TCU baseball has been pretty rewarding for us over the past few years. We win every conference championship, we've hosted Regionals, we've bitch-slapped Texas in Austin then dogpiled on their longhorn, and of course, we went to Omaha and made a pretty deep run before running into 2 top-5 MLB draft pick pitchers.
And then last year happened...
Now let's not act like last year was a complete disaster. We still won the conference (a feat that will obviously become much tougher entering the Big 12 for the 2013 campaign) and we hosted a regional, but it seemed like last year wasn't meant to be from the get go despite our incredibly lofty preseason rankings. I tried to hold onto hope for as long as I could, but the writing was on the wall early on with the loss of stud closer Kaleb Merck to Tommy John surgery before the season even began. Then seeing Matt Purke's opening night start last only 4 innings (I think) with a fastball in the mid-80's was a concern- a concern that went from being a blister to a dead arm over the course of the next few months. Then there were a rash of injuries during the season as well, from CF Aaron Schultz, to Steven Maxwell, a #3 starter who would've been an ace at 95% of the teams across the country. Kyle Winkler carried the pitching staff, along with a slew of young, talented arms, but I think we all finally knew the season was more or less officially over when Wink pulled himself in the first inning of his start in the Fort Worth Regional.
So coming off an injury-riddled, error filled baseball season in 2011, what can we expect from our preseason #15 squad this year? I think there are more unanswered questions about this group than any I can remember in recent memory for the Frogs, so let's just get right into them (keep in mind, these opinions are my own and could be wayyyy far off from what really happens):
At #15, are we overrated or underrated?
It's hard to tell, honestly. We certainly have the talent on this roster to be considered underrated, but will that talent perform up to expectations? I think Matt Purke and the 2010 squad proved that experience might not matter as much in football or even basketball, so maybe having a young team won't be a negative. There's still plenty of veteran leadership, especially offensively, with a loaded front end of the lineup consisting of Jason Coats, Brance Rivera, Josh Elander, and Jantzen Witte (more on him later). The question is whether talented youngsters like freshman Kevin Cron and sophomore Brett Johnson can produce, and will junior Kyle Von Tungeln finally emerge into the player we've expected him to be after ending last year on a hot streak?
The pitching staff is young as well, but they gained a lot of valuable innings with all the injuries last year. Hopefully some more young arms emerge this season to do the kind of great work that freshmen Andrew Mitchell, Stefan Crichton, and Nick Frey did last year. Getting Kaleb Merck back to secure the back end of the bullpen should be a major boon to the staff as well, because as we all know, that was a major cause for concern last season, at least until Crichton stepped admirably into that role. Which brings me to my next point...
With Merck back as closer, what do we do with Stefan Crichton?
I think we move Crichton back into a starting role. He made a few starts there before becoming the closer at the end of the year last year, so maybe he becomes our Saturday starter with Mitchell going Friday nights. A lot of this depends on how the talented freshmen arms we have coming in look leading up to the season. I hear rumblings that RS Freshman Trey Teakell has looked sharp, and Nick Frey, who saw a lot of innings towards then end of last season, also has to be a candidate for a weekend spot. I won't speculate too much on the freshmen arms that we have due to lack of knowledge and having not seen them pitch yet, but I'm sure some will emerge. However, I think for this team to be successful deep into the 2012 season, Crichton and his filthy low-90's sinker have to be in the starting rotation somewhere. I'll save my breath and not even try to speculate any further on who emerges from this freshmen heavy staff as players, but I'm sure there will be a few.
Is Andrew Mitchell a legit #1 starter?
Look at last year for your answer- 6-1, 2.84 era, 73 K's in 76 innings with a .197 opponents batting average. I'd say with pretty good certainty on this one that your answer is yes. Is he Matt Purke from 2010? Most likely not, and we might never see that again, but he does have a mid-90's fastball with some pretty knee-buckling offspeed pitches. I'm pretty excited to see what kind of season this talented sophomore can put together as the focal point of our pitching staff.
Will Kaleb Merck be 100% and return to 2010 form?
I'm not sure the exact date, but I believe Merck had Tommy John surgery sometime around September, 2010, so that means when the season gets going towards the end of February it will have been almost 18 months since his surgery. I'm sure we will ease him back into things to start the season, but hopefully by the time conference rolls around he will be back in full swing and as effective as before. Of course, asking him to duplicate his 2010 numbers (1.47 era, 30.2 IP, 23 K's) will probably be asking too much, but if we get anywhere near that kind of production from his freshly built arm I'd say the back end of our bullpen is certainly secure. Steven Maxwell had Tommy John surgery a few years back and he came back better than ever. I don't see any reason why Merck can't do the same.
Who replaces third baseman Jantzen Witte while he recovers from hip surgery?
Witte, who has been our starting 3b for us for pretty much 2 full years now, will miss 8-10 weeks after having surgery to repair a torn hip labrum. While I thought hip surgery was strictly reserved for old men, this is certainly bad news. He is expected to miss the first 16-20 games of the season. His .331 average was third on the team, and he also led the team with 84 hits and 21 doubles. His 45 RBI were good for second on the team as well, so I don't have to tell you how big of a bat we are missing from the lineup. Third base is arguably the hardest position on the field to play defensively as well, and losing a mainstay at that spot for a good chunk of the season scares me.
Honestly, I don't have a good answer for you here just like I can't go in depth on what freshmen will emerge in the pitching rotation. There are so many unknowns with so many young players. Some candidates are veteran utility man Davey Wright, who I've seen fill in around the middle infield, but I don't recall him playing much at third. Can baseball ginger Brett Johnson, who played a lot of 1b last year, slide into the hot corner for a while and play 3rd and let our star recruit Kevin Cron (who is a ridiculously massive 6'5, 260, so I don't see him at 3rd)? Can one of the newcomers like JUCO transfer Josh Gonzales or freshmen Michael Resnick, Trevin Sonnier, Keaton Jones, or Derek O'Dell fill in there? Honestly, I have no clue. Or could we move senior OF and leadoff hitter Brance Rivera back to that spot? Pretty sure he's seen some time there during his career at TCU.
Who replaces Taylor Featherston at Shortstop and Jerome Pena at Second?
Taylor Featherston, while a great hitter for TCU for 3 years, had his struggles in the field. Jerome Pena didn't duplicate the great offensive season he had during our CWS run, but I think he might have been another Frog battling injuries throughout last season. Just like the question about Witte, I don't have a good answer for you, but let's assume that two of the above listed players move into the 2 open middle infield spots. I'd say Josh Gonzales finds a spot somewhere for sure, because why else would you bring in a JUCO transfer? I doubt he sits. I think you can rule out Johnson, Rivera, and of course Cron for middle infield, so that leaves freshmen Resnick, Sonnier, Jones, and O'Dell to fill the other open spot. For what it's worth, O'Dell was 2 time All-State as well as a Max Preps All-American and was drafted in the 42nd round by the Red Sox, so he comes in pretty highly touted, so maybe he has a leg up on the competition?
So those are my own questions about the upcoming 2012 baseball season, and I obviously did this post in part to try and answer my own questions. If anyone out there has any better information than me please feel free to share, as most TCU baseball fans are pretty in the dark at this point in time since baseball news isn't that easily accessible. Also, if you have any other questions, the comments section is a great spot for those too.
Hey, at least I've turned attention away from "Daje's of Our Lives"...