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NCAA Baseball: College World Series-Texas vs Texas A&M Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports

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Texas baseball faces significant turnover heading into the 2023 season

The Longhorns could lose as many as nine of the regular 11 starters in the field, as well as a handful of key arms.

It was the year.

With proven starting pitching, a bullpen full of power arms, and a stacked lineup, the Texas Longhorns entered the 2022 season with lofty expectations after falling just short of the College World Series finals in 2021 — it was the year for head coach David Pierce’s team to win the storied program’s first national championship since 2005.

But even with a better-than-expected offense led by first baseman Ivan Melendez in an historic season, the bullpen faltered throughout much of the year and the starting rotation took a huge hit when right-hander Tanner Witt needed Tommy John surgery.

The Horns battled through adversity to finish the regular season strong and get to the College World Series, but the run ended after only two games when left-handers Pete Hansen and Lucas Gordon both struggled in their starts and the bats went largely silent with only one extra-base hit in two games.

Like a lot of teams built to contend for a title, Texas has a multitude of players who are likely to sign contracts after the 2022 MLB Draft or no longer have eligibility, putting significant pressure on Pierce’s incoming recruiting class to contribute early and on the staff to add experienced, instant-impact players through the NCAA transfer portal.

With the offseason looming, let’s take stock of the 2022 team and look ahead to make some projections about the 2023 team.


NCAA Baseball: College World Series-Texas vs Texas A&M Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports

Outfield

Left field

2022 starters— redshirt junior Eric Kennedy and sophomore Dylan Campbell

The Florida native battled through a hamstring that limited him to one game from early April until mid May. When Kennedy was able to return, he wasn’t as sharp at the plate, seeing his batting average drop from .345 to .299.

Campbell got off to a slow start after a promising summer ball campaign and strong fall, but emerged late in the season with the injury to Kennedy. After batting under .200 throughout most of conference play, Campbell finished with a .266 average, 10 home runs, and 13 stolen bases, which led the team.

Center field

2022 starter — redshirt sophomore Douglas Hodo III

Hodo emerged as a strong defensive center fielder in his third season on the Forty Acres and a reliable leadoff hitter, batting .319 and showing much more power at the plate, going from nine doubles and five home runs to 25 doubles and 10 home runs. If there was a disappointment, it was his speed failing to transfer into a larger number of stolen bases, up to nine from six in 2021, but Hodo played well enough to have professional options after this season.

Right field

2022 starters — redshirt senior Austin Todd and redshirt senior Murphy Stehly

Todd finally departs after six seasons at Texas and a strong 2022 campaign that overcame a shoulder injury early in the season that limited him to a role as a designated hitter. Some late-career adjustments helped Todd hit for more power, finishing his career batting .332 as a sixth-year senior with six home runs.

Stehly was the season’s true revelation — projected as a utility player, Stehly forced his way into the starting lineup and eventually provided Melendez with the protection that he needed for his record-setting season. Like Melendez, Stehly cooled some down the stretch, but still hit .367 with 19 home runs. Texas won’t just miss his production, they will also deeply miss his work ethic.

2023 projections

With his speed and left-handed bat, Kennedy has some appeal as a prospect and is likely to sign a free-agent deal if he isn’t drafted. He’s almost 23, so if he has any desire to play professional baseball, now’s the time to get into an organization’s system. With two years of eligibility remaining, the Longhorns may be able to keep Hodo on campus for a fourth season, it just won’t be a surprise if he departs, too.

If Campbell doesn’t return to the infield, where he started his career at Texas, he’s capable of playing right or left field and has enough speed he could potentially play center as well if Hodo turns pro. He’s already flashed his power and his speed makes him a dangerous weapon, so there’s plenty to build on for Campbell, who should be one of the best players on the 2023 team and makes contact frequently enough that some better luck on balls in play would be enough by itself to show improvement. Pencil him in as the breakout player in 2023, a role that the Longhorns need him to fill.

Syndication: austin360 Aaron E. Martinez / American-Statesman / USA TODAY NETWORK

Another potential option in center field is Ace Whitehead, who made one appearance on the mound and mostly served as a pinch runner for Texas as a freshman. In a limited sample of 18 at bats, Whitehead showed some promise as a contact hitter from the left side, batting .556 with two doubles and three walks.

