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Aaron Fitt | | November 20, 2019

Oklahoma State's offense looks more versatile despite loss of key sluggers

Watch all 7 homers from a wild Texas Tech-Oklahoma State Super Regionals Game 3

KANSAS CITY — Oklahoma State’s feast-or-famine style of play worked well in 2019, as the Cowboys hosted and won a regional and reached the brink of the College World Series before taking a heart-breaking loss in Game 3 of the Lubbock Super Regional.

So while coach Josh Holliday acknowledged that his team was “a little snake-bit by too many strikeouts” at the plate — a whopping 652 of them to be precise, against 293 walks — it’s hard to argue that the tradeoff wasn’t worth it. Oklahoma State ranked fourth in the nation with 93 home runs, and that power production served as the engine for a very good team.

But all four of OSU’s double-digit home run hitters from last year are gone; Trevor Boone, Colin Simpson, Andrew Navigato and Christian Funk combined to hit 62 of those 93 long balls. The Cowboys still have plenty of big, strong hitters capable of running the ball out of the park with regularity, but the 2020 offense figures to be more versatile and better at putting the ball in play consistently.

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Much of the team’s power production next spring figures to come from a trio of physical seniors who are all capable of reaching double-digit homers. Six-foot-2, 223-pound first baseman Alix Garcia (.294/.388/.485 with 8 HR) established himself as a valuable run producer in the second half last season, showing a knack for driving in runs in key spots. And Holliday said he’s followed it up with a much better fall than he had a year ago. He’s worked hard to make strength gains in the weight room and shorten up his path to the ball, with the goal of helping him catch more fastballs out in front and drive them out to the pull side.

Left fielder Carson McCusker (.311/.383/.520, 6 HR) is a 6-foot-8 behemoth with big raw power to match, and Holliday said he was playing at a very high level before coming down with mononucleosis last May. He missed a chunk of time this fall with a back issue, but he’s feeling good now, and Oklahoma State hopes he can really tap into his right-handed power potential as a senior, ideally in the cleanup spot.

“If he stays healthy and is able to be himself, it’s a good player,” Holliday said. “It’s the the most imposing player I’ve seen in a long time in college baseball, it’s 6-8, 245. If you ask pitching coaches in our league, he bothers people, because you don’t see guys like that. He’s an important player, and I do believe that he’ll have his best year yet.”

The third senior is right fielder Cade Cabbiness (.234/.307/.406, 8 HR), who has struggled to make consistent contact throughout his career and fanned 82 times in 197 at-bats last year. Cabbiness has always tantalized with his raw tools — he has big raw power, his plus-plus arm remains a major weapon and Holliday lauds his instincts and reliability in right field. In last Sunday’s scrimmage against Vanderbilt, it was encouraging to see Cabbiness compete well with two strikes, showing a shorter stroke and the ability to line singles to the opposite field, instead of constantly selling out for the big fly.

“All fall long, it’s been a constant, everyday process for him,” Holliday said. “What you saw in Kansas City was at the end of the fall — he’s essentially widened out, eliminated his stride, because that’s been the most problematic part of his swing, put him in bad position. By eliminating that, he’s able to get behind the ball and use the opposite field more.

"If that kid gets behind the ball and gets it in play, he’s an X-factor for us; there’s an awful lot of strength there. He changes how we look, now you’ve got a 6-4, 240-pound guy that’s a threat. So if we could get him to do more of that in that 7-hole, now the lineup has some threats all the way down, if not higher. To his credit, he’s learned how to bunt, he’s taken base running seriously. He’s just gonna be a really nice senior player, in my opinion.”

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Other key returnees include middle infielders Hueston Morrill and Max Hewitt, who both showed the ability to hit for average and defend in their first seasons in the program last spring. Morrill was relegated to DH duties in Kansas City due to some shoulder stiffness, but he figures to serve as OSU’s starting shortstop and potentially its leadoff man come spring.

Hewitt hit .303 with 21 walks against just 10 strikeouts in 66 at-bats last year. Holliday likes his overall baseball savvy, which has also helped him learn quickly behind the plate, where he’ll serve as the No. 3 catcher in addition to whatever playing time he garners in the infield.

Three impact transfers should round out the infield and catching mix. Kentucky transfer Jake Thompson proved his mettle as a hitter in a long summer in the Northwoods League this year, hitting .355 with 16 doubles in 186 at-bats. He does a good job choking up and putting the ball in play with two strikes, and he can wear out the gaps and provide occasional home run pop too. Holliday said he’s also worked hard to improve his defense at third base, where he’s made gains with glove skills as well as his throwing skills.

