After watching South Carolina make short work of UCLA in last night’s second and final game of the CWS Championship Series – the first Men’s National Championship of any kind of the Gamecocks - the questions came flooding back. Why wasn’t it us? Where did we make a mistake? If we could’ve had some base runners on for Holaday’s two homeruns Saturday, would that have swung the momentum for us? What did Gerrit Cole save the worst game of his career for Monday night? Is HGH really THAT illegal, and if not, why didn't we pump Matt Purke full of that stuff and ride him into the final? WHY DOES A TEAM THAT’S MOSTLY KNOWN FOR WHITE HATS BEARING THEIR NICKNAME ON THE HEADS OF MIDDLE SCHOOL BOYS DESERVE THE ULTIMATE PRIZE AND NOT US?!
Most importantly, though, I thought of next year and what it holds for the Frogs.
I’ll be honest – in a lot of ways, I’m a sore assed, pessimistic fan. This is probably a product of growing up a Cowboys, Rangers and Mavericks fan because when you’re dealing with all of those disappointments, you get used to looking towards the future on a pretty regular basis. So, even going as far back as Game 2 in Austin, I was anxiously studying the classification of all of our players and putting the pieces in place for next year, hoping that we would be gearing up for a repeat, but also keeping the possibility of an early exit in the back of my mind. Fortunately though, we made a significant run through the tournament, picked up a slew of new fans and, despite not winning it all, have generated tons of momentum heading into next year. Seriously, how many of you kind of forgot the Boise loss in the Fiesta Bowl, if only for a few moments? It was honestly the furthest thing from my mind over the past three weeks, and while a lot of that was the product of the conference expansion hoopla, I can honestly say that baseball was the biggest factor.
So without further ado, here’s an extremely premature look at the 2011 TCU Horned Frogs Baseball team. Like, extremely premature. Like, if David Peterson did a preview, it would be, "No honey, it's cool, it happens to everyone" premature while mine is No, Colt, it is NOT ok, and stop calling me Jordan!" premature.
Disclaimer: I’m definitely going to get some things wrong, and also make some assumptions about guys going or not going pro. Also, I have no clue about our new recruiting class – is there one yet? – so will not include any of that. My baseball knowledge is also "dumb assed" at best (i.e. I can't tell you why a certain guy is better for a starting or relief role or why one guy can play right field but not first base.)
Bottom Line: PLEASE correct me in the comments. For the love of the game.
*denotes MLB draftee
Key Returnees: Matt Purke, Kyle Winkler, Steven Maxwell*, Greg Holle*, Trent Appleby, Kaleb Merck
Key Losses: Tyler Lockwood*, Paul Gerrish*, Eric Marshall.
Alright, so above I’ve listed the best case scenario, which is that Maxwell and Holle opt to take one for the team and come back next year to exhaust their eligibility and make us a hands down contender for the entire season. But since both guys were drafted in the upper rounds a few weeks ago (Holle in the 11th to Milwaukee, Maxwell in the 12th to Minnesota), there’s a good chance neither guy will return. If they do, all three of our weekend pitchers from this year will be in the fold and Holle will continue to handle the midweek role. If both leave though? Well, F.
The good news of it all is that man crush 1a. Matt Purke and his Rookie of the Year arm will for sure be returning next year and could finish his career for the Frogs undefeated because he’s DEFINITELY gone next year barring some unexpected turn of events… like, say, giving him “total access” during Sorority Rush week for the remainder of his time at TCU. Sure, I suppose by signing a major league contract and becoming an instant millionaire the "hot girls will do whatever I command of them" situation is likely a self fulfilling prophecy, but why chance it, right?
In addition to Purke, Kyle Winkler will also return next year and should, despite a rough World Series, continue to be the dominant pitcher he was for most of the year. Winkler was truly the work horse of the staff, pitching a team leading 116 2/3 innings this year, and having him back will give us a consistent Saturday or Sunday option.
