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TCU Baseball 2022: The Long, Winding Road Back To Omaha

First year head coach Kirk Saarloos knows the potential of his squad.

Syndication: The Tennessean Calvin Mattheis/News Sentinel via Imagn Content Services, LLC

TCU baseball’s 2022 season gets underway Friday with a new coach at the helm, but the same goal they’ve had for the last four years: get back to Omaha.

Coming on the heels of a 41-win 2021 season, a Big 12 Tournament Championship, and No. 6 National Seed that crashed and burned in the regional round of the NCAA Tournament, this year’s Horned Frogs have their sights set once again on the top of the mountain.

It’s a long and winding road to the College World Series, despite how easy TCU made it seem from 2014-2017. TCU’s new head coach Kirk Saarloos understands the challenge of being one of the final eight teams standing.

“It’s extremely difficult,” Saarloos said when speaking with him last week, “but sometimes you forget that none of these guys have done it.”

It’s an odd fact for TCU fans to face. No one on the current roster, save Arkansas transfer Caleb Bolden, has been to the College World Series. Yet while Saarloos calls that the ultimate goal, he’s more focused on having his team conquering the day-to-day things that will allow them to play consistent baseball.

“We’re talking about how can we get as good as we can possibly get today.” Saarloos said, “And then the next day, and then the next day. And then sooner or later, what ends up happening is you start rolling.”

The Frogs have already started rolling off the diamond, as new faces have joined with returning stars to build a team chemistry Saarloos is proud of. They’ve gone paintballing as a team and ventured to the rodeo in an attempt to build the type of camaraderie a team needs to be championship caliber.

They’ve gone through fall workouts together, showing up in the weight room at 6:40 every morning to lift before class, and then heading back to the ballfield once class finished, all while managing a team GPA of 3.31.

But now the season is upon them, and this year’s Horned Frogs look to get back to Omaha.

New Faces: Grad Transfers, Transfers, and Freshmen

TCU lost a significant amount of production from their 2021 team. Between eight graduating seniors and the loss of Russell Smith, Johnny Ray, Philip Sikes, and Harrison Beethe to the MLB Draft the Frogs have had to call on a handful of new faces to replace them.

Fortunately, Saarloos and his staff managed to bring four graduate transfers in to help provide production and experience. “All four will play huge roles for us,” Saarloos said of the grad transfers.

Brett Walker, a right handed pitcher from Oregon, should provide TCU significant weekend production. Walker is projected to be TCU’s Sunday starter after recording a 6-3 record with a 3.66 ERA last season in 83.2 innings pitched. Catcher Michael Petrie is transferring from Washington, and has provided Kurtis Byrne with significant competition behind the plate.

Meanwhile Saarloos is anticipating that Caleb Bolden, a righty from Arkansas, could fill into the Super Reliever role previously held by Charles King and Haylen Green, while lefty Tommy Vail from Notre Dame provides ‘pitching versatility,’ after missing the 2021 season due to Tommy John surgery.

Two other transfers also join the mix as pitcher Connor Oliver comes to TCU from Wabash Valley College and Reed Spenrath joins the Frogs from Texas A&M, by way of Cisco College.

Not to be forgotten, an impressive freshman class makes its way to Lupton, headlined by big arms and impressive bats. Caedmon Parker, TCU’s top pitching prospect to make it to campus, has been working his way back from an injury and threw his first competitive pitches since being on campus just last week. Parker, when fully healthy, will get a shot to show what he’s got early and often.

David Bishop is already competing for time at first base, while Logan Maxwell will see significant at bats while providing outfield relief to Porter Brown, Elijah Nunez, and Luke Boyers.

Cohen Feser has been impressive on the mound and could potentially see a midweek start as early as next Wednesday against UTSA, his hometown team.

The Infield: Athleticism Abounds

Three spots are locked down, with Brayden Taylor at third base, Tommy Sacco manning shortstop, and Gray Rodgers at second.

While the freshman and sophomore classes for TCU are impressive, Saarloos is fully aware of the value of having seniors Sacco and Rodgers up the middle. As he noted, they’re “two guys who have played a ton at TCU.”

First base is still a question mark, but two names have risen to the surface as options. Freshman David Bishop, a shortstop in high school who had been playing behind Taylor at third base in the fall, has been doing a “great job” at first base according to Saarloos.

Meanwhile JUCO transfer Reed Spenrath has potentially the biggest bat on the team. The former Aggie spent the past two seasons playing first base at Cisco College, earning third-team JUCO All-American honors last season while hitting 13 home runs and driving in 70 runs.

“His main thing is, he impacts the ball differently than most everybody on our team,” Saarloos said of Spenrath, “Really easy power.”

When talking about the infield, Saarloos got excited, talking about the athleticism at every position.

“Any time you can have three or four shortstops playing the infield, I think it’s pretty cool,” Saarloos noted, “You’ve got Brayden who was a shortstop, Sacco...then Bishop, same thing.”

The Outfield: “Someone’s going to go run it down”

As we transitioned to talking about the outfield, Saarloos said exactly how high the expectations are for TCU defensively this season.

