Austin, Texas — Texas is ready to turn the page with an influx of young talent.
The Longhorns are coming off one of the strangest campaigns we’ve seen in a few years. They were riding high the first weeks of the season, even sweeping perennial power LSU at home. At that point, it looked like Texas, fresh off a College World Series appearance in 2018, was going to be a big-time national contender and certainly in the mix for the Big 12 Conference title.
That didn’t happen.
The Longhorns made a statement the first weekend of conference play with a home series win over Texas Tech. But a weekend later, everything changed. UT had a strong chance to take a road series from TCU but melted down in the latter innings, going home with a tough series loss. That series not only kick-started some struggles for individual players, it also exposed some of Texas’ weaknesses.
Texas finished the season with a .500 overall record and placed last in the Big 12. It was unheard of for a program like UT.
Though head coach David Pierce would love to forget about last season, the job of any coach is to take any positives that you can from a previous campaign. Some guys earned valuable experience, and the rise of right-hander Bryce Elder should prove to be huge in 2020.
Those pluses, along with the addition of several talented freshmen, should spur much different results during the upcoming season. But the proof comes on the field.
“The club has great personality,” Pierce said. “They have a desire to be good together and that’s so critical for any program. These guys are very unselfish, and I really like the mix of returning players along with the youth on this team. I’m really pleased with returning outfielders and plenty of other guys.
“The makeup of our freshman class is pretty outstanding. These guys have come in leaders and they want to be good right away. It’s a good position to be in.”
In addition to several talented young players, the Longhorns also welcomed a few more fresh faces this fall. Along with Sean Allen moving from hitting coach to pitching coach, the Texas offense is now spearheaded by former big leaguer and Long Beach State star Troy Tulowitzki. The former shortstop retired from the Yankees back in late July and was immediately hired as an assistant coach for Texas. Pierce said he’s been a strong addition with his hands on and serious approach to the game.
As Texas knows well by now, there are no guarantees in baseball. But there are more than enough intriguing arms and position players for this team to look at last season through the rearview mirror and put together a strong spring.
Now it’s all about putting all the pieces together and not looking back.
Let’s look at UT’s fall workouts.
You’re ahead of the game if you have a bonafide No. 1 starter, and that’s what UT has in junior right-hander Bryce Elder. Elder, a physical 6-foot-2, 220-pounder, put together great numbers last season with a low 90s fastball and filthy cutter. His changeup has improved since, inspiring Pierce's admiration for Elder's work ethic.
“I thought it was interesting that Bryce came in early this fall to work on some things,” he said. “He didn’t start that great because he was busy working on refining his pitches, but he’ll obviously be good for us again.”
The Texas starting rotation is up in the air after Elder, but it’s not a case of lacking solid options. Some names to remember in the rotation mix include talented freshman left-hander Pete Hansen, and sophomores Ty Madden, Kolby Kubichek and Cole Quintanilla.
Hansen, a 6-foot-2, 190-pounder, earned rave reviews from scouts this fall, and it was easy to see why during the UT Fall World Series. Hansen has a constructive body with a consistent delivery and approach. He sat 89-91 mph with his fastball and has been better than that this fall. He also attacked hitters with a breaking ball at 80 mph, along with an effective changeup at 81-82 mph. Hansen looks good right now but has an ability to transition into a terrific arm for Texas soon.
“I think he has a makeup that’s right for us. He’s a good command guy,” Pierce said. “He’s a four-pitch mix guy, and he’s a very mature arm for a freshman. He knows his body and has terrific awareness. He’s exactly what we need out of a freshman pitcher.”
Madden had an important role last season and looks to emulate that this spring. The 6-foot-3, 200-pounder did some good things this fall with a fastball 91-93 (94), along with an improved breaking ball while Quintanilla threw at the FWS game I attended. His velocity was slightly down from what we remember last season, sitting 89-91 mph with the fastball, while the changeup was 85-86 and breaking ball was 77-79.
Kubichek, a 6-foot, 170-pounder, is a definite breakout candidate for this team. The talented righty stood out at the Cape Cod League this past summer and carried that success into fall workouts. He sat 91-93 mph with his fastball last week along with a changeup at 81 and a breaking ball at 80-81 mph. Coy Cobb, another talented sophomore, had an important role as a freshman last season. And though he’s sidelined this fall, he’ll be a factor in the spring yet again.
“It’s going to be an interesting race for the rotation with those guys,” he said. “The most interesting guy to me might be Kubichek. He put on 25 pounds of good weight and had great success at the Cape. That confidence has carried over into the fall. He could be our Saturday or Sunday, or even Tuesday guy. We’ll have to see.
“He hadn’t pitched in 10 days going into that FWS game, so he was probably a little tired from the fall,” Pierce said. “For Cole, it’s about his delivery and timing along with his tempo. It can get a little out of whack at times, but if he puts it all together in the spring, he’s going to be really good and he’ll sit 91-94 mph with the fastball.”
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From a bullpen standpoint, some of the guys above will factor into the equation once they don’t get starting jobs. But otherwise, keep close tabs on Kam Fields, Mason Bryant and Dawson Merryman.
Fields is an athletic right hander who played both ways in the past. However, Pierce has made it abundantly clear he will only pitch in the spring, which should give him more energy and allow him to hold his velocity and command better. Fields was 91-94 mph with his fastball during the Fall World Series and put together a strong fall.