Junior college transfer Kaden Polcovich was a huge get for the Cowboys on the recruiting trail. He hit .305 with four homers and eight doubles in a strong summer in the Cape Cod League, and he has hit the ground running this fall. A quick-twitch athlete with real strength in his compact 5-foot-8, 191-pound frame, Polcovich is a switch-hitter who is dangerous from both sides of the plate, runs well, works counts and plays quality defense all over the infield and even in the outfield.

He could fit well at second base if Morrill is at short and Thompson is at third, or he should shift to the hot corner if Hewitt or heady junior Dylan Gardner wins the job at second base — where he’s very much in the mix. Wherever Polcovich winds up, he’s going to be a difference maker.

“Polcovich is a really good hitter — incredibly strong, he’s a very powerful kid,” Holliday said. “He’s got a high IQ. His dad taught him well; his father played in the major leagues and at the University of Florida. Kaden’s advanced, knows how to hit from both sides. He loves hitting, talks about hitting, shows up ready to work with a very professional approach.

"From both sides of the plate he’s a threat to leave the yard, and there’s a lot of base stealing potential there. He’s an active base stealer with a lot of burst and power. Anyone who goes to Cape Cod and carries a .300 batting average, that’s a badge of honor, man. That’s a tough thing to do up there. I think over two months that shows it’s a real ballplayer.”

The third key transfer is catcher Brock Mathis, who arrives from LSU and has been cleared for immediate eligibility, which is huge for OSU. He’s a good receiver and blocker who gained valuable experience behind the plate in the SEC, and Holliday said he’s really just starting to believe in himself as an offensive player.

He’s worked hard with OSU hitting coach Matt Holliday — the former big league all-star and Josh's brother — to refine his swing and increase his contact rate, and he offers some sneaky pop as well. Redshirt freshman Josh Spiegel also has good catch-and-throw skills and will likely serve as the No. 2 catcher, with Hewitt as the No. 3, giving the Cowboys some depth behind the plate after losing veteran Bryce Carter.

Another newcomer who looks primed to make a huge impact is freshman center fielder Caeden Trenkle, a 5-foot-10, 172-pound dynamo with plus or better speed, superb defensive skills in center and a nice slasher approach from the left side. He made perhaps the best play I’ve seen all fall in Kansas City, robbing Spencer Jones of extra bases with a spectacular leaping catch at the wall in dead-center field — showing off his premium range and athleticism. He also impressed at the plate, lining a 90 mph fastball to center for a single and then demonstrating a mature approach when Vanderbilt tried to double up on him with back-to-back curveballs in his next at-bat; he waited on the second one and laced it into the right-field corner for a triple.

“He’s a really, really good player, not just for his age but for any age, he’s a good player,” Holliday said. “He’s been way above-average all fall in center field, both in the air and on the ground. He gets to the ball in the air exceptionally well, plays the ball on the ground clean and throws accurately. His defensive skills have been advanced from day one. His ability to take quality swings is way way above his years. There’s nobody hitting the ball on the barrel on a line more often than he is. He’s a high-level hitter for his age or any age.

"With strength and experience, he’s got a chance to be a special hitter. You can do anything with him because he’s fast, he runs the bases, he bunts, doesn’t strike out, hits a lot of line drives, got some power. He’s probably the most versatile hitter we have, he and Polcovich.”

Finally, keep an eye on junior two-way talent Noah Sifrit, who has taken a big jump forward at the plate. He had OSU’s best at-bats in the first eight-inning scrimmage against Vanderbilt, showing a middle-away approach that resulted in a couple of singles. He’s always competed hard, but now he’s lining the ball to the opposite field with authority and simply hitting the cover off the ball. Holliday said Sifrit is “by far our fall player of the year.” He also throws quality strikes off the mound and could log some innings out of the bullpen.

Oklahoma State’s pitching staff has plenty of experience back even though it lost ace Jensen Elliott, bullpen stopper Peyton Battenfield and innings-eater Joe Lienhard. Left-hander Parker Scott has battled injuries in his career, but he was very good when he got healthy last year, posting a 2.18 ERA and a 51-14 K-BB mark in 45.1 innings over 15 appearances (eight starts).

He looked outstanding in two hitless innings against Vanderbilt, attacking the zone at 86-88 and mixing in a very good high-70s changeup and 1-to-7 curveball in the mid-70s. He’s also developed a slider to give him a fourth weapon, and Holliday loves how he competes and maintains his composure in tight spots. Scott looks like a lock for a weekend rotation spot.

Sophomore righty Brett Standlee made 12 starts a year ago and posted a 4.46 ERA, so he figures to compete for a weekend rotation job as well. A 6-foot-4 lumberjack with a long beard, Standlee wasn’t particularly sharp last Sunday, when he pitched at 87 mph with an inconsistent slider at 80-83 that showed promise.

