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Previewing Texas baseball’s outfield

Veteran Eric Kennedy and breakout candidate Dylan Campbell lead the outfield for the Longhorns.

NCAA Baseball: College World Series-Notre Dame vs Texas Dylan Widger-USA TODAY Sports

Compared to the losses of four of five regular starting infielders, the outfield for the Texas Longhorns is one of relative stability with the returns of redshirt senior Eric Kennedy, junior Dylan Campbell, and sophomore Ace Whitehead with the additions of TCU redshirt junior Porter Brown and freshman Max Belyeu. Gone are Murphy Stehly, Douglas Hodo III, and Austin Todd.

Stehly was the team’s breakout star in 2022, forcing his way into the starting lineup between second base and right field while hitting .367 with 19 home runs and 61 RBI, good for third on the team in all categories. In center field, Hodo was a rangy, reliable presence defensively while improving dramatically at the plate as his batting average jumped from .281 to .319, his home runs increased from five to 10, and his slugging percentage went from .398 to .532. As a sixth-year senior, Todd suffered another shoulder injury earlier in the season, but still started 49 games, hitting .332 with six home runs and 31 RBI.

The biggest question mark may be who takes over in center field for Hodo with Kennedy serving as a mainstay in left field over 166 starts in four seasons. He’s the most likely candidate with Whitehead as the backup.

No matter how it shakes out, pencil Kennedy in for a starting role after he went undrafted last year and opted to return for a fifth season on the Forty Acres. The left-handed speedster bounced back from a difficult 2021 campaign during which he hit .253 and struggled with strikeouts, cutting some of the swing and miss out of his game while increasing his batting average to .300 and raising his slugging percentage from .352 to .471. There may be some untapped power left in Kennedy’s swing, but the main focus should be to get on base, where Texas will need him to be the type of threat that he was in 2021 when he stole 18 bases.

The most important outfielder, and one of the most important players on the team, is Campbell, the former high school running back who started out slowly last season before surging late and sending Texas to the College World Series with a walk-off hit against East Carolina at the Jungle. Campbell was an infielder by trade when he arrived at Texas and could fill in there for the Longhorns if necessary, but he’s most likely an everyday starter in right field.

With a compact, powerful swing, Campbell hit 10 home runs this season and will have a chance to double that number if he can continue the trajectory of his power surge, but he’s also dangerous on the basepaths with 14 stolen bases last season. Simply put, head coach David Pierce needs Campbell to emerge as one of the team’s best players this season.

The other starter, potentially in left field or center field, is Brown, who came to Austin after four seasons with the Horned Frogs, during which he appeared in 112 games with a .286 batting average, 20 doubles, nine home runs, 63 RBI, and 83 runs scored. Looking to become an everyday starter for the Longhorns, Brown hit .342 in 2021 while showing a knack for getting on base with a .444 on-base percentage. While Brown doesn’t have much pop in his bat, he’s a contact hitter who will bring a needed left-handed bat to the Texas lineup.

Belyeu, another left-handed hitter, will also compete for playing time, possibly at designated hitter.

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,” former Texas assistant coach Sean Allen said when Belyeu signed. “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.”

Look for Whitehead to continue his reserve role and serve as a pinch runner. Whitehead hit .556 last year in 25 at bats, but doesn’t have a clear path to playing time in the outfield in his second season.

With three proven players in the outfield, Texas should get reliable play from those positions. The question is how much upside those players have left to tap into and whether this coaching staff can do so.