There's something bittersweet about TCU baseball in 2016. Cody Jones, Derek Odell, Tyler Alexander, 4-year ace Preston Morrison, and the closest thing to literal damn fireball you can get in Riley Ferrell, have sailed in their respective ships. However, with an abundance of young talent-including a Gatorade Player of the Year, the reigning Big 12 Freshman of the Year, a fancy new complex, and one of the best coaches in the country, there's no line on the horizon for this program.
TCU is (barely) picked to win the conference. College Baseball, is a different animal-The Big 12 in particular. Even as a kid going to Texas games, you saw that. There's more hubris. It's almost as if the baseball fans aren't even the same fans at football games. Maybe the game itself lends to this-who knows. That's what makes the sport special, and if only the Big 12 had a television network that would lend itself to better college baseball coverage (cough LHN), the sport would become considerably more popular than it already is. But in 2016, that's a moot point. We, the Big 12 baseball fan, have to work with what we got. And while we won't be able to watch every game on television, we'll at least be able to watch good baseball when we do.
Shoes to Fill
Mason: This season the Frogs will be without one of the best, if not the best, group of players that they've ever had. Namesakes that will certainly go down in TCU lore are now graduated or in the MLB somewhere. Almost our entire infield is gone, which included Garret Crain, Keaton Jones, and Derek Odell. The outfield loses Jeremie Fagnan (who saw plenty of time at first base as well but was listed as an outfielder) and of course the reigning Big 12 player of the year, Cody "Mane of a Stallion" Jones.
TCU's got a solid pitching rotation as talked about by Travis above, but the list of who we won't see take the mound in purple and white this season makes my face turn into that of Pepe the frog. Travis Evans, Preston Morrison, Riley Ferrell, and Trey Teakell. Gone. All of them. While saying the names of the players gone by in rapid succession may be immediately demoralizing, take a moment to think about the ceiling of this current squad that Schloss has been working on.
When I think of names of who could be the next great player for TCU, my mind immediately goes to Evan Skoug. He got plenty of experience last season in being able to play with the aforementioned greats, but was also great in his own right. He can LAUNCH it down the line to any of the bases, but he's also fantastic at the plate in key moments. Just look at what he did during game 3 of the Super Regionals against A&M and as well as his game against NC State when TCU mounted a crazy comeback.
My second thought is that Connor Wanhanen, a sophomore just like Skoug, is going to be a great anchor for the team. Regardless of where he is playing, OF, 1B, or DH, Wanhanen is a force. I'm eagerly looking forward to his performance and development over the rest of his career here at TCU.
Lastly, Nolan Brown. He'll be one of the only seniors on the roster that are returning from last year. I think that this is a great opportunity for him to stand up as a leader in the locker room, and once he returns from his injury, he should continue to anchor our outfield.
In terms of pitching, I was going to say Mitchell Traver, but now that he's going out for several weeks, that won't be the case, at least for the whole season. I'm going to ride with Tyler Alexander and Preston Guillory. While these two may not see starting positions next season, TCU's pride and joy the past couple of years has been our ability to win the battle of depth at pitcher. That's what saved us in the Super Regionals, where we ran through 7 pitchers and only gave up 4 runs in 16 innings to one of the best hitting teams in the country in A&M. Not many, if any, schools can boast about their bullpen like that. I foresee these two making an impact in the trenches several times this season. Whether it be digging us out of a hole so our boys can swing the bats and make it a game or holding down the fort (Pun. Shameless. You're welcome.) to make sure that we don't blow a lead. With the way that football season went, I'm always wary of who the next man up is going to be. Let's hope the snake doesn't bite twice.
The best part about college baseball is that I could be totally wrong. There could be a player that I haven't named that could become a difference maker like a lot of the players from last year. The way that Schloss develops his players and manages 9 innings, any player can be the next great Horned Frog baseball legend.
Marsh: It'll be pretty hard to replace Cody Jones. For one, you can't teach the speed which Jones had. Because of Jones, TCU led the Big 12 in SBs (stolen bases) in 2015–and it wasn't even close. C. Jones contributed 16 of TCU's league leading 53 stolen bases, 23 more than Oklahoma State who had the second most. In fact, TCU had four players in the Top 8 for stolen bases in the conference. No other team had more than one.
