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Projecting the 2022 Texas baseball team: ‘The future’s bright’

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Tanner Witt leads a talented young core for the Longhorns.

NCAA Baseball: College World Series-Tennessee v Texas Bruce Thorson-USA TODAY Sports

“The future’s bright.”

Even in the midst of an emotional press conference following a difficult loss that kept that Texas Longhorns from advancing to the College World Series finals, head coach David Pierce still felt optimistic about the future.

With a talented young core and a small but talented incoming recruiting class that Pierce characterized as “great,” Pierce appears to have the historic program well positioned moving forward.

The immediate upside of next year’s team will of course depend on how the upcoming MLB Draft goes and which players decide to return, but Pierce has now built Texas to a point where there shouldn’t be the type of drop off that happened from the 2018 College Wold Series team to the 2019 group that went 27-27 and missed the Big 12 Tournament.

In fact, the expectations are back where they should be — the 2022 team should contend for a return to the College World Series with the MLB Draft helping to determine any upside if Texas gets that far.

So let’s take a look at the roster and how it should shake out next season.


Outfield

The departure of graduate transfer Mike Antico to professional baseball leaves a significant hole in the leadoff spot and in center field for the Longhorns. Antico struggled for a long stretch of the season, but came on late and was fantastic in the postseason, flashing power, drawing walks, and terrorizing opponents on the base paths.

Both left fielder Eric Kennedy and right fielder Douglas Hodo III could replace Antico in center field, assuming that the draft-eligible Kennedy doesn’t depart for professional baseball as well. While Kennedy showed off some power at times, he also relied heavily on infield singles and bunts for base hits just to hit .253, so the guess is that he’ll return for a fourth season on the Forty Acres.

Kennedy did steal 18 bases, but because his on-base percentage was 137 points lower than Antico’s on-base percentage, he simply didn’t have as many opportunities. So while it’s possible that Kennedy might get on base more frequently next season and steal more bases as a result, he’s not going to fully replace Antico’s production in that area.

Hodo projected as a part-time starter this season before taking advantage of his opportunity when Austin Todd went down with a season-ending shoulder injury. Around a .300 hitter for much of the year, Hodo finished at .281 with nine doubles and five home runs. More consistent power from Hodo in 2022 could be big for the Horns with three of the four players with 10 or more home runs either leaving or projected to leave.

Todd is a wild card in the outfield. Nearly 24 and with a number of injuries throughout his career, Todd’s professional options are limited at best. A Round Rock product who only played in six games this year thanks to a shoulder injury, Todd could choose to return via medical redshirt for a sixth season — when he was healthy over the last two seasons, he hit .375 in 2020 and .292 in 24 at bats in 2021.

With only 19 at bats in 2021, it’s hard to know what Texas has in left-handed hitting Dalton Porter, who will have to compete for playing time next season with Lampasas multi-sport standout Ace Whitehead, another left hander who was a talented quarterback in high school.

When Whitehead signed, assistant coach Sean Allen said that he’s is probably the best athlete in the 2021 recruiting class. Since Whitehead split time with football and track in high school in addition to pitching, he has plenty of untapped upside as an outfielder — fall practice should give him a chance to make significant strides. Whitehead hit .369 as a senior and stole 32 bases in 32 games, so his speed could help mitigate the loss of Antico’s ability on the base paths.

Texas also signed Bullard’s Gage Wakefield, another good athlete who seems less likely than Whitehead to make an early impact. An infielder by trade, Dylan Campbell played some outfield as well for the Horns this year due to injuries. Campbell only hit .189 in a small sample size, but did receive mention from Pierce when asked about the nucleus of the team.

First base

Zach Zubia has now spent five years in the Texas program, so if he has any aspirations of playing professional baseball, the time is now since he’ll turn 24 this year.

The clear favorite to replace Zubia at first base is fellow slugger Ivan Melendez, who is draft eligible this season. After the season-ending loss to Mississippi State on Saturday, Pierce sounded confident that Melendez will return and play either first base or third base.

With only five games played in the field this year, Melendez will likely need to prove to scouts that he’s a credible position player defensively to elevate his draft stock. Cutting his strikeouts and showing an ability to maintain his confidence with more mental toughness in the box are keys, too.

In the 2021 class, Texas signed Sour Lake product Gavin Kash, a left-handed hitter with a solid shot of being drafted next month. Kash has the versatility to play either corner infield spot or in the outfield who has a promising combination of size at 6’3, raw power, and the ability to make consistent contact. If he makes it to campus, Kash projects as a player who could contribute immediately.