“We feel we have an ability to be an elite defense this year. With that infield, and then, I mean if you hit it in the air somebody’s going to go run it down in the outfield.”

Elijah Nunez and Luke Boyers will reprise their roles in center field and right field, respectively. The two defensive stalwarts combined for 131 put outs in 2021 and just four errors.

Joining them in left field will be Porter Brown. The redshirt sophomore has been on campus since 2019, but is still technically a sophomore thanks to a medical redshirt and the COVID exemption. Brown spent this offseason working on his awareness in left field, while also improving his arm strength.

“He’s really improved himself as a left fielder,” Saarloos said. “He’s turned himself into a really good outfielder. Whether he’s in left field or at designated hitter, he’s going to get a ton of at bats just because he’s been there, he’s done that, he’s proven it, and he’s a phenomenal baseball player.”

Freshman Logan Maxwell is expected to be the next man up at all three outfield positions. Maxwell, from Ohio, has a sturdy bat and incredible speed, and will see his fair share of at bats throughout the season as he relieves Brown, Nunez, and Boyers with regularity.

The Rotation

TCU has to replace two arms in the weekend rotation with the departure of Johnny Ray and Russell Smith. Austin Krob returns after a 2021 campaign that saw him record 96 strikeouts in 85 innings of work while amassing a team-leading eight wins.

Krob is expected to be the Friday starter in Arizona, while Riley Cornelio has “earned the right to be a starter for us,” according to Saarloos. Cornelio put together a strong summer in the Northwoods League and carried that momentum into the fall and now early spring.

Oregon transfer Brett Walker is the frontrunner to start on Sundays, while sophomore Cam Brown will open the season as the midweek starter. Brown’s ceiling is high, though, and there’s significant potential for him to shift to the weekend at some point this season.

For now though, the goal for Brown is to get him consistent starts so he can “continue to build on a lot of the great stuff he’s done so far this year,” according to Saarloos.

Others in line for starts throughout the year include JUCO transfer Connor Oliver, freshman Cohen Feser, and Notre Dame transfer Tommy Vail.

The Bullpen

Marcelo Perez, River Ridings, Drew Hill, and Arkansas transfer Caleb Bolden headline a bullpen that could eat significant innings if needed, and provides what Saarloos likes to call “pitching versatility.”

The Frogs have a long list of arms that can be used in a variety of situations, according to Saarloos, but there’s a fine line between having versatile arms and giving those arms defined roles.

“We need a pitching staff with roles,” Saarloos said. “The worst thing you can have is a pitching staff that the phone rings [in the bullpen] and everybody’s like ‘I don’t know, who’s it going to be?’”

Perez and Garrett Wright could both vie for the closer role, while Bolden is expected to play the role of super reliever, and Hill, along with Luke Savage, Braxton Pearson, and Augie Mihlbauer all have experience in a variety of relief situations.

“You want it where, ok, the sixth inning, or the seventh inning, or the eighth inning, or whatever it may be, where for the most part when the phone rings everybody knows it’s going to be this guy.”

TCU’s non-conference schedule will help Saarloos and his staff determine what guys are best suited for each role, but he’s also excited about the amount of depth in the bullpen.

“I think the depth is going to create a lot of competitiveness, so I’m looking forward to figuring out some roles and seeing how we can have the best pitching staff we can have.”

The Non-Conference Schedule

TCU opens the season in Scottsdale, Arizona as part of the MLB4 Collegiate Baseball Tournament (February 18-20). They’ll face off against San Diego State, Cal, and Houston as a part of the four-team round-robin tournament.

After two midweek games at Lupton against Stephen F. Austin (February 22) and UTSA (February 23), TCU will host Nebraska at Globe Life Field in Arlington (February 25-27).

The Frogs will also hit the road against Kentucky (March 4-6) and Florida State (April 29-May 1) for weekend series’ stopping in Louisville (March 8) for a one-off game on their way home from Lexington.

Meanwhile, TCU hosts Army in mid-March and Santa Clara (May 19-21) to close out their regular season schedule in late May.

TCU will also play midweek games against Dallas Baptist, UT-Arlington, Abilene Christian, Texas A&M Corpus Christi, Tarleton State, and Incarnate Word throughout the season.

The Big 12 Slate

TCU’s road slate in the Big 12 this season is a taxing one, as the Frogs travel to Texas and Oklahoma State, two teams projected alongside TCU at the top of the conference this season.

Before heading to Austin or Stillwater though, the Frogs open up Big 12 play in Waco for a series against Baylor (March 18-20).

That rivalry weekend is followed up with Kansas State (March 25-27) and West Virginia (April 1-3) coming to Lupton, after which TCU heads to Austin (April 8-10).

TCU’s next series is of the Thursday-Saturday variety when Texas Tech heads to Fort Worth on Easter weekend (April 14-16).

The Frogs then head to Stillwater for a series in Oklahoma State’s new stadium (April 22-24), a potentially fun road trip for TCU fans looking to watch some really good baseball.

After a break in the conference schedule to travel to Florida State, the Frogs host Oklahoma (May 6-8) before closing out their Big 12 slate in Lawrence against Kansas (May 13-15).