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Hitting could finally become Texas baseball’s strength in 2017

The Longhorns have several potential immediate impact freshmen who will make up for the loss of Tres Barrera

Mens College Baseball World Series Photo by Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

Call me crazy, but I believe that for the first time in a long time (in forever?) that offense will be Texas baseball’s biggest strength. Considering the Longhorns hit for a dismal .268 last season and only hit 34 homers as a team, Texas hitters will need to make a big jump to be productive.

And I think they will.

I’m cautiously optimistic about Texas’ pitching improving, but I’m very optimistic that its hitting will make strides. Unlike the bullpen largely filled with familiar faces, the ‘Horns’ hitters have several freshman players who will play significant roles — two newcomers (Hamilton and Reynolds) batted in the first four spots in the alumni game and likely will on Opening Day as well. Freshman Austin Todd was the MVP of Texas’ fall ball series and fellow first year Andres Sosa has also been heralded as a noteworthy newcomer.

Even better, Texas is only without one 2016 contributor on offense — catcher Tres Barrera. And though the loss of Barrera to the MLB draft stings, not many other Power 5 schools can lay claim to only losing one player from its 2016 Opening Day lineup.

Texas likely won’t finish as a top hitting team, but even being above average will be a breath of fresh air for Longhorn fans. And this unit should certainly be above average.

Here’s how I see the opening day lineup going down:

1. Zane Gurwitz, CF (Sr.)

2016: Team high .333 conference batting average, .294 average overall. Second on team with 36 RBIs.

Gurwitz is the perfect leadoff man. He doesn’t have the most power or the most speed on the team, but he is the ‘Horns’ most reliable batter. Gurwitz is the glue that winning teams have, and in his senior season, he’ll continue to get the job done at center or in the middle infield.

2. David Hamilton, SS (Fr.)

2016: Ranked as 71st best prospect in the nation, First team All-American, drafted in 28th round by the Los Angeles Angels.

It’s always good to have a lefty batting second, much less a speedy slasher such as David Hamilton. Hamilton was an elite prospect out of high school and will likely bestow the high honor of starting at shortstop as a freshman. Don’t expect a plethora of home runs from the San Marcos native, but he should frequently reach base at the college level. Additionally, his excellent defense will aid a Longhorns unit that was error prone in 2016.

3. Patrick Mathis, RF (Jr.)

2016: .297 average, tied for team high six homers.

Mathis is the perfect offensive weapon — he has plus speed on the base paths, and has the ability to launch the ball over the fence better than anyone else on Texas’ roster. He turned heads in the prestigious Cape Cod Summer League with his power and diving catches in the outfield, and will improve upon a solid 2016 season. The biggest red flag for Mathis is that his athletic defensive plays were more than offset by nine often untimely errors last year. He was heralded by former coach Augie Garrido as the best outfielder on the ‘Horns, and if he can prove it, he’ll be a star in his junior year.

4. Ryan Reynolds, 3B (Fr.)

2016: Ranked as 7th best prospect in the state of Louisiana.

Reynolds was ranked only as the 465th best prospect for his class, so his off-season emergence has been a welcome surprise. The son of former big league pitcher Shane Reynolds is a switch-hitter who is regarded for his hitting prowess. In Texas’ alumni game last week, Reynolds went 3-4 and added an RBI and a walk to his name. In fall ball, Reynolds’ scrimmage team “rarely lost”, according to Orange Bloods’ Dustin McComas. The only unknown right now is Reynolds’ defensive ability — he will likely begin the season at third, but was more comfortable at first or second base in high school.

5. Kacy Clemens, 1B (Sr.)

2016: Team high .303 batting average, team high .418 OBP, five home runs

Though little brother Kody may get more hype, the senior Clemens was quietly one of Texas’ best batters last season. He unexpectedly led the team in batting average in (.303), and unveiled some power as well. How did Kacy randomly become a force at the plate? I’m not going to say it’s a direct cause and effect, but his average skyrocketed after switching to prescription glasses.

6. Kody Clemens, DH (So.)

2016: .242 batting average, five home runs

Kody didn’t deliver eye popping stats last year, but he was still one of Texas’ most exciting players, despite the errors and strikeouts. His emotional walk-off homer against TCU in the Big 12 Tournament to keep the Longhorns’ season alive was my favorite Texas baseball moment of 2016. His 2017 faces complication, as he underwent Tommy John surgery, but his injury shouldn’t have a major effect on his hitting performance. He’ll be stuck at DH this year, but he’ll still have the opportunity for more walk-off dingers, and that’s what’s important.