Bryant is an imposing 6-foot-5, 220-pounder, who looks the part and showed an electric arm at the Northwoods League this past summer. Bryant is still a work in progress, but Pierce said he will have a huge role in the spring if he continues to put the pieces together. Bryant will show a fastball in the mid-to-upper 90s, but now it’s all about refining the repertoire.
Merryman, a 6-foot-1, 230-pound right hander, is yet another former Cape Cod League arm to watch. He's a junior college transfer and was intriguing last week. He has a sidearm delivery with some impressive velocity from that angle, sitting 91-92 mph with the offering. He also showed a mid-70s curveball with some serious and filthy tilt.
“Kam was 93-95 mph with his fastball earlier this fall and we’ve had him solely focused on being a pitcher right now, and he’s looked really good,” Pierce said. “It looked real and the confidence and control of what he’s doing – it’s impressive.
“Mason is just learning how to be a pitcher and how to be himself and not just a thrower. He’ll get that down, though,” he continued. “Merryman has a very simple approach out there, but it’s very repeatable. More than anything, he’s one of those pitchers who has mastered what he does best. He doesn’t try to do everything. He’s definitely going to have a significant role for us.”
Finally, keep an eye on freshman right-hander Andre Duplantier. The physical right hander was anywhere from 91-94 mph with his fastball. And though he struggled with command of the slider, often pushing it outside, he’s got plenty of upside on the mound.
One thing is for sure about this Texas team: It isn’t going to sit around waiting for returning players to carry the torch. If a freshman looks ready to roll, they will be inserted into the everyday lineup.
The Longhorns have several freshmen in the mix for starting jobs. At third, Duplantier, as mentioned above, is the leading candidate to win the job, shortstop Trey Faltine was terrific last week in the FWS with three hard-hit opposite field balls and Brenden Dixon has the inside track at second base, though sophomore Lance Ford in the mix as well.
That’s not all. Douglas Hodo has a chance to either start in the outfield or occupy the designated hitter role. Hodo, a 6-foot, 175-pounder, showed impressive athleticism and speed and a mature offensive approach. Dixon didn’t have a great day at the plate when I was there, but sources say he’s been terrific for much of the fall.
“We could be really young, but really good in the infield with Faltine and Dixon, potentially, up the middle,” Pierce said. “Andre is going to have every opportunity to play third because he can really, really hit. I don’t really care if someone is a freshman or a junior. You see what they can do with their skill set, and if they can contribute, they play. I just love the makeup of this group. It’s outstanding.
“Faltine has been good all fall. The best thing that has happened to him is removing him from pitching for a full semester,” he said. “That’s allowed him to work with Tulowitzki. He’s never had an opportunity to focus solely on offense because he’s been a two-way guy, so I think that has helped. If we were opening the season tomorrow, he would start.
Then there’s Andre. He might be the most coachable kid we’ve ever had. You look at his swing: He came here with some work to do, and we gave him some ideas on things that could change. He immediately changed and has benefited greatly from it.
“Dixon is a football mentality playing baseball and I absolutely love it,” he said. “He’s loud, he’s energetic and he has so much confidence in so many things he does. He does so many things well that it overrides his deficiencies. He’s truly one of those guys who could play all four positions in the infield at some point.”
Other options at third base include Sam Bertelson and junior college transfers Murphy Stehly and Cam Williams. Bertelson took a step forward offensively this fall, hitting .300 with three home runs, while Stehly is the consummate utility player who could play anywhere on the left side on the infield in the spring.
“I’m not counting out Cam, Bertelson or Stehly at third base just yet,” he said. “Bertelson definitely took steps forward and he’s swinging at the right pitches, and Stehly is a security blanket in the infield. He knows how to win, and he was very good at times during fall workouts.”
Along with Hodo, the outfield is pretty much set with Eric Kennedy, Duke Ellis and Austin Todd leading the charge. Kennedy is a speedster who will be a big-time prospect if his defensive game continues to improve. Ellis is stable, and the consummate veteran leader.
Todd is the wild card for me. He is ultra-athletic but has yet to stay healthy throughout his career. If he can finally do that, watch out. Meanwhile, first base will be occupied by veteran Zach Zubia, who had a strong fall and who Pierce said dropped to 10 percent body fat during fall workouts. That’s remarkable progress considering where he was two summers ago.
“Zubia has earned the starting job, that’s for sure,” he said. “He went out and got his body in terrific shape. His feet are moving well, and what I like about his surge is that he gives us so many good options for that DH role. That adds an element for us.”
Finally, the catcher position is important, as the Longhorns found out last year after losing DJ Petrinsky for the season. Petrinsky, a veteran, is in a progressive throwing program and has continued to improve his blocking skills this fall. However, he has yet to throw in a live game and had just 23 at bats during fall workouts. The plan now is for Petrinsky’s arm to be 100 percent ready to roll on Opening Day, but we know how that can go sometimes.
Silas Ardoin is an impressive freshman who has turned some heads with his defense and makeup, and Caston Peter earned valuable experience after being thrust into action last season. Peyton Powell is another young catcher to watch.
“DJ has caught a lot of bullpens and he’s improved in that regard, but we’ll have to see how he can throw in the spring,” he said. “Ardoin is going to be a real talent for us. He’s got the makeup of a great catcher, and Peter has gotten better.