The strength of TCU’s baseball program over the last several seasons has been its starting pitching; time and time again, Jim Schlossnagle and Kirk Saarloos have managed to reload at the most important positions, no matter how many players graduate and/or move on to the big leagues.
TCU has gone from Preston Morrison, Brandon Finnegan, and Tyler Alexander (2014) to Morrison, Alexander, Alex Young, and Mitchell Traver (2015) to Brian Howard, Jared Janczak, Luken Baker, and Rex Hill (2016) to Howard, Janczak, Traver, and Nick Lodolo (2016) - and despite all those changing pieces, they have made the College World Series with each rendition of the rotation. The other constant? Each of those players, with the exception of those still in college, is pitching in professional baseball.
So what will 2018’s starting unit look like? Both Jared Janczak, a redshirt junior, and sophomore Nick Lodolo return. They will both retain spots in the weekend rotation - with JJ likely taking the Sunday role.
TCU Baseball Projected Rotation
Jared Janczak is the most experienced pitcher on TCU’s staff as we head into 2018; the Frogs are without a senior arm, period, and only Wymer and Dalton Brown join him as returning juniors. JJ has been on campus for four years though after redshirting his first season. Lodolo, of course, is a sophomore, but after starting a full season in 2017, he gets veteran credit. Wymer has been around the block, but will start for the first time for TCU in 2018.
Jared Janczak RHP (RS JR):
9-2 | 2.31 ERA | 102 Ks
Janczak is as reliable as they come in college, a steady arm with a calming presence on the mound and the dugout, but enough fire to inspire his teammates as well. He is the definition of an ACE, super-consistent with two outstanding pitches, including a slider that is best described as devastating. JJ doesn’t blow you away with speed on his fastball, but he hits his spots, keeps the ball on the ground, and can reach back for a little extra when he needs to get the ball by someone. He wins a lot of games for the Frogs, even when run support is lacking, and had two near no-hitters a season ago, proving that he can go the distance if called upon. Likely the Sunday starter in 2018, Janczak is the stopper for the starters, and is money in the postseason. Though he struggled, by his lofty standard, in the College World Series, there is no one TCU fans would rather see on the bump in a big game.
Nick Lodolo LHP (SO):
5-1 | 4.35 ERA | 72 Ks
Lodolo was a highly regarded MLB prospect who chose to go the college route, playing for the school and program that he had dreamed of being a part of since eighth grade. Crediting a great relationship with the coaching staff, who pursued him vehemently throughout his high school career, Lodolo made his way to Texas from California and made an instant impact for TCU. Though he went through his share of freshmen ups and downs. it was obvious from day one that he had electric stuff and the mental and physical makeup to be great. A year of experience, and 15 pounds of added muscle, should only help his development into a number one over the course of season number two.
Lodolo’s fastball was sitting 92-95 during fall workouts, and he has worked on improving his slurve to give batters a different look. Whether he starts Friday or Saturday - he moved around a bit in the rotation a year ago - Lodolo’s leap in year two will say a lot about how far the Frogs go this summer. He has the tools to be special, and if he reaches that level this year, TCU is in excellent shape.
Sean Wymer RHP (JR):
6-2 | 2.10 ERA | 64 Ks
Wymer is an interesting case this fall, as Schloss is choosing to take his best bullpen arm out and thrust him into the starting rotation. Wymer goes from being a guy who led the team in appearances in 2017 (30) to getting about half that in 2018. Wymer absolutely has the stuff to be a starter; with four pitches he can consistently throw for strikes, including a fastball that he can get to 96, and the exact demeanor you would want for a pitcher on the mound, it was almost a no-brainer to give him Brian Howard’s slot in the rotation. But that doesn’t mean Schloss and Saarloos were excited about it, as they told Kendall Rogers in the fall:
“The thing that is going to decide whether or not we’re a pretty good team or an elite team is our pitching staff and what we do with Wymer, and who potentially replaces him,” Schlossnagle said. “If we do move Sean to the rotation, who eats up those innings? The best teams I’ve had here all had a super reliever of some sort. I think that’s super important to have, especially when it comes postseason time.
