's best offensively in 2012, Alex Silver performed well after replacing an ineffective Kirby Bellow and Kevin Lusson at first base 13 games into the season, Jacob Felts grew by leaps and bounds at the plate and Taylor Stell flashed serious potential albeit in limited at bats. Felts and Stell were even named to the California Collegiate League's top 30 prospects this summer and we might expect significant gains in production for both of them.
Let's assume for now that Weiss, Payton, Silver, Felts and Stell will start the season occupying 3B, RF, 1B, C and LF respectively. That leaves four positions (SS, 2B, CF and DH) open to new players. CJ Hinojosa is the new shortstop and he should immediately bring a combination of offensive and defensive skills not seen at the position since...Brandon Loy two years ago.
From there it gets a bit complicated.
Brooks Marlow was excellent defensively in 2012 but only hit .214 and struck out 37 times (second most on the team). Should Weiss struggle defensively at third base or Marlow struggle offensively at second then Texas could move Weiss to second base, a situation they explored in Fall Ball. If this happens, then JUCO transfer Ty Marlow (Brooks Marlow's older brother) could slide in to replace Weiss at third. Ty Marlow, a former Aggie, played his sophomore year at McClennan Community College where he hit .359 with 8 HRs in 50 games. We expect to see Alex Silver start the year as the starter at first base but JUCO transfer Madison Carter could see time there (or 2B or 3B or DH) judging by Fall Ball. Or Carter could play second base, where he started the Alumni Game, and 6'6" JUCO transfer Codey McElroy could use his tall frame at first. McElroy is new to the position but he flashed some skill at the Alumni Game.
It's a crowded infield which should give the Texas coaching staff lots of options should players falter.
The outfield is less complicated with Payton and Stell seemingly having RF and LF locked down to start the season. Nothing would make us happier than seeing Cohl Walla return to form as the starting center fielder after showing so much potential as a freshman in 2010. Realistically, JUCO transfer Weston Hall will likely begin the year as the starting CF with Walla, sophomore Collin Shaw and freshmen Mark Gottsacker and Ben Johnson competing for appearances. Gottsacker will walk on to Texas after obtaining an academic scholarship, saving Texas a precious baseball scholarship. Johnson is talented and athletic but is the least polished of the Longhorn position recruits.
Finally, it'll be interesting to see what difference Tommy Nicholson brings in replacing Tommy Harmon as hitting coach. Harmon was a legend on the 40 Acres though it's hard to argue that Texas hitters simply weren't getting the job done in recent years. Nicholson played for Texas from 1998 to 2000 and played six seasons of minor league ball before becoming a coach.