From there though? Things get fuzzy. As things stand, in one of the long relief roles should be Trent Appleby, who earned plenty of work this post season after pitching 23 innings of relief during the regular season, good for second best on the team. However, given his experience and the chance that we’ll be looking for two new starters next season, Appleby would likely take over one of these jobs. As for the other starter? Your guess is as good as mine. Basing the decision on last year, Erik Miller would look to be the man for the job as he pitched more innings than any of the remaining candidates, with his 4.67 ERA being the lowest. So with my minimal knowledge of the situation, I’m putting him in as the fifth starter/reliever.
Losing a closer of the caliber of Tyler Lockwood is painful, but after watching Kaleb Merck work this post season, we should all feel pretty confident that, like a Patterson trained linebacker, there should be no drop off in production at the position. With a total of 22 games in relief and 3 saves, Merck is, to this point, the clear cut favorite.
Our only other returnee with pitching experience is will be junior Walker Kelly, who sports a 6.28 ERA in 14.1 innings pitched in 14 appearances this past season. The numbers and experience leave a lot to be desired, but it was going to be very difficult to get any sort of playing experience on a staff as deep as the one this year. On the plus side? Those numbers are a lot better than Greg Holle’s.
So obviously the best case scenario is we return 4/5 starters from this year, insert Merck for Lockwood and just keep rolling. But, even if Maxwell and Holle both leave, with Purke and Winkler having another off season to get ready, plus being able to progress the talent we do have, things shouldn't be as dire as they might seem.
But, the fact remains: The structure of our 2011 pitching staff relies solely on the decisions of Maxwell and Holle. My completely uninformed gut feeling? Holle is for sure gone – when you get offered guaranteed big league money despite coming off of a season where you only went 2-1, had a plus 7 ERA and the only good thing the scouts are saying about you is that you “have the height of a solid MLB pitcher”… yeah, you ride that gravy train until the wheels fall off. Maxwell, though, is a more difficult case to ponder. On the one hand, he was the MWC pitcher of the year and possibly the ace of our staff during the regular season. That alone should give him the confidence that he’s ready for the next level. However, after a difficult playoff run where he lost both games he started, would he want to stick around one more year and fine tone his skills, knowing that by doing so his team is poised for another Omaha run? I doubt it. I think he takes the money, but hopefully I’m wrong.
Projected Starters: Matt Purke, Kyle Winkler, Trent Appleby, Erik Miller.
Projected Relievers: Kalek Merck, Griffin Davis, Tyler Duffie, Walker Kelly, Steven Murray.
Key Returnees: Jerome Pena, Taylor Featherston, Jantzen Witte, Joe Weik.
Key Losses: Bryan Holaday*, Matt Curry*
So there’s two ways to look at this. One is that we return 3/5 of an infield, plus a DH that can play infield, that had one of the better fielding percentages in the conference and all batted over .300 for the year. The other is that, the two guys we lose were hands down the two standouts of the whole group, if not team, and one of them was the uncontested team leader. I’m going to go against my instincts here though and take the more optimistic route and say that we can overcome this.
We for sure know that we have FEatherston returning at short, Pena at second and Witte at third. More than anyone, Taylor Featherston – great baseball name, by the way – really came alive in the post season and is definitely responsible for a couple of wins on his own merit. This without even mentioning his defensive work, which not only earned him a web gem, but really helped kill a few potential rallies. Pena, too, really shined in his leadoff spot and, although he missed a few throws defensively, was a solid piece. Jantzen Witte was great as well – sorry, ran out of generic baseball descriptors to mask my ignorance.
But, despite what I said earlier, the two losses are still KILLER. Leadership aside, Holaday’s day in, day out reliability behind the plate will be sorely missed, as will his 17 homeruns and 53 RBIs. From what I understand, will be Senior Jimmie Pharr should fill in at catcher for the Frogs next year and, despite his inexperience, should be a fine addition. He only tallied 91 at bats this season, but of those, 7 were home runs and 21 drove in runs, good for a .363 average. If you want to do the math, and I do, Holaday had a little over three times as many plate appearances as Pharr, so at that rate, Jimmie would be good for roughly the same amount of homers, and even more RBIs. Let’s just hope the law of averages applies directly to the baseball diamond because he has some ENORMOUS shoes to fill.
