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The future of Texas baseball looks bright

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With only a handful of players selected in the MLB Draft and a talented incoming signing class, the Horns are well positioned to make another postseason run in 2019.

NCAA Baseball: College World Series-Arkansas vs Texas Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports

No one expected the Texas Longhorns to make it to Omaha, especially not after a 9-9 start, but after a remarkable postseason run and favorable results from the 2018 MLB Draft, the future looks bright for head coach David Pierce and his program.

“There’s nobody in this room and nobody in this country expected this team to be here,” Pierce said after Tuesday’s loss to Florida. “And they did a heck of a job from the start to finish, from the fall ball into early spring. The things that they had to accomplish to get here is incredible.”

Now the foundation is set — reliever Josh Sawyer was the only player on the roster with a previous appearance in Omaha, but now all the returnees know what it takes to reach the biggest stage in college baseball.

Pierce and his staff can move forward with the confidence that their approach works after experiencing success at a program with the highest expectations.

Perhaps departing first baseman Jake McKenzie said it best.

“I mean, we have a good recruiting class coming in next year. We’re only going to get better from here.”

There will be some challenges, however.

Superstar second baseman Kody Clemens will likely sign with the Detroit Tigers in the coming days, and weekend starters Nolan Kingham and Chase Shugart will almost certainly join him in leaving the Forty Acres for professional baseball. Pitcher Simeon Woods-Richardson, a Longhorns signee, already inked his professional contract with the Mets.

That’s in stark contrast to last season, though, when the Horns were hit hard by the MLB Draft — 15 players and signees were selected, with all but one opting to pursue a professional career. The junior college signee who did make it to campus, reliever Donny Diaz, underwent Tommy John surgery last fall and missed the 2018 season.

So, other than Clemens and McKenzie, the rest of the starting lineup should be back and receive some help from a talented signing class that looks poised to only lose one member to the major leagues.

Key returning contributors

Shortstop David Hamilton — With an excellent glove and speed to burn, Hamilton helped maximize those tools as a sophomore by improving his batting average by 73 points and showing much more power than he did as a freshman. By controlling the strike zone better, he also improved his on-base percentage. A similar jump during Hamilton’s junior season is probably unreasonable, but even if he improves incrementally, he’ll be one of the better all-around shortstops nationally.

Designated hitter Zach Zubia — The former Tulane signee will continue to work on developing his glove enough to play first base. Even if that doesn’t happen, the big questions is whether Zubia can carry Texas offensively with an increase in his power numbers. While he finished second on the team with 11 home runs, he profiles as a player who could double that number.

Catcher DJ Petrinsky — The junior college transfer was a revelation for the Horns after he joined the program late, committing last June. Behind the plate, Petrinsky improved tremendously during the season, while also coming through at the plate by slugging nine home runs. Somewhat surprisingly, Petrinsky wasn’t drafted at all, so he’ll have a chance to continue his development on the Forty Acres.

Infielder Masen Hibbeler — Pierce loves Hibbeler for his desire to play and ability to quickly learn new positions. A return to the middle infield, however, could help his hitting, as he won’t have to expend his time and mental energy learning to play first base or left field, which were new positions for him. As a result, Hibbeler is a strong candidate to emerge as one of the team’s best hitters, but he would benefit from reducing his strikeouts, as he finished second on the team in that category.

Outfielder Duke Ellis — The other junior college transfer who emerged as a key player hit .390 in conference play and provides value with his speed and overall bat-handling ability. However, he struggled in center field, so if he’s on the field, it’s going to be at a corner spot that typically produces more power. As much of a knock as that is, it’s unlikely to cost him a starting role.

Position battles

Now that McKenzie is going pro in something other than sports and Clemens is almost certainly going doing so in baseball, the two open positions are in the infield. Ryan Reynolds could slide over to first base, Hibbeler has experience there, and Zubia could develop his glove enough to see more time in the field. Though Hibbeler did play some first base this year, he’s most likely to play a more natural position for him in second base.

A priority for Pierce will be adding more power to the lineup overall, but especially at the corner positions — losing the 24 home runs of Clemens makes that a necessity. So a freshman like Alec Carr could break into the lineup somewhere like third base because of his ability to drive the baseball in addition to hitting for average and stealing some bases. Peter Geib is another candidate who has more experience playing corner positions and could also lend some power to the lineup, as well as Bryce Reagan, a switch hitter who can play virtually anywhere in the infield.

If Reynolds can’t improve at the plate, he could be the odd man out, but there’s also a solid bar to clear defensively for those freshmen if they want to take his spot.

How much pop Pierce can get from his corner infielders could influence his decisions about the outfield. If Hibbeler moves back to the infield, Texas will have one open spot in the outfield, but in reality, Tate Shaw will face some competition to keep his starting spot, so the only job that seems at all secure in the outfield is that of Duke Ellis.

In the freshman class, Korey Holland should challenge for a starting role with his pure talent and Alex Kennedy can provide some speed. Among returning players, Austin Todd had his season derailed by injuries, but still has some upside despite hitting .216 this season. While the staff will likely continue working with Kamron Fields at the plate due to his athleticism, his future is probably as a pitcher after going hitless in 12 at bats in 2018.

Searching for weekend starters

The key limiting factor for next season’s team could be the starting pitching. All three weekend starters struggled with their consistency and couldn’t match the pure stuff of the pitchers Texas faced in the College World Series.

Even with some impressive young arms arriving to help and some promising young arms, the reality remains that needing to develop players on campus into quality weekend starters and rely on freshmen is a tough recipe for high-level success.

Perhaps Blair Henley can put it together — he has quality stuff and certainly competed hard in Omaha, but he’s frustratingly inconsistent. Matteo Bocchi came on late and pitched extremely well in his start against Tennessee Tech, so maybe Pierce and his staff can mold him into a weekend starter.

Expect the freshmen to make an impact, including redshirt freshman Cole Quintanilla in his return from Tommy John surgery, as the Cedar Park product was electric as a junior with a 0.65 ERA. In the incoming class, Ty Madden and Jack Neely could both compete immediately to be in that mix. Pierce is especially high on the 6’9 Neely, who was vocal about letting major league teams know he’ll play for the Longhorns.

And quality relievers

There will also probably be some departures from the bullpen. Parker Joe Robinson is accepting a prestigious scholarship to go to law school, Andy McGuire will likely continue his career as an infielder in the Blue Jays organization, and Josh Sawyer was selected by the Cubs.

So the primary right-handed setup man is gone and the left-handed setup man and closer will most likely be gone.

A return from Tommy John surgery for Donny Diaz is big news, as he provides the type of velocity and quality that was missing last season. Fields should figure into the mix, as well, assuming that he doesn’t earn a starting role. The freshman class will fill in around the edges to provide more big pitchers with good velocity.

If Diaz can take control of the closer role as expected, Pierce should be able to fill in around the edges.

Now the hunger is activated

The basics are there — this team now understands what it takes to build chemistry, what it takes to compete hard for a whole season, and what it takes to reach the highest levels of college baseball.

Pierce thinks that will make his team push harder this offseason.

“When you get a taste of this, it makes you hungry. And what we’ll talk about here shortly is understand your own strengths, understand your own weaknesses and what do you have to do, first of all, to make the team next year,” Pierce said.

“Secondly, what do you have to do to be a role player, an everyday player? And this motivates you and this builds a culture of expectation from our program. And that’s the beauty of it. Their accomplishments were great, but what they’ve done for Texas athletics and Texas baseball is tremendous.”

Now the program will have an opportunity to build on that success.