In-conference statistics only*
It's understood that Frogs' league-leading OBP the past two years contributed greatly to their Big 12 Tournament win in 2014, and their regular season title in 2015. The margin of victory was about 3 (2.84); the Frogs' ERA in-conference was 2.77, and they scored a league-leading 5.61 runs per game in those games. From a National perspective, their league-leading OBP was only good enough for 88th, which was also the same ranking for runs-per-game.
Sure, the Big 12 has great pitching. Over half the conference, including TCU (2), Oklahoma State (8), Texas (33), Texas Tech (41), and Oklahoma (50), had a Top 50 ERA last year, with little separation. The SEC had four: Vanderbilt (9), LSU (18), Texas A&M (22), and Florida (29). Four of those teams (TCU, Vandy, LSU, and Florida) composed half of the CWS Field.
Despite the pitching losses, TCU may not have to be a Top 5 pitching team in the country to go back to Omaha–they may not even need to be in the Top 25. Even with the losses in the starting rotation and the depth in the bullpen, a more offensive-minded TCU team in 2016 could not only go back to Omaha, but be one that can break the seal and finally give Schlossnagle a National Title. He and Kirk Sarloos are wizards with arms, and I don't expect it to digress to hair-pulling proportions in 2016. Sure, it hurts losing Preston Morrison, Tyler Alexander, Alex Young, Riley Ferrell, and company, but without this hair-pulling regression, TCU just has to be better on offense to give themselves a chance to go back to Omaha.
Sure, it's been the depth of the bullpen that has kept TCU's dreams alive in the past two seasons, but think about how the last two CWS have gone: Great starts, followed by close, one-run losses in the second game that in some form or fashion has burned the team out. If the offense of the past two years just had a couple more offensive threats, maybe those games aren't as tight and maybe TCU doesn't have to be the team facing elimination (and thus having to win two more games to advance to a three-game Championship series).
Predicting the Lineup:
*This also doesn't take into consideration the Mitchell Traver injury. Nevertheless, Baker moving into the weekend role shouldn't effect the information below; the lineup will just be without him on Sunday rather than the Tuesday role.
I'm all about hitting your best batter second, which would be Wanhanen or even Baker, but Watson's switch hitting abilities makes him an understandable choice for second spot. And if it doesn't work out? Wanhanen can move up a spot, and it's problem solved. Baker is one of the biggest pieces for dictating the lineup, but Skoug shouldn't deviate beyond batting fourth or fifth-Baker's status included. This deviation will depend on who the Frogs are facing and whether or not Schlossnagle wants to "break up" the lefties and righties in the order.
1. Nolan Brown CF (.302/.371/.373):
Brown will at least be out the first week after undergoing hamate bone surgery. I'm not a doctor, nor am I up on Dr. Thackery and The Knick, but I'm fairly certain the hamate is the hook-like bone in your wrist. Still, Schlossnagle and the staff is optimistic that Brown will be back by Week 2, when the Frogs travel to Houston and play Louisiana-Lafayette, Houston, and Rice.
Like we said above, Cody Jones left big shoes to fill. Shoes that contributed 16 league-leading stolen bases.
Guess who had the second most in the conference? Nolan Brown.
2. Josh Watson, LF:
Arlington Martin has produced some of my favorite TCU athletes: Jantzen Witte, Kyle Hicks, and so on. So having a promising player like Josh Watson carrying the baton is comforting. There are rumors of the the switch-hitting freshman batting second, but let's wait and see; partly because I'm such a stickler for hitting Wanhannen there; however, Watson has plenty of goodwill going into the season, and being effective from both sides of the plate make him a dangerous hitter in the lucrative second spot.
3. Connor Wanhanen, 1B/DH (.329/.420/.389) 4. Luken Baker:
Wanhanen is the proven hitter on this team and the reigning Big 12 Freshman of the year. It's not about potential right now, it's about what we know, and there's no better candidate for that coveted second spot than Wanhanen. Sure, it'll feel a little different without the whizzing bullet that Cody Jones was setting up for Wanhanen to do immediate RBI damage, but with a more concise bottom half on the lineup (which we'll get to), Wanhanen will certainly have his chance to do damage in later innings. Baker, a righty, batting third also switches things up between Wanhanen and Skoug, who are both lefties.