As for Curry, well, we’ve seen what he can do. He was our best defensive infielder based on the percentages, and his team leading 18 homers and second place 65 RBI are tough to see go. While he will always be remembered for THE Grand Slam, we are going to realize what an all around force he really was next year when he’s suiting up in the bigs. As for his replacement? You guys are going to have to help me out here because I’m not really sure. Do you move in a more established guy from the outfield like Brance Rivera or Aaron Schultz? Do you fill in with Weik and move someone else to the DH? I seriously doubt you consider moving any of this year’s infield starters to first. Relly Mercurio has played a little at first, do you give him the starting role? I’m letting someone else make the call on this one.
Projected Starters: Jantzen Witte, Taylor Featherston, Jerome Pena, Jimmie Pharr, Joe Weik and ??
Key Returnees: Brance Rivera, Aaron Schultz, Jason Coats.
Key Losses: None.
Well, at least we know where we don’t have to worry about any attrition because we get all of these guys back, plus reliables like Josh Elander and Kyle Von Tungeln. As I mentioned above, I suppose there’s a chance that either Rivera or Schultz could make a move to the infield to replace Curry at first, but I’m genuinely unclear. Offensively, you’re getting back 28 home runs and 150 RBIs, led by Jason Coats and his 69. Defensively, well, you saw these guys in action, and if you need a reminder, Brance Rivera’s ribcage is still lodged somewhere along the outfield wall in Omaha. Really, there’s no need to worry about the outfield for next year. We cool.
Projected Starters: Brance Rivera, Aaron Schultz, Jason Coats.
Realistically, this year’s team was pretty once in a generation. A phenomenal pitching staff, great rapport, a true leader, big bats and just an overall, never say die attitude. So trying to compare next year’s team to this year’s is truly unfair. But, while it appears on paper that there will be some drop off, I don’t think you can count these guys out by any means. For one, Jim Schlossnagle is one of the best coaches in the game and, despite running a baseball team under the confines of a private institution, in seven short years he’s made TCU one of the envies of the baseball world. Besides that, he’s recruited top notch talent every single year, so the cupboards are always stocked with the next all-star that we have yet to hear about. Losing right hand man Todd Whiting to Cougar High – is this confirmed? – will hurt some, but have no doubts that Schloss will move quickly to fill that void.
As the off-season takes hold and even into next year, you’re going to read tons and tons about how much the Frogs will miss Bryan Holaday, and since we’ve already more than worn that story into the ground, I’ll abandon it, at least for the rest of this particular article. Truly, the biggest thing story we’ll have to watch over the coming month is whether or not Steven Maxwell decides to stay or go. As I said earlier, I think he goes – as do the handful of others I’ve asked about the situation – but, just like we thought Matt Purke was probably going to be a Ranger, you never know what kind of circumstances will unfold in your favor. My advice to you? Stop shopping at Target Stores and bankrupt the company, therefore causing the Twins to lose their new stadium sponsor, and hopefully forcing the team into bankruptcy as they struggle to pay their stadium bills, not to mention Joe Mauer. Or, better yet, pretend you're some sort of financial advisory and convince Tom Hicks to buy the Twins. I think he can easily run that franchise into the ground by the time Maxwell has to make a decision and having him gone from the Rangers, plus keeping Maxwell a Frog, would be the biggest sports win-win of the century.
A lot can happen between now and next baseball season and while it’s a bummer to think that we have to wait until next winter for the unveiling of the Schlossnagles 8.0, we can all rest easier at night knowing that, if we really need a diversion, I think our football team fires up their season in the interim, assuming any of you still care about those guys.
College Baseball. Who knew? Go Frogs!