Second base

If Campbell wants to see the field over the next two years, he’ll either have to wait for classmate Mitchell Daly to move to shortstop if Trey Faltine departs for professional baseball after the 2022 season or play outfield, because Daly proved that he’ll be a key part of the program for at least the next year before he becomes draft eligible.

For stretches of Daly’s freshman season, he was the best position player on the team and finished the year hitting .316. Daly’s strikeout rate jumped a little bit at the end of the season, but with his quick hands, ability to avoid being jammed and consistent approach, he has a chance to continue improving offensively.

Defensively, Daly was a standout from the moment he stepped on the field. A four-year starter at shortstop in high school, he’ll probably have one of the best gloves of any second baseman in the country as a sophomore.

Shortstop

As good as Trey Faltine was defensively this season making the spectacular play look routine, there’s another level for him to reach as a redshirt sophomore by improving the efficiency of his transfer and his overall consistency, especially with his throwing accuracy. For a player who projects as a future Major League shortstop, those are extremely small complaints — Faltine is an elite player defensively.

At the plate, there’s still room for growth. Faltine only hit .249 as a redshirt freshman, starting off slowly and never getting above .262. There’s some power in his lanky, 6’2, 198-pound frame, as evidenced by the fact that he finished second on the team with 18 doubles and added five home runs.

Faltine also led the team in strikeouts with 72 on the season at a rate of 33.2 percent. Whether it means shortening his swing or covering the inside part of the plate better by moving back off it in the box a little bit, Faltine looks like a player with the potential to improve his bat tool this offseason.

If he can do that, he’ll have a chance at a long professional career thanks to his glove. He might still even if he doesn’t.

Third base

Like Zubia, Cam Williams is also 23 and a 2016 high school grad. With his switch-hitting ability, power from both sides of the plate, soft hands at third, and a strong arm, Williams could be an intriguing late-round draft pick for MLB organizations in a couple weeks. Regardless of whether he’s drafted, Williams seems like a strong bet to start his professional baseball career.

If that happens, Texas has a few options at the position in addition to Melendez and Kash.

The most intriguing of the other options might be redshirt sophomore Andre Duplantier, who missed the 2021 season due to an elbow injury suffered in the fall. A hand injury limited him to two starts at third as a freshman, during which he failed to record a hit in seven at bats, but he did hit .306 as a senior in high school. Duplantier might be more intriguing as a full-time pitcher, however, as he recorded three saves, a 2.00 ERA, and 13 strikeouts over eight appearances and 9.0 innings in 2020.

When Williams was banged up this season, junior college transfer Murphy Stehly stepped in at third base. More of a utility player than a regular starter, Stehly can play three positions in the infield and hit .292 in 51 at bats this season. His fielding percentage of .947 was not especially impressive, although it was a small sample size for him and in 2020, his fielding percentage was .971.

This might be a position where Texas evaluates options in the NCAA transfer portal.

Catcher

In 2019, the shoulder injury suffered by DJ Petrinsky forced Michael McCann into the starting role at catcher. He got banged up and walk-on Caston Peter allowed six run-scoring wild pitches in a single weekend. In total, Texas had 59 wild pitches, 16 passed balls, and caught a mere 27-of-60 attempted base stealers (45 percent). Peter only threw out three of 16.

Two years later, it’s easy to forgot how much the position has improved with the addition of redshirt sophomore Silas Ardoin, the son of a former Major League catcher. This season, the Horns only had 34 wild pitches, six passed balls, and Ardoin was 20-for-28 throwing out attempted base stealers (71 percent). Ardoin receives the ball well, blocks the ball well, handles the pitching staff well, and comes through when it matters, like helping turn a 5-2-3 or catching a bunt popped up behind the plate in the College World Series.

Like Faltine, the only potential impediment to a baseball career that looks destined for the MLB is his ability at the plate. Unlike Faltine, Ardoin doesn’t strike out much, finishing second among the regular starters for the least numbers of strikeouts, and has the type of discerning eye in the box that fits his position — he drew 43 walks and had a .389 on-base percentage, 150 points higher than his .239 batting average. The raw power isn’t there like Faltine, but Ardoin can continue making up for a low batting average by drawing walks, putting the ball in play, and turning in stellar performances behind the plate.

Designed hitter

The most surprising player mentioned by Pierce among those returning was redshirt sophomore Peyton Powell. A catcher in high school at Robinson, Powell profiles as the backup to Ardoin, but he also hit .495 as a senior and started three games at designated hitter in 2021, hitting .273 with a home run against South Carolina.