Baker, as a pitcher and a hitter, will be one of the most fascinating players to watch in the Big 12 this year, and writing about him should prove to be a blast. Calling him a blue chip doesn't do it justice; it's more like he's the blue chip. At 6-5, 250, For those who remember playing Pepperdine's Aaron Brown, who nearly single-handedly kept TCU from their 2014 College World Series appearance, Baker is five times that.
5. Evan Skoug, C (.285/.365/.426):
Skoug is a fan favorite, and for good reason; a baby face with chin hair, the biggest home run threat on the team, peppered in with a Johnny Bench-like intensity behind the plate. The Illinois native has made Fort Worth and Lupton his own. Skoug led the team with 7 homeruns, 46 RBIs, and an admirable 5 stolen bases from the Catcher position and cleanup spot in 2016.
6. Dane Steinhagen, RF (.289/.346/.353):
The All-Big 12 Honorable Mention returner for TCU will be a nice catalyst behind the plate and in the field; Steinhagen started in 57 of TCU's 61 games in 2015, 56 of which came in left field. However, with Cody Jones gone and Brown shifting to center, Steinhagen should move to right at least when Brown returns, and freshman Josh Watson presumably playing in left field.
7/8. Ryan Merrill, SS /Cam Warner Jr., 2B:
Flip a coin for the CC and JUCO transfers, who, despite this hypothetical coin flip, have enough chatter around them for me to believe that they'll be in the starting lineup from day one, especially with Nolan Brown out for at least the first week. Plus, who doesn't love a second baseman and a shortstop hitting next to each other in the lineup?
9. Elliot Barzilli, 3B (.250/.315/.340):
Bless the age of analytics for proving the 9th spot's worth. Barzilli is a perfect choice because (a) he's fast, and (b) he puts the ball in play. The hero of several games last year, including the bout and improbable comeback against North Carolina State, Barz is the perfect candidate for the spot and could set up some postseason honors.
Scott: Great ground ball pitchers like the Preston Morrisons of the world will always praise the defense behind them, which is the same reason why pitchers who throw perfect games all buy their positional players dinner after their perfect outing. One half of Jim Schlossnagle's calling card is predicated on being able to field the ball cleanly regardless of the situation or hitter. Often overshadowed by last year's #2 ranked team ERA is the #8 national ranking that team had in fielding percentage.
Going into 2016 there are some big shoes to fill: Gone with the speed and smoothness of the Joneses (Cody and Keaton, respectively) are their College World Series-caliber defense. The black holes in center field and the left side of the infield that sucked up anything that dared to come near those parts of the field (save for a magical thumb guard) have graduated, leaving even bigger holes in their absence.
The heart and soul of this year's defense will undoubtedly be behind the plate, where Evan Skoug- and Zack Plunkett on occasion- will relay calls from the dugout. Plunkett filled in admirably for Skoug in defensive sets, but the work Skoug did in the postseason has obviously paid dividends, not to mention catching for a pitching staff that had a 2.45 ERA. Skoug committed only two errors all season and was named a Freshman All-American at the Catcher position.
Nolan Brown will provide an excellent replacement for Jones in CF, as he has plus-plus-speed and good range in the outfield. Brown played right field last season, starting 65 games with only two errors. He is recovering from hand surgery due to a broken bone and will miss the first few weeks of the season, meaning the outfield will be shifted around until he is healthy enough to return to the lineup. Freshman Josh Watson and Senior Dane Steinhagen are the projected corner outfielders, both with above-average to plus-speed and could fill in at Center, with the more likely candidate Watson as CF was his position at Arlington Martin (he was named the "Pro Line Player of the Year" by the Texas High School Baseball Coaches Association after his senior year). Golden boy Senior Evan Williams may fill in at LF in the interim as well.
The new faces in the middle infield start with incoming Junior Ryan Merrill as the projected starting SS, a J.C. transfer out of Omaha, NE. Once the #1 overall high school prospect, Merrill . In 55 games at Iowa Western Community College last year, he committed 13 errors on 223 chances, good for a .942 fielding percentage. For comparison, TCU's former 4-year starter at SS Keaton Jones fielded at a .979 clip, and Vanderbilt's #1 overall pick at SS Dansby Swanson fielded at .974 (although both had significant dropoffs prior to their junior years). Joining him up the middle at 2B will likely be fellow J.C. transfer Cam Warner, although his .918 fielding percentage in 73 chances last year at Hill College leaves a bit to be desired. Don't be surprised to see J.C. transfer Mason Hesse in some defensive replacement sets if Warner isn't producing with his bat.