One of the players to watch in next month’s draft is California outfielder Henry Bolte, who is considered a top-50 prospect by MLB.com with a mix of raw power and high-level speed. There are questions about Bolte’s swing, which could help Texas get him on campus, where he would project as a starter, but the odds are on Bolte jumping to professional baseball unless he’s set on playing college baseball.

Aledo outfielder Max Belyeu is much more likely to follow through on his signing with Texas. A left-handed hitter, Belyeu is another speedy player with power who projects as an instant-impact contributor for the Longhorns.

Max is one of the best pure left-handed hitters in the country, he will bring an immediate hit tool to our program from Day 1,” Texas assistant coach Sean Allen said when Belyeu signed last November. “He has good power and can play all three outfield spots. Max checks all the boxes for what we look for in an outfielder at Texas.”

Belyeu could receive some competition from left-handed hitter Brenner Cox, who could also make appearances on the mound. From Prosper Rock Hill, Cox fits the profile Pierce likes as a former quarterback with an abundance of speed and good power.

“I love the make-up of Brenner,” Pierce said. “He has great leadership qualities as a two-sport athlete. Some of the best players I have coached over the years were excellent quarterbacks in football. Brenner has the ability to step on the Forty Acres as a two-way player and contribute immediately as a pitcher and position player.”


Syndication: Austin American-Statesman Aaron E. Martinez/American-Statesman / USA TODAY NETWORK

Infield

First base

2022 starter — redshirt junior Ivan Melendez

With only one meaningful national player of the year award left to receive, Melendez will head off to professional baseball after the best season in school history for a hitter, one that may not be matched or exceeded for decades after batting .387 with 32 home runs and 94 RBI.

2023 projection

The player currently on the roster with the best chance of replacing Melendez is Gavin Kash, one of the better prospects from the last signing class who hit .174 in 23 at bats as a freshman. Kash struck out in nine of those at bats, so his pull-heavy approach also included a lot of swings and misses, but he has enough projectable power to make him a player worth watching through the summer and the fall.

If Pierce wants a more contact-oriented approach, Waxahachie’s Jared Thomas could get a significant look if the Longhorns opt against addressing the position through the NCAA transfer portal. Thomas runs well enough he could also play in the outfield at some point in his Texas career and hit .484 as a junior with a reputation for consistently competitive at bats.

Second base

2022 starters — sophomore Mitchell Daly and Stehly

If Stehly represented the team’s most positive story with his relentless work ethic and high-level production, Daly’s sophomore season was the arguably the most disappointing with the exception of former closer Aaron Nixon. Daly’s defense improved at second base as he cut his errors from nine to four, raising his fielding percentage from .964 to .986, but his batting average dropped from .316 to .237 with dips in his slugging percentage and on-base percentage as well.

Shortstop

2022 starter — redshirt sophomore Trey Faltine

The Kid was once again a pleasure to watch field his position and took some significant steps forward at the plate, raising his batting average to .282 with a major boost in his power, jumping from five home runs to 15 home runs as his slugging percentage went from .401 to .552.

Syndication: Austin American-Statesman Aaron E. Martinez/American-Statesman / USA TODAY NETWORK

2023 projections

Faltine’s glove and budding power make him an intriguing prospect despite legitimate concerns about his strikeout rate of 43.1 percent, so even though he has two seasons of eligibility remaining, the expectation is that he’ll make the jump to professional baseball as whatever improvements he could make next season would likely be outweighed by his age.

If Faltine does depart as expected, Daly could remain at second base or move over to shortstop, a position that could otherwise belong to California product Cutter Coffey, the top-ranked shortstop in the state and a top-75 prospect by at least one site. Considered a right-handed pitcher in that projection, the opportunity to play both ways in college could be appealing to Coffey, who is classified as a third baseman by MLB.com and ranked just outside the top 100. Whether the lack of clarity in Coffey’s projection helps or hurts Texas will become apparent in the next month.

