Luken Baker remains one of the most talented hitters in all of college baseball, even if we have forgotten about him a bit after he missed the end of the regular and all the post season last season after suffering a horrific injury in the Oklahoma series last May.
But Luken is back.
And with his return, there is hope around an offense that was sometimes unstoppable and others stagnant a season ago, one that hit a ton of home runs but still seemed to miss its biggest basher in the biggest moments.
It’s hard to complain about a team that went to the College World Series, but there were plenty of what ifs in that final game against the Florida Gators. And while we will all wonder what might have been with Luken in the lineup, the important thing now is that he returns. The question becomes, what does he have around him?
2017 TCU Infield Stats
The Frogs expect to start a pair of freshmen up the middle, with returning first baseman Luken Baker holding down one corner and veteran transfer Conner Shepherd the other. This is the second time in the last three years that TCU will have new faces at second and short, but the first in a while they will turn to true freshmen on opening night.
Luken Baker is your starter at the corner, and he will have massive expectations upon his return. Baker’s power is obscene - he can change the course of a game with just a single swing of the bat, or get on base to set the table by virtue of so many teams not wanting to show him anything over the plate. A verifiable superstar, Baker struggled a bit at the plate in the early stages of his second year on campus, appearing to fall victim to the dreaded sophomore slump as his strikeouts went up while his walks and home runs went down. But, for all the wringing of hands, he was still hitting over .300 with eight doubles, eight long balls, and 40 walks before his season ended unceremoniously in Oklahoma.
Frankly, the biggest concern about Luken heading in 2017 was his defense - was he good enough to be TCU’s every day first baseman? Though he had a couple errors, he made some outstanding plays as well, and certainly proved he was more than up for the task as he transitioned from the mound to the bag to prepare himself for the rest of his career. He will open Friday night where he belongs, and appears poised to have a huge year if he can stay healthy.
Backing up Baker is the starting right field, Connor Wanhanen, who has proven more than capable of standing in when need be. And if Schloss wants to improve the defense, he can always turn to senior Michael Landestoy, one of the best defensive players on the team and in the conference, who routinely makes the impossible look easy. If Landestoy can improve at the plate, it will be hard to keep him off the field - he’s just struggled to be consistent as a hitter, but seems to always come up with the big hit when it’s needed most. More so, there might not be a guy more important to his team than Landy - not just for what he does on the field and in the box, but the leadership and intangibles that make him the heartbeat of the program. We all need to soak up one last season of one of the most memorable guys to put on the purple.
True freshman second baseman? Sure, why not. True freshman backing up a true freshman? We might see that, as well. Schloss has a pair of first year players that both look like future stars at second in Coby Boulware and Tristan Hanoian. Boulware likely holds the edge for opening night - the Arizona native was an All State and All-American player at Boulder Creek, where he set several all-time records. Though just 5’9” and 165 pounds, Coby is tough and covers a lot of ground thanks to his speed and instincts. He will have plenty of motivation to hold his spot, as fellow freshman Hanoian will be right behind him. Another smaller guy at just 5’8”, Hanoian is stockier (weighing in at 180 pounds) and more of a power hitter than Boulware. After missing fall ball with an injury, the So Cal native has some catching up to do, but has all the raw tools to be great. He is a little reminiscent in his play of Josh Watson - not the fastest player but gets great jumps, super strong and stocky, willing to get dirty, finds a way to make plays. Boulware hits from the right side and is more of a sprayer, while Hanoian is a lefty with more power. I would not be surprised to see both get opportunities depending on who opponents send to the mound, and TCU is a good spot in that that have two really solid defensive options and can play matchups if they so choose.
All indications are that it will be an all freshman middle infield, as future star Adam Oviedo is primed to take over for Ryan Merrill at short. Oviedo is smooth - he has a great feel for the game at the plate and in the batter’s box, and has been tagged “special” by several preseason publications. Schloss, for his part, is trying to slow the hype train a bit by reminding folks that he is indeed, just a freshman - and maybe not the can’t miss prospect that Luken Baker was before him.
All that being said, Oviedo is going to be good, really good, and probably sooner rather than later. At 6’0” and 185 pounds, Oviedo already looks the part, and has had MLB scouts drooling over his makeup and instincts. But there are questions about his quickness and offensively ability, and they - along with his firm commitment to TCU - kept the top 200 prospect on the board until the 35th round of the draft last spring. All the better for the Frogs, and likely the player - who will have plenty of opportunity to prove he can hit at the next level and that his natural ability and understanding of the game will make up for having just average quickness for a big league SS. He is a great defensive shortstop, potentially in the mold of a Keaton Jones, steals bases, draws walks, and finds a way to make plays. What the scouts see as negatives, Schloss sees as developables, and there is little doubt that he won’t reach his full potential in the next 3-4 years.
Backing up Oviedo appears to be the job of Danny Crews, an intriguing transfer who could surprise some people this spring. I really like Crews, especially defensively, where he looks super smooth up the middle and has proven he can make plays at the collegiate level. Crews hit .366 last year, and has 20 dingers in two seasons of play. He can really stroke it, and it will be interesting to see how Schloss finds at bats for the Springfield, Mo native.
The other corner appears to be sophomore Conner Shepherd’s spot to lose, as the native Californian and transfer from Mt. San Antonio has seemingly locked down the job coming out of fall camp. A lefty, Shepherd is speedy on the base paths and in the field, and is very natural in his defensive movements. He hits for contact and has a patient, mature approach at the plate - reminiscent of former Frog outfielder Austen Wade. Shepherd, who started his career at FIU, where he redshirted, hit over .300 at Mt SAC with three long balls and nine stolen bases, drew 21 walks and struck out just 14 times. He also had a .962 fielding percentage, and should be able to lock down the hot corner defensively for the next three years.
There is a long history of great catchers at TCU, as the Fort Worth Star-Telegram detailed earlier this week. Zach Humphreys will try and be next in line this season, as he takes over full-time duties behind the plate from Evan Skoug. Hump got some quality innings of work last season, and became TCU’s full-time DH after Luken Baker’s season-ending injury, allowing him to see pitches at the highest level. He proved he could handle the spotlight, hitting safely in 19 of his 33 appearances and batting .267 on the year. He is a super athlete for his position - while he stole just three bases in four attempts, it’s clear he can increase that number should he be asked to. He had only two errors in limited action, but seems more than capable of manning the job full time in 2018 and beyond. Schloss paid him the highest compliment in calling him “an old school baseball player”, and Zach is another dirtbag in the very best sense of the word. He appears primed for a breakout season.
Behind Humphreys is transfer Colton Parrish, a transfer from Blinn College. Parrish is another athlete at the catcher position, with some pop in his bat and the ability to steal bases. He will be a great backup to Humphreys, and can step into the lineup when needed and be effective.
TCU Baseball opens their season Friday, February 16th with a three game series at Grand Canyon University in Arizona.