Junior Elliot Barzilli will be the starter at 3B, and will also make a smooth transition. With what looks like the smoothest delivery among all of the infielders, Barzilli might even be an upgrade defensively at 3B over Odell, with a fielding percentage of .986 last year as a utility player compared to Odell's .944 in full time duty at the hot corner. His opposite at 1B will be Connor Wanhanen, who is a bit of an unknown commodity there after spending most of last season as the DH and a few games in RF.
Travis: Two years ago, TCU led the nation in team ERA with the low, low total of 2.22. Last year, the Frogs team ERA of 2.45 was second only to UCLA. Each of the last two years we have seen our weekend starters drafted in the top two rounds of the MLB draft. You could say that our pitching staff in recent years has been bona fide, as have become our expectations for them. So, following a year when three of our starting pitchers, our star closer and our best reliever left for the draft, what exactly should our expectations be?
Predicting The Starting Rotation:
Who the Friday starter would have been - Mitchell Traver, R-Jr - RHP
|Ks and K/9
|BB and BB/9
A week ago Mitchell Traver was scheduled to be the Friday night starter on 2/19/16 when the Frogs take on Loyola Marymount at Lupton Stadium. He is the most experience and exciting pitcher on the staff and someone who D1Baseball.com called a top 100 prospect and one of the most dynamic arms in college baseball. He throws a 90-94 mph fastball with good movement and like he says in the video above, he has confidence in his breaking ball as well. He was one of the heros of last year's CWS run as he came into game three of the A&M super regional in relief in the 13th inning pitched four innings of no-hit baseball to earn the win.
The fact that Traver seems so ready for this headlining role in the pitching staff makes the news that he will be out 4-6 weeks with a shoulder injury all the more upsetting. Traver has dealt with multiple injuries over his college career, including recovering from Tommy John surgery his Freshman year. He knows the drill with rehab, and hopefully that will allow him to be back at the lower end of that 4-6 week window. That would be great timing, as TCU takes on West Virginia to start Big 12 play on 3/18/16, not to mention that they travel to Texas the following weekend.
Who the Friday starter is now - Rex Hill, Jr (Transfer) - LHP
2015 Stats (San Jacinto Jr. College)
|Ks and K/9
|BB and BB/9
Rex Hill started his college career at Texas A&M. After seeing just a few innings of work his Freshman year he moved on to San Jacinto Jr. College in Pasadena, Texas just Southeast of Houston. In the year he spent at SJJC Hill earned all-conference accolades and was named to the NJCAA All-Tournament team. In a year when our program has suffered so much turnover in terms of talented upperclassmen, getting an experienced transfer like Hill could prove to be a hugely important addition.
Rex Hill was tabbed to start the Alumni game on 2/13/16 for the Varsity squad. He pitched three innings and gave up a few hits, but only one run. In that game his fastball was ranging from 86-89 mph and that's what he threw most effectively. While he did give up that run in the first it was a true test for Hill, as he was facing a lineup made up entirely of current major league players and recent CWS participants. To his credit, he did end the first inning with a strikeout with men on first and second to minimize the damage.
The Saturday Starter - Brian Howard, Jr - RHP
|Ks and K/9
|BB and BB/9
Brian Howard threw most of his innings last year out of the bullpen, but when Schloss needed another starter to step up in a pinch, he more often than not looked to Howard. Brian is a tall guy that throws at a great downward angle thanks to his being 6'9". His fastball tops out in the low 90s and like Morrison and Teakell before him were so adept at, he forces a lot of ground balls by keeping his pitches low in the zone.
Howard gained some solid postseason experience last year as well. When TCU had their backs against the wall, facing three straight elimination games in the Fort Worth Regional, they called on him for his final start of the season against Stony Brook. In that game he allowed three runs on two hits in 4 1/3 innings. The following weekend he pitched two scoreless innings against Texas A&M in another elimination game. He also saw one inning of relief in a 10-3 win over LSU last year in the CWS.
