After a 39-24 campaign in his first season as Texas head coach, David Pierce has undoubtedly brought new energy and excitement around the program. Last year, the team was sitting at home during late May watching as other teams played during a time Texas rarely misses out on. This season, Pierce was one game away from two consistent goals of the Longhorn baseball program; hosting an NCAA regional and advancing to the super regional round.
The Longhorns did fall short of both of those goals, but showed a lot of promise as far as how Texas could be on its way to becoming the successful baseball program it expects to be.
Pierce’s first season brought drastic changes to the hitting philosophy, like using the bat to hit the ball to score rather than lightly tap it. He brought the fences in, making the once cavernous UFCU Disch-Falk Field a little more hitter-friendly. He helped develop a bullpen afterthought from last season into a No. 1 starter.
The team won half of its conference series, but finished under .500 in the Big 12. Their non-conference record of 28-12 boosted their resume to that of a two seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Gone is a rock and team leader at first base in Kacy Clemens. Same with ace pitcher Morgan Cooper, reliable utility player Zane Gurwitz, and bullpen arm Jon Malmin. Bret Boswell, though a redshirt junior, was honored on senior day as if he was not coming back for his senior year. As was posted on our board, Kyle Johnston’s electric repertoire intrigues professional scouts as a possible bullpen option. Johnston’s control was not as consistent as he likely would have wanted, but the potential could lead to him being drafted.
Travis Jones has a frame, but his hitting declined from his sophomore to junior season. 6-foot-4, 220 appeals to professional scouts, so, again, as was written on our board, make sure to follow his draft prospects closely. Beau Ridgeway and Nick Kennedy are also draft eligible.
With the departures situation covered, it’s time to look at who is coming back.
Behind the plate, Michael Cantu and Michael McCann are slated to return. It was mentioned on our board that Cantu could decide to sign in the draft, and his departure would create a significant drop-off defensively behind the plate. McCann outperformed most expectations of him following a year off of the team. With a full offseason and taking part in activities and summer baseball, McCann should develop his bat and glove even more.
Clemens’ departure leaves a hole at first that will be tough to replace. Ryan Reynolds played well this year, but needs to improve his bat. Freshman Zach Zubia, who signed with Tulane but came to Texas with Pierce, had to sit out this past year due to NCAA rules, but the 6-foot-4, 235 slugger could be an option at first, allowing Reynolds to stay on the left side.
The middle infield is both cloudy and clear. Freshman David Hamilton played unbelievably well at shortstop this season, showcasing his game-changing speed and plus glove. His bat began to turn some toward the end of the year as he became increasingly aggressive early in counts. Hamilton needs to improve his bat in order to become a leadoff option rather than a nine-hole guy. At second, two players coming off of arm troubles will compete for the right side of the infield. Joe Baker should be back from his offseason surgery, while Kody Clemens should be full go to throw the ball after spending most of the year at designated hitter following Tommy John. Jake McKenzie, who split time coming out of the bullpen and spelling at second base, also could be a factor.
Baker showed a lot of promise his freshman year, batting .294, but injuries and surgeries make it tough to pencil him into a spot. Competition for this spot should be an interesting story to follow in the offseason.
In the outfield, just like with much of the team, there are returning players who are still somewhat unproven. Jones returning would be a benefit as he would likely hold his spot in left field. Patrick Mathis also has his spot, leaving competition for Gurwitz’ centerfield spot. Tate Shaw, Tyler Rand, Austin Todd and Trace Bucey all had opportunities this year and should compete for this spot. Again, they will all need to improve their batting skill if Texas wants to be able to advance past top quality pitching teams they face in the NCAA tournament, and also keep some of the youthful mistakes they showed this year to a minimum.
The rotation looks good with Nolan Kingham and Blair Henley returning. Kingham is a high quality Big 12 pitcher, and Henley showed plenty of promise during his freshman season, especially against TCU. Kennedy, though draft eligible, is an effective left hander that could factor in to the top three spots.
Chase Shugart returns, and his late year development was a great sign for Pierce. Shugart has alternated between closer and set up guy in his two years on campus, and his stuff is improving. He just needs to stop having those “what the…” moments that occur far too frequently for him.
Much of the bullpen returns, with Malmin being the only assured departure.
Texas will need a lot of players who received a limited amount of playing time or were forced to play early to vastly improve their hitting. This roster was once designed for small-ball, now it is playing regular baseball. Improved hitting should improve this teams’ postseason prospects considering they already have fantastic defense and above average pitching.
Now that the season is over, many of these players will play in a summer wood bat league.
Kingham and Clemens will play in the Cape Cod League for the Bourne Braves. Shugart will play in the Cape as well for the Cotuit Kettleers. Hamilton, Todd, Reynolds, and Henley will play for Santa Barbara, while Shaw and Parker Joe Robinson will be on the Orange County Riptide.
Zach Zubia well head north to play for Rochester in the Northwoods league, while Bucey is headed to Gaithersburg to play in the Ripkin Collegiate League. Rand heads to the 49th State to play for Peninsula in the Alaska League.
As draft time gets closer, I’ll have a piece on not only those headed into the draft, but those who are slated to be on campus next season.