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2009 Texas Baseball Preview -- Part I

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Has Augie lost it? The question which was unthinkable 3 years ago has very slowly crept to the forefront following three consecutive early exits from the NCAA tournament. In the past 7 seasons Texas has: 7 postseason appearances, 4 CWS appearances and 2 national championships. That's pretty good, right?  Yet when Corn Nation asked us last year before the Nebraska series whether Augie had lost his genius it didn't seem as completely asinine as one would think. 

Of course that was all before Augie decided drinking and driving wasn't all that stupid of an idea and got himself arrested. Now Augie's suspended for the first four games of the season and the pressure to produce a trip to Omaha has never been greater.

Objective fans of nearly every Division 1 program would consider any season involving a no-hitter, a team record consecutive game hit streak and a new school home run champion, a success. Not here. Such are the pitfalls of supporting Texas baseball. There was a time not too long ago when Texas was a lock for Omaha and a run at the NCAA championship, including titles in 2002 and 2005. Now a Super Regional appearance would be an improvement over recent performances.

Defections to the professional ranks from recruits and college juniors are a reality of life in college baseball. Following an apparently favorable draft in June the Horns had some bad luck losing Jordan Danks and highly sought recruit Robbie Grossman to the White Sox and Pirates respectively. Grossman particularly hurt because we never really expected Danks back, Grossman would have replaced Danks in CF, and Grossman allegedly told Texas coaches he was coming to UT. We can't blame him from going pro though; who would have ever expected the Pirates of all teams to offer a 6th round draft pick a $1 million signing bonus?

But enough with what Texas lost, Texas enters the season ranked #10 in Collegiate Baseball, #4 in Baseball America, and we're pumped. In the first part of our preview of the 2009 Horns we'll take a look at the big picture. Where are the strengths/weaknesses? What are the names to know for 2009? Is this the year the Horns return to Omaha? We'll take a deeper look after the jump.

The 2009 Big Questions:

1) Will the pitching be amazing, good, or the same as '08?

  • Texas can't help but improve in 2009 on last season's pitching. Since Texas began its run of CWS appearances in 2002 until 2007 team ERA has been: 2.82, 3.50, 2.66, 2.80, 3.89 and 3.46. Note the 2.82, 2.66 and 2.80 all correspond with deep runs in the CWS. Last season's team ERA was...4.48. As a matter of fact, only 1 pitcher with more than 1 inning pitched in 2008 had an ERA below 3.50, and that was obviously Chance Ruffin
  • Last season Texas entered the year without more questions than answers with its starting rotation. Texas enters this season with set starters in Ruffin and Austin Wood, and plenty of potential third starters. Freshman phenom Taylor Jungmann (Texas' consolation prize for losing Grossman) and Austin Dicharry enter the year with high expectations, either could land starting roles, and Texas returns a deep bullpen with Cole Green, Stayton Thomas, Brandon Workman, Riley Boening, and submariner Keith Shinaberry. Add in potential contributions from Hunter Harris and it's not hard to see why Texas pitching should be much improved in 2009.

2) Where will the offense come from?

  • It would be bad enough to have to replace one superstar outfielder, but Texas has to replace all-time home run leader Kyle Russell and one of the best fielding center fielders Texas has ever had in Jordan Danks. Danks and Russell were the only two regular starters slugging over .500 and replacing their power is a must for Texas to score runs. 
  • Two sophomores that saw significant time in 2008 are the Horns best hope for offense in 2009. Word is that both Kevin Keyes and Tant Shepherd were great in summer league, a possible sign of big things to come. New field turf at UFCU DFF could mean changes to the Augieball style of play which has defined Texas for much of the last decade.

3) Will the infield defense be better?

  • The positive for Texas fans is that it can't be much worse. When your starting 2B, SS and 3B are producing 11, 20 and 16 errors on the season, you're in trouble. Shockingly there's a connection between fielding percentage and how Augie's teams perform. It should be no suprise that 2002, 2004 and 2005 were three of the best fielding teams in the last decade, while 2008, was not. 
  • Shortstop David Hernandez was okay defensively and improved over the course of the season. Michael Torres' fielding should be much improved because it's hard to imagine him playing anything but DH. If their defense doesn't improve, freshman Jordan Etier may be chomping at the bit for playing time.  Third base will be an interesting position with Baseball America sticking Brandon Loy there. We probably won't know the answer to this question until well into the season. 

4) Where will Russell Moldenhauer and Preston Clark contribute? 

  • The $64,000 question this season involves two players who, if healthy, would be stars on the '09 baseball team. Those of you with exceptional memories will recall Moldenhaueer and Clark suffered knee injuries in the 2008 postseason. With Cameron Rupp performing very well behind the plate, it's hard to see Preston Clark unseating him for a majority of the season. Clark was very solid shoring up third base after the Torres debacle, but freshman Brandon Loy or Tant Shepherd is expected to start there. Clark could also compete for playing time somewhere in the crowded outfield or at DH. His experience and leadership makes him hard to keep off the field, but where?
  • If Moldenhauer can recover fully from his injury, he could get significant time in the outfield. Try to follow us: Kevin Keyes will be in right, Connor Rowe or freshman Tim Maitland will likely be in center, leaving Moldenhauer to battle it out with Kyle Lusson in left, that is unless Tant starts in left. That leaves Lusson, Moldenhauer, Maitland and Rowe battling in center. The outfield should be the most interesting positions to watch (beyond every Chance Ruffin start) for the 2009 season.
5) Will Augie be the zen master again?
  • Augie is known for his Phil Jackson-like grasp of the mental aspects of baseball. Hence the titles in four consecutive decades and his status as winningest coach in college baseball history. For the last three years, however, Augie has been unable to advance in the postseason with talented but flawed baseball teams. Whatever the problem may be, we sincerely hope he figured things out after visiting (and being booted from) USC football summer practice.
  • On top of all that, how will the players respond when a man they respect for his experience and wisdom gets arrested? The schedule doesn't give a ton of room for error, with the Horns playing series against Baseball America's preseason #1, #7, #8, #15, and #16. If anybody can get his players to respond, we'd bet on Augie, but the question still remains and may be the key to success in the 2009 season. 
Next Up:
Part II will look a bit more in depth at the pitching staff, followed by looks at the hitting and defense in Parts III and IV.