The Sunday Starter - Luken Baker, Fr - RHP
2015 Stats (Oak Ridge High School)
|Ks and K/9
|BB and BB/9
Luken is the most well known name to enter the program in....well...probably ever. Last year he was named as the Gatorade National Player of The Year for baseball. He is the first winner of this award to attend college since 1998 and the first Texas athlete to win it since it went to a kid from Dallas named Clayton Kershaw back in 2006. Other past recipients of the award include Peyton Manning and Emmit Smith in football and LeBron James and Kobe Bryant in basketball.
Baker's fastball has been clocked at 95 mph by Perfectgame.org, so the raw ability of this kid is straight up elite. At 6'4", 240 lbs, the same could easily be said about his size. With the football team losing three starters on the D-line this year, I wouldn't be surprised if Coach P comes calling in the fall for Baker to try his luck at defensive end. We all know Coach Schloss is a super nice guy, but in this case I don't think he'll be willing to share. Schloss had said that he was originally planning on making Baker the Tuesday starter after he proved himself worthy of the rotation in the fall. Now, with the aforementioned injury to Mitchell Traver, the coaching staff has decided to move him into the Sunday role.
The Tuesday Starter - Preston Guillory, Sr - RHP
|Ks and K/9
|BB and BB/9
It's just a guess on my part that Guillory will be picked to start on Tuesdays as the coaching staff hasn't put anything out there about who they plan to start in this spot. Like I mentioned above, this spot was supposed to go to Luken Baker until news of Traver's injury came about. A week ago, Guillory was the leading candidate to replace Riley Ferrell as TCU's closer.
Guillory was soooo close to posting a 0.00 ERA last year. He didn't allow an earned run all the way up until the ninth inning of his final outing against LSU in the CWS. Preston isn't quite what they call a submariner, but he does have a uniquely low arm slot. He doesn't have impressive velocity (84 mph FB per Perfectgame.org), but like many great TCU pitchers that doesn't stop him from being effective at getting outs. At least for the duration of Traver's injury, I expect him to step into the mid-week starting spot before getting another shot at closing duties.
Brian Trieglaff, R-Jr - RHP
Trieglaff is the most experienced returning bullpen guy that we have. Last year he threw 28.1 innings managing 35 strikeouts and only five walks while compiling a 3.18 ERA. According to Perfectgame.org his fastball gets up to 93 mph. He has shown the ability to pitch well in big moments. In TCU's epic comeback win over NC State to clinch the Fort Worth Regional, Trieglaff was called on to come in and pitch the top of the ninth with TCU down 8-7. He responded with a three up, three down inning to keep TCU within striking distance. After that inning, he gave us this awesome reaction:
Ryan Burnett, R-So - LHP
Ryan Burnett is a guy who Schloss showed a lot of confidence in early in the season last year. In the Dodgertown Classic, Burnett took the mound in relief of starter Mitchell Traver in a game where USC held a 3-1 lead. Burnett pitched one inning, giving up three runs on four hits, eventually giving way to Trieglaff. While that particular inning didn't go well, it showed the faith that the pitching staff has in this kid. He touches 90 with his fastball according to Perfectgame.org.
Shortly after that USC outing, Burnett was lost for the year to injury. You can bet that he has been chomping at the bit for a shot at redemption for a long while. All in all he pitched 12.1 innings last year before his injury, striking out 15 and walking only two on his way to a 2.19 ERA. Expect him to see significant innings this year. I think he is a guy that is really ready to shine.
Drew Gooch, So - LHP
Drew Gooch appeared nine times out of the bullpen last season, holding opponents scoreless in seven of those appearances. He threw 7.2 total innings with five strikeouts and five walks to put together a 5.87 ERA. While that ERA seems high, he gave up four of his five total earned runs in his first outing against Kansas State in April. As the year progressed, so did Gooch. So much so that he didn't surrender a run in his final six appearances on the year.
