What can we expect from TCU Baseball is 2021?
A lot of Frog fans have been their hopes on the baseball diamond, where the program returns literally every significant player from a season ago and adds a slough of talented true freshmen and transfers. But there are questions; as veteran as this roster looks on paper, there’s a lack of experience when it comes to Big 12 Baseball, and that’s most evident when it comes to the starting pitchers.
Speaking ahead of Opening Day, Jim Schlossnagle pontificated that veterans Russell Smith and Johnny Ray, coupled with sophomore Austin Krob, were primed to make up the weekend rotation. Of those three, only Smith has pitched in a Big 12 ballgame, making this a talented — but inexperienced — unit. They all arrived at TCU via different paths, but each has the opportunity to make a name for themselves in a crowded clubhouse.
The only “home-grown” talent of the trio, Smith came to TCU by way of nearby Midlothian, a 6’9” behemoth who had posted a 0.00 ERA with 100 strikeouts against just eight hits in his senior season of high school. An All-American and top 50 player in the state, Smith was as highly touted as any recruit in the class, but after making 12 appearances as a true freshman, he missed the entire 2019 season due to injury. He looked great in four games in the abbreviated 2020 campaign, going 2-0 in 21 innings with 2.57 ERA and 27 strikeouts (with just two walks). Had he stayed healthy, we might have been talking about Smith as the next great TCU pitcher. As things currently stand, he will return to the mound with a chip on his shoulder and something to prove, after getting off to a 27 strikeout, two walk performance in 21 innings last spring. The talent hasn’t left, and the time off has allowed him to get stronger, correct his mechanics, and get his mind right. He could be primed for a breakout campaign in 2021.
Alongside Smith will be Johnny Ray, a first round type talent who certainly looks the part of an elite collegiate pitcher with a professional future. Ray got off to a strong start in 2020, out-dueling top five pick Max Meyer in Minnesota with a two hit, complete game shutout of the Gophers — a performance that put him on the college baseball national radar. He finished the short season 1-1 in four appearances with a 2.53 ERA, striking out 21 batters in 21.1 innings. His fastball can ride up to 97 mph and he has a nasty cutter; if he’s healthy and throwing strikes, he’s as good as any arm you’ll see in the conference.
The wildcard is Austin Krob, a 6’3” lefty out of Lisbon, Iowa, who classifies as just sophomore after spending one season at Kirkwood Community College and a few months in Fort Worth last year. He throws a mid-90s fastball, a power slider and a changeup to go with the four seamer and the cutter. He looks like a big time prospect, and Schlossnagle referred to him as potentially the best prospect on the team when it comes to pro ball last week. If Krob is what the program thinks he is, he has the kind of elite talent to elevate the staff from very very good to national championship quality. Even if he’s just really good, that’s a murderer’s row on the weekend that is going to make things really tough for opposing offenses.
There’s a long list of quality candidates for weeknight starter roles, and if history is any indication, we could see a handful of guys toe the rubber on Tuesday nights over the course of the season.
Leading that charge will be super senior Charles King who returned for one more trip around the diamond, and of whom, Schloss said has been pitching better than two of the three likely weekend starters early in spring ball. The problem with King, though, is that he’s just too versatile; “we want to be able to put guys in the best position to help the team,” Schlosnagle said. “Trey Teakell could have been a starting pitcher: I called him our all time pitcher because he could close a game start a game. — if we can stay healthy, we actually have two guys like that, King and Haylen Green. Having two guys in their fifth year that have pitched in the College World Series, that are extreme strike throwers — you’re in luck.” Schlossnagle also mentioned that they were trying to develop and stretch out eight starters this spring, chief among them one-time closer Marcelo Perez. As a true freshman, Perez was electric, striking out 28 batters in 23 innings, but prone to wildness and big innings (eight walks and 11 earned runs). He certainly has the stuff to stay in a backend role, but the long-term vision has always been for him to start, and he will get that opportunity in 2021. We will talk more about him in the bullpen preview down the line.
Other candidates include Jacob Meador, another highly-touted prospect who had a promising debut In 2020, John Kodros — a former LSU Tiger with excellent stuff — juco transfer Drew Hill who got some run in 2020, and Garrett Wright, a true freshman absolutely loaded with talent, and Riley Cornelio, who had a 0.87 ERA in three starts as a freshman last spring.
There will certainly be opportunities for guys who can throw strikes, but the competition level Is as high as ever in the Fort Worth clubhouse. It will be up to health as much as anything, but also to the players to live up to their considerable billing. Whatever happens, the guys that toe the fresh rubber should be a talented bunch.