This is Part II of a 3-part series leading up to the Longhorns' 2011 baseball season opener at home against Maryland on Friday February 18. You can see Part I of the preview series here.
Once again, in 2011 the Longhorn baseball team will go only as far as their pitchers' arms will take them. This is not a team that's going to put up a bunch of runs very often and therefore will not win many high-scoring games. They'll have to rely on their pitching and defense to keep the other guys' run totals down so that getting a few runs across the plate with their patented Augieball approach will be sufficient to get some wins. That may sound like bad news; but it's not necessarily. This is a pitching staff with which you're probably already familiar if you follow Texas baseball, as it returns preseason All-Americans Cole Green and Taylor Jungmann. SB Nation's MLB Draft blog, MLB Bonus Baby, has Green and Jungmann on the senior and junior all-class teams, respectively. As such, the Friday and Saturday starting spots are pretty well wrapped up; the only question from a starting standpoint is who starts on Sundays. Augie has several (potentially) great options to choose from, and the kids themselves will be the ones to sort it out.
There will be plenty of opportunities before conference play starts against K-State on March 15 for the various candidates to make their cases against decent quality competition: aside from Maryland, the Longhorns play Hawaii, Stanford, and Brown in weekend series prior to welcoming the Wildcats. Those who don't crack the starting rotation, of course, will be extremely important out of the bullpen.
The (Almost Certain) Starters:
Taylor Jungmann: Jungmann can be said to have fallen victim to his own freshman year success and unfair comparisons as a sophomore last season. His 2010 campaign was, by any reasonable standard, a virtuosic performance: he was 8-3 with a 2.03 ERA in 17 starts, led the team with 129 strikeouts and 120 innings pitched, and held opponents to a paltry .209 batting average against him. Unfortunately, Texas fans had a ridiculous set of baseline expectations for Jungmann, and the story for much of the season seemed to be "well, he isn't as good as last year." Upon looking at the numbers, however, the fact is he was just about as good in 2010. As a freshman in 2009, he was 11-3 with a 2.00 ERA, with 101 strikeouts in 94.2 innings pitched, and help opponents to a .193 BA. Granted, the stats from 2009 are a little better; but they also include early-season appearances against mid-week opponents whose hitters Jungmann simply overmatched. Add to that the fact that he had a comical 8-3 record--meaning three losses and six no-decisions--because the oiffensively-challenged Longhorns had a lot of trouble with opponents' Friday starters all season and thus failed to get Jungmann much run support throughout the conference schedule. He has been a model of consistency in his two years on the Forty Acres and there's no reason to believe he won't have a third killer year on the hill. Enjoy it, 'Horns fans: this is likely to be your last glimpse of the Jungmann machine in burnt orange.
Cole Green: Green has had a more conventional career arc than Jungmann: he showed flashes of brilliance as a freshman and sophomore in 2008 and 2009 respectively, then broke through as a junior last year to be a solid Sunday starter. Cole went 11-2 with a 2.74 ERA in 16 starts (17 appearances), racking up 75 strikeouts in 111.2 innings. He is much less likely to take care of hitters on his own with the K than Jungmann is, instead keeping guys off-balance and trusting his defense to make the plays behind him. Green should have a lock on the Saturday starter role going into the season; despite being considered the third starter last season (behind Jungmann and Brandon Workman), he was actually the second-most effective starter based on the numbers. Workman certainly has more upside, which is what prompted wunderkind Red Sox GM Theo Epstein to take him in the second round of the 2010 Major League draft. But Green flat out-pitched Workman last year and was rewarded with his own Major League stock rising: the Tigers took him in the fourth round. Still, he decided to come back to Austin as a senior with the twin goals of getting back to Omaha and pitching himself into an even higher round.
One unconventional thing about Green is that, while he is a decidedly ground-ball pitcher, his out pitch is his fastball. He throws it in the 89-91 range and has good command. While most ground-ball pitchers rely on a sinker or curveball to get guys to hit it low, Green simply keeps his fastball down around the knees and forces rollers that way. That kind of command is a recipe for success in the college game, especially with the generally solid defense that Texas tends to put out there.
Who will start on Sundays? We won't try to answer that definitively; our sense, though, is that the leader going into the season is Hoby Milner. The sophomore lefty posted a 1.97 ERA in 18 appearances including three starts, but he only hurled 32 total innings in those appearances. Milner was drafted out of high school in 2009 at #1312 overall, but the thought was that he was already a top-10 round talent at age 18 but his commitment to the Longhorns was strong enough to make him drop due to signability concerns. True to the scouting reports, Milner showed flashes in 2010 of a guy who has the tools to step into a starting role as a sophomore: he averaged almost a strikeout per inning with 31 and walked only 12 batters in his freshman campaign, and by the end of the season was getting regular relief appearances in Big 12 play. However, weekend starter is not the only prize Milner may be after: Augie has made some noises that Milner may be one of his preferences to succeed Chance Ruffin as the Texas closer. Either way, Hoby figures to play an important role on the pitching staff in 2011.
