David Pierce brought Texas Longhorns baseball back to solid footing and the NCAA tournament in year one as head coach, but the 2018 Longhorns are far from having a secure identity.
For one, Texas was not a consistent team in 2017, with most issues coming at the plate. Texas held a dismal .252 team batting average, and the only two players who batted over .300, Kacy Clemens and Zane Gurwitz, graduated.
That’s another one of Texas’ problems — many of the familiar faces that led the team back to prominence will not be returning. Texas has 11 active players taken in the MLB Draft, which tied with Michigan for the most of any college program.
The ‘Horns suffered further attrition, such as catcher Michael Cantu departing the program for the pros despite going undrafted. All in all, only six of the 13 players who recorded 20 at-bats or more will be returning for 2018.
There will also be several new faces on the pitching side of things. Texas lost its ace, Morgan Cooper, to the MLB draft, and only six of 14 pitchers who appeared on the mound for the ‘Horns in 2017 will return.
So why is Texas ranked as the preseason No. 20 team in the nation and No. 3 team in the Big 12?
We’ve gotten to the optimistic point of this preview, because the ‘Horns do have a lot going for them.
For one, Texas will bring back one of the best arms in nation in junior Nolan Kingham. Kingham was dominant a season ago, notching a 2.84 ERA and leading the ‘Horns with 92 innings pitched.
Texas will have another stud in junior Beau Ridgeway, who served as Texas’ “stopper” in 2017. Ridgeway notched a 1.89 ERA in 52.1 innings pitched.
David Hamilton at shortstop is a SportsCenter top 10 play waiting to happen on defense, and junior Kody Clemens has the potential to fill the massive shoes his brother left behind. After all, Kacy had his breakout season his junior year.
First-baseman Zach Zubia redshirted his freshman season in 2017, but he could become a name to know this year. Zubia broke the Northwoods Summer League home run record, hitting a league record 22 homers en route to winning MVP.
New faces like Zubia will be key for the ‘Horns, as David Pierce landed a dynamic recruiting class for this season that includes both highly-touted freshman and proven JUCO talents.
It’s difficult to say which of Texas’ 11 true freshman will adapt to the college game the quickest, but there are several candidates to contribute early. Kamron Fields was ranked as the No. 22 prospect in Texas out of high school and could get playing time as both a pitcher and outfielder.
Nico O’Donnell, a 6’5 right-handed pitcher, has impressed Pierce in the offseason and could serve as a midweek starter for the ‘Horns.
On offense, former JUCOs could play a pivotal role in finally helping the Longhorns have a solid hitting team. Masen Hibbeler hit for a .493 average and 10 home runs last season at Odessa College, and also stole for 14 bases. His prowess at the plate and speed will likely land him at the top half of the lineup on opening day.
Duke Ellis is another elite athlete who could start in the outfield for the ‘Horns. Ellis hit for .415 at Panola College last season, and stole a whopping 21 bases.
And don’t forget catcher DJ Petrinsky, who hit 24 homers over his two season at Hill College.
Texas baseball could be a lot of things in 2018. Pierce’s second season could be similar to Shaka Smart’s second year, where talented newcomers aren’t enough to make up for the voids left by players no longer with the program. Year two under Pierce could also be the refresh button the ‘Horns needed, with Texas once again solidifying its status as a mainstay in the NCAA tournament.
Yes, Texas’ season could go in a myriad of directions, but one thing the team will definitely be is fresh and exciting. And that’s what Longhorn fans have been wanting for so long.
Stay tuned for more baseball coverage in the coming days. Texas will kick off its season at the Disch on Friday at 6:30 against UL-Lafayette.