“Having that reliever who can enter the game and give you two or three innings out of the pen, sometimes that’s more important than being one of your weekend starters,” he continued. “With that said, I’m not dead set on anything. If the season started today, I would move him to the rotation and give other guys opportunities to grab those middle inning roles, but it’s not a done deal at all. We’ll see what’s ideal in the spring.”
It appears Sean starting is ideal, as all indications are that he will move to the weekend rotation. After an excellent summer with Team USA, Wymer should be ready to step into a lead role and succeed.
Midweek Starter Candidates:
Schloss has the luxury of having multiple options to take the mound for the midweek games he values so much, but it’s a bit of a curse as well. While several young players have made a push to be ‘the guy’, there wasn’t a single standout who took the reigns and refused to surrender them. Because of that, I expect to see some variance on Tuesdays, as several guys will get the chance to prove they can be that all-important fourth starter, a luxury that teams that want to win it all treat as a necessity.
Charles King RHP (SO):
1-3 | 5.44 ERA | 37 Ks
King, to me, is the most obvious choice. Not only did he prove his mettle on the biggest stage, pitching 3 1⁄3 innings of one-hit ball against Florida in an elimination game in the College World Series, but he has maybe the best stuff of all the candidates. King, who is a stout 6’5”, throws serious gas, and though he was a bit wild at times, when he’s hitting his spots, he is really tough to hit. The question becomes, do you start thinking long term with King and develop him as a full-time starter, or do you have him marked to take over Wymer’s role in the pen? My best guess is that King starts as the middle relief guy and gets stretched out late in the season as we get closer to tournament play.
Jake Eissler RHP (SO):
4-0 | 5.02 ERA | 38 Ks
Eissler reminds me a little of Janczak in that he isn’t going to overpower you, but he will just slowly chip away at your will to keep stepping into the batter’s box. He has bumped his speed up from his freshman season and the added velocity could help his strikeout numbers, especially when paired with a particularly nasty curve ball. His pitches have a ton of movement, and he gets good snap on his release. He should improve, in general, from his freshman campaign, and certainly has the ability to be a quality starter for the Frogs.
Trey Morris RHP (SO):
2-0 | 5.65 ERA | 24 Ks
Morris might be the most intriguing of the group, as he has big-time stuff and incredible upside, despite the unevenness of his first year in Fort Worth. Morris has yet to start a game for the Frogs, but he will likely get a long look at the Tuesday role this year because of the untapped ability he has flashed at times. At 6’5”, he is an imposing mound presence, and his size helps him create a deceptive release point on a downhill fastball that creates a lot of grounders.
Russell Smith LHP (FR):
Jim Schlossnagle is a big believer in having a freshman arm somewhere in the rotation, and Russell Smith is the top candidate to be that guy. Brian Howard-esque in height - Smith stands 6’9” - but much thicker than B Ho at a stout 250 pounds, the true freshman is one to watch as games approach. He was impressive in the fall, running his fastball up to 92-93 mph while dropping an impressive slider that hit the low 80’s. With his height, his angle is imposing to opposing hitters, who had a tough time getting a read on his release. Though he doesn’t have the exceptional command of a seasoned vet, he’s the type of player that gets better as the game goes on, and continually impressed the coaching staff - who said he had the best fall of any pitcher on the team. He can throw four pitches consistently for strikes, holds runners well, and has a certain moxie about him that Schloss seems to really love. Also, he’s a lefty, and Schloss loves lefty starters. There is certainly a scenario where Smith gets a couple Tuesday night starts before moving into the weekend rotation should the Frogs find they miss Wymer more than expected out of the pen. He could also spend the season as a middle reliever gaining experience before taking a larger role in the postseason, as he is groomed for 2018.
Whatever Schloss decides to do, he once again has an embarrassment of riches at college baseball’s most important position. With the amount of starting experience returning, plus plenty of veterans that can step into a multitude of roles, Jim Schlossnagle and Kirk Saarloos will have a flexibility that the vast majority of opponents will certainly envy. Is it enough to carry a very young lineup back to Omaha? That remains to be seen.