Frogs O’ War kicks off its baseball preview series with a look at a solid infield packed full of veteran talent.
With a team this stacked in all aspects of the game, it’s difficult to decide which group to talk about first. With the possible exception of the weekend pitching rotation, no group returns more veteran talent than TCU’s infield. Every single expected starter is an upperclassman, and the only position that looks like it won’t be locked down on opening day is first base. That’s not surprising considering the production that this group of returners put together in 2016.
Infield Hitting (2016 stats)
Ryan Merrill and Mason Hesse split at SS last year, as did Michael Landestoy and Connor Wanhanen at 1B. Still, any way you look at it, they put together really solid production in 2016. Hitting was clearly their strong suit, as defensively they recorded a fielding percentage of .974. That’s not exactly bad, but it’s still not quite up to the standards that TCU has become accustom to in recent years. Expect that to improve in the group’s second year playing together as a unit.
Originally a transfer from Georgia Tech, Elliott Barzilli filled in for injury at first and third base throughout his sophomore season. He delivered the walk off single as a pinch hitter in the 10th inning of the NC State comeback in the 2015 regional, cementing himself as a fan favorite in the process. In 2016, he graduated from role player to regular starter, doing so in tremendous fashion. He started off the year so hot that he was still hitting above .500 going into April, and he led the team with 27 multi-hit games and 16 in which he had multiple RBIs.
Barzilli led the infield in pretty much every offensive category and proved that he had the leather capable of holding down the hot corner. In addition to his bat, he brought a real edge to the team with his tough and aggressive style of play. In the Big 12 Tournament’s title game he took a hop to the face and, even though his eye swelled shut, with no broken bones he was back on the field the following week for Regionals.
Ryan Merrill, a kid who claims Omaha, Nebraska as his hometown, will likely see most of the start at shortstop again this year. In 2016 he shared time with Mason Hesse, and while both proved capable, Merrill was the slightly better hitter. After watching Keaton Jones work his magic at this position for years, it’s tough to compare anyone else to him in this position. Merrill is an upgrade over Jones at the plate, and while glove-wise it did seem like a downgrade at times last year from Jones, both Merrill and Hesse filled the position well. Plus, it’s hard to criticize anyone’s play too much when you look at how well the team did as a whole last year. At the end of the day the Frogs have depth at this position, and that’s a good thing.
Like Barzilli over at third, you have to think that Cam Warner has the second base position locked up again this year. Warner’s journey to Fort Worth was an interesting one. He grew up playing baseball in Canberra, Australia, and he began his college career at Hill Junior College in Hillsboro, Texas before transferring to TCU last year. After playing outfield for most of his Junior College career, transitioning to second base was a bit of an adjustment for him early on, but he really found a rhythm over the second half of the season.
He proved himself to be a good hitter right away and recorded the second most RBIs of the infielders last season. He also showed that he had some power, and was second behind Barzilli in terms of extra base hits by infielders. However, it was in the postseason when he really started to demonstrate that he was a home run threat as well. Five of his six home runs came in the postseason, and he hit the first home run of the College World Series in the opener against Texas Tech.
Connor Wanhanen and Michael Landestoy split time at first base last year. Wanhanen started out the year, but never really got hot at the plate, and then got hurt. While he was out with the injury Landestoy stepped in and earned himself some more playing time by posting a .290 batting average on the year. By the postseason both players were seeing significant playing time.
The real story of first base in 2017 for the Frogs though is that of their very own Big Bad, Luken Baker. Carlos Mendez of the Star Telegram confirmed the thing many of us had hoped for and some had expected: Baker will play some first base this year. Although I expect to see at least two or all three of these guys play some first base early, I believe that later in the season we will see a lot more of Baker as the coaches figure out other way to utilize the DH position to help the team.
If Baker does become a permanent fixture at first base I think that Wanhanen and Landestoy will be looked at to be the first defensive replacements if anyone in the infield goes down with injury, or as pinch-hitters. Wanhanen may even see some time at DH himself like he did his freshman year in 2015. To a lesser extent, also look for Trent Franson to see some time as an infield defensive replacement or a pinch-hitter like he did in spots last year.