Where Coffey goes in the draft should be a strong indication of his plans and the Longhorns have signed two other middle infielders — Andre Duplantier’s younger brother Jayden and Jalin Flores from San Antonio Brandeis. Duplantier has the glove to compete for a starting job if Coffey turns pro and profiles as a contact hitter while Flores is a more highly-rated prospect with more pop.

“Jalin is a long athletic infielder with power in his bat,” Allen said. “Every time we see Jalin he gets better and better and he is already one of the best players in the country. I’m really excited to see him develop in our program.”

Daly faces an important summer and fall as he tries to bounce back from his issues at the plate — with all the turnover, Texas needs him to look a lot more like the 2021 version of himself in the batter’s box than the 2022 version.

Vanderbilt transfer Jack O’Dowd could also factor in at second base or shortstop after hitting .231 in 39 at bats.

Third base

2022 starter — redshirt senior Skyler Messinger

After Messinger had his best season at Kansas, he opted to play for Troy Tulowitzki, a childhood favorite growing up in Boulder County. Tulowitzki not only helped Messinger turn in a remarkable season defensively at third base with only four errors, but a change in Messinger’s swing path allowed him to unlock much more power even as his batting average went from .324 to .364. In Messinger’s first four seasons, he totaled four home runs — at Texas, he hit 11 with only a small dip in his number of doubles and a 100-point gain in his slugging percentage.

2023 projection

Kash or Coffey could potentially play third base, but classify this position as the biggest question mark in the field for the Longhorns heading into the offseason and Pierce will probably look to add a player from the portal to fill this starting role. Other possible options on the roster include sophomore catcher Kimble Schuessler and sophomore utility Jack O’Dowd, both of whom were well regarded as recruits.

Catcher

2022 starter — redshirt sophomore Silas Ardoin

Highly regarded for his ability behind the plate and his understanding of how to manage the pitching staff, Ardoin is a little bit like Faltine in that he improved significantly offensively in 2022, raising his batting average to .271 and seeing a major jump in power, going from one home run to 12 home runs. The power surge from Ardoin bumped his slugging percentage up almost 200 points.

2023 projection

Since Ardoin is almost 22 and presents an appealing glove behind the plate, the expectation is that he’ll move on to professional baseball, leaving Schuessler and Cam Constantine as the returning options at catcher.

And though it’s possible that Schuessler could earn the job after hitting .350 in 17 games, Sinton’s Rylan Galvan will arrive in the fall as the state’s top catcher and odds-on favorite to win the start for the next three seasons after batting .404 with six home runs as a junior.

“Rylan is one of those gifted players where the game just looks easy for him. He is really good behind the plate and we will look to him to be a mainstay and lead our pitching staffs for years to come,” Allen said.

Designated hitter

2022 starters — Todd, Kash, O’Dowd, redshirt sophomore Peyton Powell

Following Todd’s shoulder injury that forced Stehly into the field, Texas struggled to find a competent contributor at designated hitter, cycling through a handful of players who mostly struggled to find their footing at the plate and eventually gave way to Todd when he was healthy enough to hit.

2023 projection

The hitting-only role represents another question mark for Texas that Pierce may not try to address directly, instead opting for the best hitter with the glove that doesn’t play as well in the field as the other starters.


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Pitching

Starters

2022 starters — Pete Hansen, Tristan Stevens, Lucas Gordon, Tanner Witt

Hansen finished with an 11-3 record and 3.76 ERA after some struggles down the stretch. His pitchability is still a remarkable trait, but his last two outings put into stark relief how hittable he can be when he doesn’t have his typical pinpoint command.

At 7-6 with a 4.73 ERA, Stevens ended his stellar Texas career with a huge start against East Carolina in the decisive third game and some strong performances out of the bullpen after he began to struggle as a starter.

Witt was only able to make two strong starts before suffering the arm injury that required season-ending Tommy John surgery, pushing Gordon into the spotlight, where he was excellent until his own struggles over his final two starts. Gordon finished with a 7-2 record and 3.05 ERA.

Six other pitchers also made starts for Texas as the Horns struggled to find reliable midweek starters, an issue that bled into the weekend when Stevens moved to the bullpen.

2023 projections

Hansen is almost 22 and should still be a relatively high draft pick, so the major question mark is whether Witt can return from surgery to fill a weekend role next season. Witt also has to keep his eye on the 2023 MLB Draft, but he wanted to be at Texas badly enough that it’s difficult imagining him sitting out if he’s capable of pitching at some point during the season.