7. Michael Cantu, C (Jr.)

2016: .214 average, seven doubles

Here’s where things get tricky — Cantu was recruited as a highly touted “big hitter”, but he hasn’t lived up to his expectations at the plate for the Longhorns. His 2016 campaign was particularly rough, as he slumped in and out of the lineup, often with a batting average hovering below .200. However, the Corpus Christi native ended the year with momentum, going 7-16 in May. His elite defense has never been questioned, but with little depth behind him at catcher, Cantu will need to perform better at the plate. I would argue that his individual performance could play the biggest role in Texas’ hitters success as a whole in 2017.

8. Brett Boswell, 2B (Jr.)

2016: .241 batting average, Drafted in 40th round of MLB draft by the Pittsburgh Pirates.

The key for Boswell this season will be to avoid the streakiness that plagued him in 2016. At one point, he was a dismal 1-27 at the plate in conference play. Boswell’s sophomore campaign appeared to be a lost cause until he caught fire in the Big 12 Tournament, going a ridiculous 10-17 at the plate. He continued to prove himself by earning MVP of the California Collegiate summer league, where he notched a league best .405 average and league second best 10 homers. He didn't have a standout fall season, but momentum is surely still on the side of the former 2016 MLB draftee.

9. Travis Jones, LF (Jr.)

2016: .300 batting average, .394 OBP

As one of only two hitters with a .300 average last season, Jones could also find himself at the top of the order. But if Pierce wants some pop and consistency out of the bottom of the lineup, Jones should deliver. In the New England Collegiate summer league, Jones won player of the week honors, perhaps proving that his in-season success last year was no fluke.

Other Key Contributors

Tyler Rand, OF (So.)

2016: Team high 14 steals (15 attempts), .265 average.

Rand could easily be a starter, but otherwise he should be used nearly every game as a pinch runner. His 14 steals were double the amount of swiped bags of anyone else on the team last season, and he was an average hitter too. One of the few sophomore impact position players, Rand should get plenty of playing time in 2017.

Austin Todd, OF (Fr.)

2016: Ranked as the 500th overall prospect in the nation, Orange-White Fall Series MVP.

Todd’s emergence is nearly as big of a surprise as Reynold’s off-season success. The freshman wasn’t adored by scouts, but now he’s in the conversation for a starting role. In the Orange and White Fall ball series, Todd was named the MVP after going 7-12 at the plate.

Andres Sosa, INF (Fr.)

2016: Ranked as the 222nd overall prospect in the nation, Honorable Mention All-American.

How Sosa will fit in to a crowded middle infield is not certain, but the San Antonio native appears already poised to make an impact at the college level. Touted by scouts for his athletic build and bat speed, Sosa should get a chance in 2017.

Jake McKenzie, INF/OF (Jr.)

2016: .237 average, started 29 games.

McKenzie is Texas’ utility man off the bench, as the junior can play several positions for the ‘Horns, including pitcher. McKenzie hit for a pretty “meh” .219 average in Big 12 play last season, but with a year more experience, he should still certainly have a role on the team.

Joe Baker, INF (Jr.)

2016: .245 average, started 31 games.

Baker honed a .313 average in late April last season, but suffered a ridiculous slump and eventually finished the season with a .163 Big 12 average. His plummet to Augie Garrido’s dog house concluded when Baker pulled mid-inning against Oklahoma State in the Big 12 Tournament after committing his second error. Baker didn’t appear in Texas’ final two games after that. Perhaps a fresh start under a new coach can revamp Baker, who has the talent to be a starter on the team.

Michael McCann & George Pappas, C (Rs. So.)

2016: Did not play.

Someone has to back-up Michael Cantu at catcher, and the choice seems to pretty clearly be McCann at the moment. McCann, a former top 500 prospect, did not play last season due to Texas’ catcher depth. However, he did start five games in 2015 and posted a .211 average. Pappas is more of an unknown entity, as he has never suited up for the burnt orange before. Here’s to hoping Cantu doesn't get injured or fall into a serious slump.

* * *

Texas obviously has offensive depth — so much so that I even left off some players who could heavily contribute. Tate Shaw is another guy who could vie for playing time, as he’s flourished under Pierce.

With the fences at Disch-Falk brought in, and a deeper and more experienced group, the Texas position players should be more effective in 2017. The two keys for the unit this year will likely be improved defensive with no meltdown, error-ridden innings, and Michael Cantu’s success at the plate.

Next up on our baseball previews is a breakdown of Texas’ schedule -- a schedule which begins in four days.

You can find my preview of Texas pitchers here.