The pair of writers known as 40AS have gotten divorced after seven years of writing under one roof on BON. We’re still the best of friends and we still love you readers very much; it’s just that we needed a change. Anyhow, 40AS is now Jeff Asher and Abram Orlansky. We hope you can get used to it. We also know you will respect our privacy as we try to get through this difficult time in our lives. On to baseball.
A year ago we got on our soapbox and preached the myriad of ways that Texas baseball marked the passage of time with respect to the University of Texas athletics. 2012-2013, we argued, was a pivotal year for the big three pillars of football, basketball and baseball.
It turned out to be a year of failure. Here we are a year later and Mack Brown is gone, Rick Barnes is coaching for his job (and doing it well I might add), and Augie Garrido finds himself on a seat that would warm up considerably with a third straight miss of the postseason.
Texas whiffed on the baseball postseason in 2012 though an argument could be made that the Horns were deserving of a bid. No such argument was necessary in 2013 as Texas went 27-24 and was every bit as mediocre as their record would indicate. The Horns were swept once (by Baylor) and dropped the first two games against TCU before winning the last game of that series. Those were the only two conference series that the Horns did not enter Sunday with a chance to win the series. Texas was able to force a deciding game In the other six conference series and managed to lose all six Sunday games.
If Texas had won all six of those games they would've been 33-18 with six conference series wins. That's a borderline regional host, but 27-24 with a last place conference finish is sitting at home for the postseason. To see why Texas was sitting at home during the 2013 NCAA baseball postseason one only needs to look at those six Sunday losses.
Taking a deeper look, it's even easier to see where the Horns failed in 2013. Nobody would call the 2012 Texas baseball team an offensive juggernaut, but the departures of Jonathan Walsh and Jordan Etier as well as a down year for Erich Weiss in 2013 demolished what little offensive success Texas achieved in 2012. Texas saw declines in team batting average (down .004), runs per game (down 1 run), hits (54 fewer), home runs (down 9), slugging (down .27), and steals (down 5 despite an early season tear and a preseason promise to run) between 2012 and 2013.
Taking a look back at the 2013 Texas offense is more harmful to one's health than staring at the sun, but there is reason for hope for 2014 just 60' 6" from the opposing batters where the Horns were downright filthy in 2013. Texas pitchers were 7th in the country in ERA (2.61) a year ago, 13th in hits per nine innings and 24th in walks allowed. The Horns don't have a ton of power arms (155th nationally in Ks per nine), but three very strong starting pitchers and a young but capable bullpen gave Texas one of the best pitching staffs in the country.
The failures of 2012-2013 were largely written by what was lost from the preceding year(s), but the 2014 Horns have a chance to write their story based around what was gained rather than what departed.
What Was Lost
The past few Texas baseball teams have been defined more by what was lost through injury and (more commonly) the draft than what was gained. Pitching phenom -- and 2013 recruiting signee -- Trey Ball was never coming to Austin, so his signing with the Boston Red Sox was no real loss for the 2014 squad. Closer Corey Knebel was selected in the first round by the Detroit Tigers and his signing was no surprise as well. The departure of a player of Knebel's talent would ordinarily be a huge loss except for the fact that the junior was terrible down the stretch in 2013, ending the year with a 3.38 ERA, two suspensions, and an ERA of 8.00 over his final nine innings of Big 12 baseball (1.58 ERA in his other 31 innings).
Then there's the case of junior 3B Erich Weiss. Weiss was an 11th round selection of the long time Longhorn nemesis Pittsburgh Pirates (no offense, Wes) and eventually signed with the Pirates for well over slot at $305,000. We can't blame Weiss for taking that money as he had nowhere to go but down by returning for his senior year. He would have lost all his leverage by returning and would've needed to be a mid-5th round pick in the 2014 draft to be slotted into that kind of cash again. Weiss struggled mightily in 2013 relative to his excellent freshman and sophomore campaigns. As a junior Weiss sported a .299 batting average, a team leading 43 strikeouts, and saw a near-total dissolution of his power (.390 slugging percentage, 1 home run, 11 extra base hits, 6 double play balls). Weiss was the Horns best hitter in 2012 with a .350 batting average, 5 homers, 26 extra base hits and the same number of strikeouts in 2012, and his decline makes it easier to see some of the reason behind the overall crappiness of the Texas offense in 2013.
What Came Back
The story of the 2014 Horns will not be about the losses of two very talented juniors, rather it will be about who stayed and who arrived. Knebel was never coming back to the 40 Acres for a senior year, but Texas did have three players who faced the difficult choice of whether to stay or go pro. Weiss left, but two rising seniors decided to stay and the Horns will be much better in 2014 because of it.