The dark horse for the third starter position was the favorite going into last year: junior righty Austin Dicharry will look to rebound from a shoulder injury that sidelined him for much of 2010. He was limited to only seven appearances (five of them starts) before the career interruption. One possible scenario is that if Dicharry and Milner both look great early on, Augie may decide to make them the 2 and 3 starters so as to rely on Cole Green as the closer. Texas has been one of the few college teams over the last decade to consistently have a reliable, dedicated closer--from J. Brent Cox to Huston Street to Austin Wood to Chance Ruffin--and it has served the Longhorns well. There's no doubt Augie would love to have someone proven like Green in that role if Dicharry and Milner can prove themselves worthy of weekend starting jobs.
Finally, don't be surprised if junior LHP Sam Stafford also gets a look for a spot in the rotation. Stafford seems likely to play some role on the weekends--i.e., if he doesn't win a starting job he'll likely be used out of the bullpen rather than getting a ton of weekday starts. That prediction is based entirely on Stafford's age: seven of his eight appearances last season were starts, but the general rule is that you use weekday starts to bring along a younger guy like Hoby Milner and rely on your veterans out of the 'pen in conference play. Of course, we've been wrong before and will continue to be in the future. In any event, Stafford look poised for a successful season. At least one observer thought he was one of the nation's top performers in last summer's various collegiate-level leagues. The opinion is hard to argue with based on the numbers: pitching a second summer for the Santa Barbara (CA) Foresters, Stafford had a ridiculous 0.32 ERA in 28 innings of work. In those 28 innings, he notched an unbelievable 51 strikeouts--meaning well over half of the outs he recorded were K's. We suppose that means you could call him the anti-Cole Green. Stafford has 90-94 mph stuff on his fastball and a nasty curve when it's working; but, as the Baseball America scouting report cited on the link notes, his biggest issue is controlling that heater. If he can learn to throw it for strikes consistently, Augie will almost have to find a way to use him frequently.
Role Players and Emerging Arms:
Junior lefty Andrew McKirahan returns and looks to build on a solid sophomore campaign in which he posted an ERA of 2.78 and held opposing hitters to an impressive .195 average. McKirahan figures to be a situational reliever again this year: in 2010, he had 23 appearances but pitched just 22.2 innings, meaning his normal outing involved less than an inning of work. The pattern was much the same for McKirahan in the prestigious Cape Cod League last summer, where he had a 3.09 ERA in 11.2 regular-season innings pitched accumulated in 12 outings. Look for Andrew to continue to come in to face opponents' left-handed hitters in key situations.
Another important bullpen role-player who emerged last year is senior right-hander Kendal Carrillo. Carrillo had an excellent 1.45 ERA in 18.2 innings in 2010. Opponents hit only .161 against him as he amassed 16 strikeouts. His fastball is in the hittable 88-92 range, but he is effective by mixing in a solid curve and keeping the fastball down. Scouts like his mechanics and he may be ready to eat up some more innings than he did last season.
Elsewhere: there seems to be some buzz surrounding sophomore Josh Urban. Urban was McKirahan's teammate on the Cape last summer with the Wareham Gatemen, starting seven games for a total of 39.1 innings pitched with a 5.26 ERA. That's not a pretty number, though in his one playoff start he tossed seven shutout innings against some of the best college hitters out there. He only made three appearances totaling three innings for the Longhorns as a freshman, so his Cape Cod stats are the most concrete thing we have to go on. As such, put us in the "we'll believe it when we see it" camp when it comes to Urban.
Bullpen stalwart Stayton Thomas returns as a senior. He had the most appearances in 2010 among all middle relievers with 29 for a total of 37 innings. He is the definition of "solid:" an ERA under 3, but not a lot under 3; an opponents' BA under .275, but not by much on that count either; and a 2:1 K to BB ratio. None of those is an eye-popping stat but Thomas clearly has the goods to continue to be the go-to guy for setup man purposes.
The strength of the Longhorns will once again be on the hill. Let's be clear: every name listed above would be a definite starter on almost every other Division I baseball team. (Except probably TCU; but we're not interested in going there.) This is a talented group of arms that's good enough to keep Texas in every game they play. At the end of the day, scoring runs is important--but, especially in college game, holding opponents down is even more so. These Longhorns will be able to do that consistently.