Depending on what happens with Witt, Gordon could step into the Friday role, but projects at worst as a reliable Saturday or Sunday starter. The concerning thing is that Texas could conceivably enter the 2023 season with Gordon as the only known commodity on the mound, which is why Pierce and his staff may now be turning their focus to the portal in order to land a frontline starter like Air Force transfer Paul Skenes.

Because while likely returning players like right-hander Zane Morehouse and Travis Sthele both have excellent stuff, they’ll need to take some major strides with their command over the coming months for either to have a shot at a weekend role. The ideal situation is for those players to develop enough to serve as key bullpen pieces or midweek starters.

Bullpen

2022 contributors — Marcus Olivarez, Jared Southard, Luke Harrison, Lebarron Johnson, Andre Duplantier, Aaron Nixon

After benefitting from a bullpen that was typically unhittable on the back end in 2021, Texas suffered a major dropoff for much of the 2022 season following the departure of Cole Quintanilla, the move of Witt to the weekend rotation and subsequent injury, and loss of fastball command by Nixon. Too many other relievers suffered similar issues and by the time the postseason arrived, Pierce was openly discussing how the staff moved away from having any defined roles in the bullpen. Not ideal, and though the bullpen wasn’t responsible for the two losses in two games at the College World Series, there was a serious cap on the team’s potential in Omaha without getting unusually strong performances from the bullpen.

2023 projections

Across the board, the focus for Allen will be on improving command, particularly with Nixon, who was so outstanding as a freshman in 2021. There’s plenty of potential, with Johnson fitting into the same category of Morehouse and Sthele of having power arms in need of more consistency.

Olivarez is the only pitcher who has exhausted his eligibility after serving as the team’s most reliable reliever, though there are some other fringe roster players who may not return

One development to watch is whether the big-time velocity of Southard and his strong slider are enough for him to be drafted and move on — he has outstanding stuff and hadn’t given up a run in a month and a half before his outing against Texas A&M. With Southard’s current trajectory, he would be a big piece of the 2023 Texas bullpen if he returns.

Right-hander Joshua Stewart remains a pitcher with longterm potential and Harrison came through in some big moments early in the season thanks to his competitiveness and pitchability on the mound.

Among the incoming recruits, Coffey has the most potential to land a significant back-end role for the bullpen if he makes it to campus with Cox fitting into a similar mold. At 6’6, right-hander Pierce George has a good fastball and projectable frame, but is likely more of a project. Arlington Martin right-hander Max Grubbs is a better bet to contribute early with a sinker-slider combination who has some similarities to Harrison as a high-level competitor on the mound. Another possible early contributor is California product Matthew Porchas, another big-bodied right-hander. There’s also a much-needed left-hander in the class, Highland Park’s Collin Valentine, who has a deceptive delivery and a sweeping slider.

Look for Pierce and his staff to add bullpen depth through the portal as well and while power arms are always enticing, the lesson from the struggles of players like Winthrop transfer Daniel Blair is that trying to build a bullpen with more emphasis on power arms than on pitchability can really backfire when a coach is left without a handful of steady strike throwers.


At a program with the expectations of Texas, rebuilding years aren’t really an option for head coaches, so there’s likely to be some pressure on Pierce and his staff to effectively replace eight or nine of the 11 regular players, the Friday starter, and the team’s most reliable relief pitcher.

There will be a major power dropoff at the plate and a leadership vacuum requiring program culture to fill most of the loss, felt most pronounced with the departing work ethic of Stehly, the team-first attitude of the team’s best player, Melendez, the fiery competitiveness of Faltine, and the steadfast and complete dedication of Stevens to the program.

The incoming class should have some early contributors and the portal provides the opportunity to add good, experienced players to reduce the pressure on the freshmen, but the current reality is that, right now, the upside of the 2023 team is the lowest since 2019 — there’s a lot of work for this staff to do over the coming months and a major task for Pierce after replacing pitching coach/recruiting coordinator Sean Allen is to keep Tulowitzki on staff, which may be the biggest offseason challenge of them all.

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