Senior pitcher Nathan Thornhill was supposed to be the ace of the Texas pitching staff in 2012 before heading to the bullpen to provide a reliable arm there. Thornhill was terrific as a starter for the full year in 2013, going a very hard luck 3-6 with a 2.21 ERA, team-leading 60 strikeouts and opposing batting average of .234. Thornhill was drafted in the 24th round by the Houston Astros and decided to return for his senior year to see if he could improve his professional stock. Given Thornhill's experience with long relief, the appearance of Schiraldi and the need to get John Curtiss midweek innings to round him into form, Thornhill could be pitching primarily from the bullpen at some point in 2014.
Then there's senior Mark Payton. Payton decided to return to Austin after being drafted in the 16th round by the Cleveland Indians. If Payton had put up the numbers he did in 2013 while also being were 4 inches taller and 20 pounds heavier he may have gone in the top few rounds, but his 5'8" 180 lbs frame brought the senior back to the 40 Acres. Payton made the Texas offense go in 2013, hitting .393 (12th nationally) while leading the team in hits, runs, doubles, triples (2nd nationally), RBI, total bases, slugging, walks and sacrifices while striking out only 23 times. Payton also flashed a serious arm in notching an impressive 9 outfield assists.
Another potentially important returnee is redshirt sophomore pitcher John Curtiss who comes back to the baseball team after elbow surgery derailed his 2013 campaign. Curtiss was excellent as a freshman, going 2-3 with a 3.50 ERA in 64 1/3 innings and an opposing batting average of .237. Curtiss could fit in the bullpen, as the closer, as the midweek starter or as a weekend starter if he can beat out one of the returning starters.
Curtiss rejoining the Horns give them 4 possible starters on Baseball America's Top 100 Draft Prospects. Junior Dillon Peters (#30 on said list) and Parker French (#46) were fabulous in 2013 and can earn some serious money with solid junior years. More on the 4th possible starter (Lukas Schiraldi) in a minute.
Throw in the return of much-maligned but slightly improved senior catcher Jacob Felts as well as Swiss Army Knife pitcher/1B Ty Marlow and the Horns have as much returning experience as any Texas baseball team in recent years.
What really makes us bullish on the 2014 Horns, however, are the incoming recruits. Ranked #2 by Baseball America and #6 by Collegiate Baseball, Texas has brought some serious offensive talent to Austin while avoiding the devastating gambles of years past. The gem of the class is infielder Andy McGuire (scouting report here; cool interview here about how this diving stop by David Maroul leading to this video game cover brought the Virginia native to the 40 Acres), though catcher/first baseman Tres Barrera and infielder Brett Boswell could all contribute offensively from day one and give Texas offensive depth.
Barrera in particular may start at catcher thereby moving Felts to first base or DH according to Augie. Felts at first base would give the Horns some stability offensively and defensively (his limited offensive firepower the last few years is a significant upgrade over the piecemeal efforts Texas has had at first of late) while letting Barrera take over his future position from the start. If Felts fails to hold on to 1B then we'd look for freshman Zane Gurwitz to get a shot in the infield jumble. Gurwitz is a more raw talent than Boswell, Barrera and McGuire but he could definitely see action this spring. McGuire could also play first, opening the door for Boswell at third.
The most important addition on the mound for 2014 may be junior college transfer Lukas Schiraldi. Schiraldi passed up the always excellent Nationals organization as a 35th round pick to attend Texas. The junior was fantastic at Navarro Junior College in 2013 and enters 2014 as College Baseball Daily's 82nd ranked player for 2014. Schiraldi may see time at closer or the back end of the bullpen, though starting, even as part of the weekend rotation, is certainly not out of the question as Schiraldi was listed by Augie as one of four starting pitchers in offseason scrimmages. Schiraldi is listed as Baseball America's 57th ranked college draft prospect.
Payton returning gives Texas a sure thing in right field, and CJ Hinojosa will look to take a leap forward after a very solid freshman year (.309 batting average, ,414 slugging). Those two are about the only locks to be returning starters in 2014. Felts is a fourth year starter who hasn't really stepped forward since his freshman year. Felts hit a respectable .272 a year ago thanks to a hot streak to close the year. The senior only has 18 extra base hits, however, in three full years of starting at catcher and would never be mistaken for an elite defensive catcher. His move to first base makes a lot of sense. Jeremy Montalbano flashed a lot of talent and is a nice option at backup catcher.