While this may be a position were Texas platoons someone like Kash if he doesn’t earn a starting role, Powell’s mention by Pierce makes him a player to watch over the coming months.

Starting pitchers

Ty Madden projects as a first-round pick and Tristan Stevens is another player whose age makes it time to leave for professional baseball. His ability to avoid walks and get groundouts makes him an intriguing option for MLB organizations.

The player to watch is Pete Hansen, who turns 21 just before the draft. The competition level he faced for much of the season as a midweek starter will hurt his draft stock, as will the dip in his fastball velocity. There’s an outside shot that Hansen’s effectiveness and overall pitchability could make him an intriguing option for an MLB team, but most likely he’ll battle for the Friday or Saturday role in 2022.

Madden’s most likely replacement is sophomore Tanner Witt, whose athleticism, poise, and competitiveness could help make him one of the nation’s best starters next season. Witt showcased his ability to stretch himself out in going 5.2 innings without allowing an earned run against Tennessee in the College World Series and his rapidly-developing changeup should allow him to get left-handed hitters out the second and third time through the order.

The bottom line — Witt looks like the next power-throwing Texas ace.

Fall practice will be an important time for other weekend contenders like redshirt junior Kolby Kubichek, who was solid as the Sunday starter until his command and confidence deserted him in late April. Like Stevens, Kubichek relies mostly on a sinker and a slider, but unlike Stevens, he simply walked too many batters — 27 in 51.1 innings.

A better bet might be sophomore left-hander Lucas Gordon, who Pierce said is close to being a weekend starter after making 18 relief appearances this season with a 3.32 ERA while holding opponents to a .197 batting average. Gordon also received mention by Cole Quintanilla as a young player with a promising future.

The 2021 signee who could compete to join the rotation is Georgetown St. Dominic Savio Catholic right-hander Joshua Stewart, a prospect who surfaced on the MLB radar when his fastball reached 95 miles per hour last fall. A lack of consistency, especially with his fastball velocity, might keep him in the class, but he’s probably the most likely player from that class to bypass college for a professional future — as always, all it takes is one organization to fall in love with him and give him over-slot money unless Stewart simply decides he wants to play college baseball.

Relief pitchers

The discussion of the 2022 Texas bullpen has to start with the pitcher who will close out gams for the Longhorns once again — right-hander Aaron Nixon, also known as Quadzilla.

Recruited as a two-way player, Nixon has the stuff and the mentality of a closer. He recorded nine saves with a 2.12 ERA as a freshman while striking out 35 in 34.0 innings and holding opponents to a .211 batting average.

Getting Cole Quintanilla back for his redshirt junior season would be huge, but after leading the team with a 1.35 ERA, reaching 98 miles per hour with his fastball, and showcasing a developing changeup of his own, the Cedar Park product is probably more likely to turn pro than he is to return.

Duplantier should be able to step into the same role that Witt held this season if he can bounce back from his injury. Redshirt sophomore right-hander Jared Southard didn’t allow an earned run in his 10.0 innings over 12 appearances in 2021, making him a potential key piece of the 2022 bullpen. The lowered arm angle of right-hander Drew Shifflet could make him a legitimate option next season, especially with an offseason to get more comfortable with his new delivery.

A question mark is developing a left-hander in the bullpen. Pierce isn’t necessarily big on those situational matchups, though he does have some options. Chase Lummus returns for his redshirt freshman season coming off an injury, perhaps one of Austin Wallace or Caden Noah emerges, and Texas did sign Luke Harrison.

Of the 2021 signees, Blinn College product Jace Hutchins is the most likely to contribute, featuring a 6’5, 220-pounder frame, a mid-90s fastball, and an impressive baseball pedigree as the son of the Texas A&M Director of Baseball Operations.


Other than the lack of a proven left-handed option out of the bullpen — assuming that Gordon becomes a starter — the likely departure of so much power will change how the Longhorns play next season with a potential increase in station-to-station baseball and a small-ball approach. Those departures should also decrease strikeouts while putting more pressure on Texas players to put the ball in play more frequently to make up for that almost certain drop in home runs.

Texas is also bringing in a small recruiting class that currently numbers only 10 players with perhaps three or four who project as possible contributors, largely a result of the COVID year and overall roster construction because there aren’t a lot of holes to fill.

But it will be interesting to see whether Pierce and his staff to decide to make any additions from the transfer portal at a position like third base or adding a proven bullpen arm.

Most of all, the 2021 team set a standard of hard work and excellence that the returning players can build upon and transfer to the incoming players as Pierce and his staff look to compete for another trip to Omaha next year.