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“He’s really working on some things this fall. I think he’s gonna come out in the spring a better version of himself. He’s been making adjustments this fall to improve his delivery to get a little bit more leverage in his arm, a little bit more bite in his pitches,” Holliday said. “I think his fall has been more productive from a learning standpoint, maybe not in the immediate results column. But he too has four pitches: a sinker, slider, a cutter and a change, and they’re all moving. He’s only really in his second year pitching, missed his freshman year.”

Redshirt sophomore left-hander Mitchell Stone made five starts a year ago and could be poised to win a weekend rotation job this spring as well. After losing most of his freshman year to a broken ankle, Stone’s stuff looked great last fall. But he got into an early-season funk in the spring and struggled to get on track repeating his delivery, though he made strides with his strike-throwing by the end of the year. Then he came down with mono before he was slated to head to the Cape Cod League, setting him back again.

But Holliday was encouraged with the way he responded to adversity last Sunday against Vanderbilt, as a flyball lost in the sun sparked a two-run rally for the Commodores. Stone didn’t quit and bounced back with a 1-2-3 frame the next inning, striking out two. At 6-foot-9, 249 pounds, Stone offers a unique look, and his fastball has sat in the low 90s in the past, though it was 89-90 last week. He also flashed a good fading changeup at 80-81 and a solid 81-82 slider.

Freshman right-hander Kale Davis has put himself in the starting mix as well. Holliday said he looks like a starter already with a refined delivery, feel for a sharp curveball, a slider with solid tilt and advanced feel for his craft. His fastball was 87-88 last week, but there’s plenty more in the tank as he grows into his 6-foot-4 frame.

Three more freshman righties are also key parts of Oklahoma State’s future and figure to log significant innings right away. Bryce Osmund has a wiry 6-foot-3, 174-pound frame and an “explosive arm,” as Holliday put it. He worked downhill at 88-91 against Vanderbilt, pounding the bottom of the zone and featuring a 79-80 slider with very good tilt and a 74-76 curveball to steal a strike.

“He’s relatively new to pitching, he was a shortstop that had a great arm but didn’t really take up pitching full time until his junior year of high school,” Holliday said. “He’s like a piece of clay that could be molded into something very exceptional. He’s a super high level athlete, got good pitches already and has a chance to have exceptional pitches, and a great frame. The sky’s the limit, it’s just a matter of putting the work in every day and watching him grow. He’ll already flash you a fastball into the 92-94 range, he’s got shape on the curveball, feel for a changeup, and a slider that’s already in the mix. It’s just taking those pitches to the next level.”

Fellow freshman Justin Campbell is a lanky, projectable 6-foot-7 righty who worked at 88-91 and touched 92 against Vanderbilt, along with a 75-76 curve with tight rotation and good arm speed on his 79-81 changeup — which flashes above-average. And Wyatt Cheney offers a completely different look, as a 5-foot-11, 170-pounder with a quick arm that produced 87-89 heat from a high slot against Vanderbilt. His 80-81 changeup also flashed good fading action at times, and his mid-70s curve has nice spin and downer shape. Holliday said he’s been up to 90-91 this fall with good life, and his feel for his three-pitch mix is very encouraging.

Bulldog senior Ben Leeper (4.31 ERA, 7 saves) and redshirt sophomore righty Tucker Elliott plus fourth-year junior righty Zach Cable are back to anchor the bullpen, though none of them are completely healthy right now and none threw against Vanderbilt. But Holliday said all three are 92-94 mph guys with power breaking balls that can miss bats in the late innings.

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The wild card is sophomore righty John Kelly, who was up to 95 mph with an 89 mph slider in his first outing of the fall but has been inconsistent. He was 90-92 with erratic command against Vanderbilt, and he got hit hard. But he did flash a legitimate plus slider at 82-85 with late power tilt, so it’s easy to envision him blossoming into a big-time weapon in the OSU bullpen.

“He’s probably more of the aggressor and the max effort, high throttle bullpen arm that every team needs to have, to go with the skill guys every team has,” Holliday said. “He’s coming at you hot and heavy. He has to make some adjustments to improve his precision, but the arm strength and fearlessness are good. Now it’s just corralling his stuff.

"That outing at Vanderbilt was good for him, because he got knocked around even though he had good stuff. He’s 25 more bullpens away from continuing to hone his craft, get the ball at the edge of the plate, get the ball sinking, and he can be that guy we can bring out of the bullpen with high-end stuff. And [pitching coach] Rob [Walton] has always done an awesome job with kids like that.”

So Oklahoma State is well stocked with power arms and pitchability guys, and its lineup looks deep, versatile and athletic. This has the look of a very balanced, dangerous roster, capable of making another deep postseason run.

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