Brooks Marlow is a returning junior who plays good defense at second base but could be replaced by Boswell if he doesn't take a step forward offensively. Marlow also had a hot streak to end the season bringing him to a somewhat respectable .250 batting average without much added power.
Then there's the outfield.
Payton's good, we all know that. Right field - check. The rest, not so good. Actually, that's being kind. Weston Hall (.226 average, .565 OPS) was the valedictorian of a really bad group that needs to improve to make Texas an offensive threat in 2014. Taylor Stell (.181 average, .498 OPS) was the presumed front runner for most improved outfielder but he turned in a disastrous sophomore year in 2013 while dealing with some injuries.
Ben Johnson showed perhaps the most promise of the group as a freshman (.220 average, .724 OPS, team leading (!) 3 home runs) but he also struck out 28 times in just 91 at bats showing just how raw his talent is. Junior Collin Shaw (.222 average, .663 OPS) has also shown real talent in limited spurts and we'll be interested to see if he's got a jump in productivity coming. Then there's sophomore walk-on Mark Gottsacker who has some ability but also struck out 11 times in just 21 at bats a year ago. Shaw and Brooks Marlow were singled out by Baseball America as having made "great gains" over the summer, so there's that.
What was once a young outfield with raw talent but not much experience has now become an experienced group that needs to turn that talent into productivity for Texas baseball to improve offensively.
In the bullpen, sophomores Travis Duke and Chad Hollingsworth are the most reliable returning pitchers. Both could start midweek games and will be among the first arms out of the bullpen in any given weekend series. Duke had stellar numbers his freshman year (1.53 ERA, 25 K, 13 BB, .213 opponent batting average in 35.1 innings) and may be the closer if Schiraldi is tapped to start. Ty Marlow is another potential closer (2.16 ERA, 26 K, 7 BB, .214 opponent batting average in 33.1 innings) but he may be asked to reprise his 2013 role of fire extinguisher. Freshmen Blake Goins is highly regarded, Morgan Cooper looked great in his only inning of the Alumni Game, and Kacy Clemens has a father you might have heard of (he may see time at 1B or on the mound). His father's name is Roger, in case that wasn't clear.
It's not the sexiest incoming freshman class of pitchers we've ever seen, but Texas hopefully got the help it needed at the plate making a pitching class of projects much easier to handle.
The Optimist Says
Texas returns all but one offensive starter and nearly the entire pitching staff from the 2013 team. The influx of offensive talent in the freshman class in positions of serious need, the incredible quality of Texas pitching a year ago and the idea that Texas outfielders minus Payton have nowhere to go but up (seriously, they hit a putrid .203 with 20 extra base hits and 114 strikeouts in 399 combined at bats) strongly suggests a bounce back year for Texas baseball in 2014. Maybe this isn't a national championship team but it'll be the best we've seen since 2011 and that's cause for a minor celebration. The Horns could win a relatively weak conference, get a hosting gig for the regionals, and possibly find themselves in Omaha in June.
The Pessimist Says
Texas pitching was truly dominant in 2013 without the benefit of a reliable ace like Taylor Jungmann. The Horns lose their most talented pitcher (Knebel) and will have to replicate last season's excellent pitching performance just to tread water. The addition of offensive talent is great but losing Weiss and having to rely on freshmen and unproven underclassmen in the outfield is dangerous. It could be a bumpy ride. Worst case, the Horns are better/more stable than 2013 but barely good enough to make the postseason and possibly miss it altogether. But, hey, at least Keith Moreland is back in the booth calling games on the LHN! Of course you may not have LHN, so now I'm just rubbing it in.
The Realist Says
Texas pitching was phenomenal in 2013 and will be good again in 2014 though may not be a top ten staff nationally. The offense was atrocious in 2013 and will improve in 2014 but may still be a year away from reaching "good" or even "above average" status. Texas gets average offense with good pitching which will be good enough to challenge for a Big 12 crown and a regional hosting gig. Texas fans rejoice that they've returned to a minimally acceptable standard for Longhorns baseball.
And Just For Fun A Possible Projected Lineup:
C -Tres Barrera
1B - Jacob Felts
2B - Brooks Marlow
SS - CJ Hinojosa
3B - Andy McGuire
LF -Taylor Stell/Ben Johnson
CF - Connor Shaw
RF - Mark Payton
SP - Dillon Peters
SP - Parker French
SP - Lukas Schiraldi/Nathan Thornhill
Midweek -John Curtiss/Nathan Thornhill
CL - Travis Duke
First pitch is next Friday (February 14th) at Cal Berkley. Much more on that next week.