The rest of the bullpen features nine - count 'em - nine freshman and only one upper classman, Mitch Seawald (RHP). Seawald is a former LSU Tiger who spent last year at LSU-Eunice. He pitched in the alumni game in relief along with Freshmen Durbin Feltman (RHP) and Jared Janczak (RHP). The varsity pitching staff gave up only three runs against some stiff competition, so overall it wasn't a bad performance. I'm going to single out Jared Janczak here as one to keep an eye on because I watched him go three up, three down in his one inning of work. Two of Jared's outs were Ks, including one against current Detroit Tiger's catcher Brian Holaday. Maybe you've heard of him?
The remaining arms as I said are all freshman, so we don't know much about them yet. We'll have to wait and see who will earn a role, but here are the names so you know who to look for: Dalton Horton (LHP - Center, TX), Devon Roedahl (RHP-Beaumont, TX), Sean Wymer (RHP-Flower Mound, TX), Dalton Brown (RHP-Benbrook, TX), Dillon Meadows (RHP-Paradise, TX), Austin Boyles (RHP-Spring, TX) and Shane Mosiello (LHP-Aledo, TX).
Marshall: I think this season resembles that of 2014. Maybe the start isn't as slow as it was then, but with Traver out until mid-March or so, that's going to change the trajectory. Hopefully Traver's back by the Texas series, and like 2014, the Frogs use that as a springboard and thus the bats and the pitching come together, and the youth on the team gains more confidence; I think Oklahoma State squeezes out the regular season title, but TCU is dynamite in Tulsa and claims another tournament title. This is enough push–and carried goodwill from last season–to give the Frogs' the last National seed where they play Dallas Baptist and Arkansas or Ole Miss in the Fort Worth Regional. They'll advance from there. And that's where I'll leave it. But even if the Omaha dreams fall short, or they fall short again in college baseball's promise land, the message will be this: The new dynasty has begun. The team that's always been known for pitching now has an electric offense, so look out for Josh Watson, Connor Wanhanen, Luken Baker, and Evan Skoug in 2017. Because that's as dangerous of an order you'll find in college baseball.
Travis: I'm going to throw my lot in with the Big 12 coaches and say that TCU wins the league again this year. I'll qualify that by saying that it totally counts in my mind if we don't win the regular season title, but do with the tournament like we did in 2014. In conference play we have to travel to Austin and to Stillwater which does make things immensely more difficult. That is why I wouldn't be surprised if we don't win the regular season title. By the end of the year though, after we get Traver back and the other pitchers and young offensive players have some time to get comfortable in their roles, I think we will be in really good shape come tournament time.
Winning 40 games has kind of become the norm under Schloss, and I do predict that we are able to achieve that again this year. I think that we'll host a regional if we win the Big 12, but with all the turnover we're experiencing this year I'm not quite ready to call this group a CWS team. I'm also not ready to call us a national seed yet, which means that we play a super regional on the road. I think that challenge is a little too big for a young group like this one. I reserve my right to completely flip-flop as the year progresses though. I'd be happy to eat crow on this one.
Scott: I think this team has a very high ceiling, but with the key losses also has a lower floor than last year. The expectations are accordingly lower, but I still think this team wins 45+ games this year, and wins either the Big 12 regular season or tournament title. I think hosting another regional is a pretty reasonable expectation, but it's hard to see prior to any games this team having the kind of leadership to make another run to Omaha. Ultimately I think we make it to a Super Regional elsewhere and lose in three games, but gain a ton of experience and momentum going into next year. That being said, a lot of these guys have that College World Series experience that is invaluable, and if this team comes together and rallies around the few Seniors that are still on the roster, a return trip to Omaha isn't out of the realm of possibility.
Mason: With back to back appearances in the CWS, something that is rarely done by anyone, is it unreasonable for me to think that under Schloss it's reload and not rebuild? The start might not be as hot as last season, with a few injuries and less experienced players in the lineup, but I say the Frogs start firing on all pistons by the end of March. We'll win 40 games, I'm not too concerned about that. However, I am more wary about how well Oklahoma State, Texas, and sneakily Texas Tech are come the end of the season. I expect the Big 12 title to be a close one this year, but I think TCU's mid-season momentum will get them their second regular season title.
This program (and all of the other sports programs apparently) love to take years off of our lives, so who knows how much havoc this team could cause in the post season. I feel confident enough with this program to say, that by the time that the first week of June comes around, nobody is going to want to play against the Frogs.