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Kendall Rogers | D1Baseball.com | January 14, 2020

Led by Nick Loftin, Baylor baseball is a legitimate Big 12 and NCAA tournament contender

Watch Shea Langeliers' NCAA tournament-record 11 RBIs in Baylor's 24-6 win

It didn’t come without plenty of hard work, but Baylor has restored order with coach Steve Rodriguez and company, leading the charge the past few seasons.

Before Rodriguez’s arrival, the Bears hadn’t reached the NCAA tournament since 2012. And though it wasn’t an overnight fix — the Bears went 24-29 in Rodriguez’s first season — the transition has occurred quicker than expected.

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The Bears made a statement in Rodriguez’s second season by going 34-23 with an NCAA tournament appearance, before taking another step forward two seasons ago with a 37-21 overall record. BU put together yet another solid campaign in 2019, too, going 35-19 with a strong Big 12 Conference mark.

Two things are for sure after last season: There’s a renewed sense of confidence around Baylor Ballpark, and the Bears have some key cogs to replace from last year’s club to be able to emulate last year’s success.

Putting all those pieces together between now and Opening Day will be the key.

“We have a lot of pitching back from last year’s club; this is a veteran staff for us,” Rodriguez said. “We lost Kyle Hill and a couple of others, but we have some pretty good arms coming back. We also brought in some really good freshmen.

“From an offensive standpoint, I do think we have some really good components in some key areas,” Rodriguez continued. “We have some talented kids in the outfield. There’s no doubt some holes to fill, but we brought in some guys very capable of filling those holes. I’m intrigued to see them get into the lineup this spring and see where things take them from a roles standpoint.”

The most important thing between now and Opening Day is setting the weekend rotation. Jimmy Winston took a huge step forward and is a sure bet to be in the rotation, while veteran Paul Dickens is another solid candidate to be in the mix. There’s a bevy of other candidates in the mix, too, with Tyler Thomas leading the way for the time being.

From an offensive standpoint, the Bears welcome back a great one in shortstop Nick Loftin, while the guys to replace are pretty obvious. Shea Langeliers and Davis Wendzel are impossible to replace right off the bat, while the Bears also have some veterans to replace, including key leader and offensive producer Richard Cunningham.

Though the Bears have some important question marks, they are much like the rest of the Big 12 Conference. TCU, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Texas and West Virginia all have some questions to answer over the next couple of months, while Texas Tech is the lone exception at the moment.

It’s time to dissect Baylor heading into the spring.

Pitching

Baylor might not have that premier ace just yet, but it has a multitude of options on the mound as the season nears.

The biggest loss from last year’s pitching staff is reliever Kyle Hill, who recorded seven saves in 29.1 innings and didn’t allow a run in 23 appearances. He had an incredible season and that’ll be difficult to replace.

As for the rotation, right-hander Jimmy Winston and left-hander Paul Dickens are sure-fire bets to be in the weekend rotation. Winston tallied a 4.30 ERA in 73.1 innings last season and took a huge step forward this fall. His showed an uptick in velocity with a fastball sitting in the 89-92 and up to 93 mph range, along with improved command and a better breaking ball. The Bears also said he worked hard in the weight room during the offseason.

“He took the biggest step forward of any pitcher we have,” Rodriguez said. “He’s just really kind of transformed himself a little bit. It was really, really good this fall.”

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Dickens isn’t going to blow hitters away with a fastball, but it’s an experienced look with a high-quality breaking ball from the left side.

The final spot in the rotation should come down to either lefty Tyler Thomas or freshman right-hander Will Rigney. Thomas entered last season with high hopes after a strong fall but was inconsistent with a 6.68 ERA in 31 innings. Thomas spent much of the fall getting healthy, and Rodriguez is confident he’ll be ready to roll in February. When he’s right, Thomas will be anywhere from 90-92 with his fastball.

“The big thing for Tyler right now is to be healthy,” he said. “When he’s healthy, it’s low 90s with the fastball with a quality breaking ball. The big question is what role are we going to use him in? We can use him as a starter, or we can throw him more at the back end. We’ll see how things shake out.”

As for Rigney, he’s an ultra-talented freshman who impressed the coaching staff in the fall. He showed a fastball anywhere from 90-93 and up to 94 mph, along with a quality slider at 82-83 mph. He has good command of his fastball in particular and is athletic at his position.

“To see what a person his age did during the fall — it’s impressive to see,” he said. “He throws that slider really well and that fastball is commanded well, too. He’s a really good athlete and I’m interested to see what he does this spring.”

Another freshman, lefty Evan Godwin, is also in the starting mix. Godwin did some good things this past fall, with his consistency standing out the most.

“Evan could definitely be a weekend starter for us at some point,” he said. “He really, really stood out, I thought.”

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From a bullpen standpoint, the Bears have Thomas as an option should they choose to go that route, while right-hander Hayden Kettler has some velocity and a quality slider with plenty of experience. Kettler appeared in 11 games last season and tallied a 4.21 ERA in 36.1 innings of work.

Other key returnees include Luke Boyd, Daniel Caruso and Ryan Leckich. All three have quality experience with Boyd tallying a 2.14 ERA in 33.2 innings last season, Caruso making 25 appearances with a 1.67 ERA in 37.2 innings and Leckich making 29 appearances with a 2.30 ERA in 43 innings.

The bullpen will be a strength for this team, but it will be up to Winston and Dickens to lead the way and take some pressure off the unit. Winston could be the X-factor after the fall he had down in Waco.

Position Players

As mentioned earlier, the Bears have a laundry list of players they must replace this spring, including Langeliers, Cunningham and Wendzel. But the departures don’t stop there. They also must replace Josh Bissonette and Cole Haring. Haring quietly put together an outstanding 2019 campaign with 12 home runs and 44 RBIs.

The most important position player outside of Nick Loftin might just be veteran catcher Andy Thomas. Thomas hit .355 with four home runs and 32 RBIs last season. But without Langeliers, it will be his ability to defend that could very well define Baylor’s season. The good news? Rodriguez thinks he’s a star back there.

“We’ve got Andy Thomas back, and I think he’s going to do a great job,” he said. “I still believe he’s one of the better hitters and catchers around, and we’ll see if he shows that this spring.”

In the outfield, look for the trio to consist of Mack Mueller, Jared McKenzie and Davion Downey from left to right. Hunter Seay is another potential option.

Mueller is an interesting prospect for the Bears. He only had 56 at bats with a .286 average and two home runs last season, but Rodriguez says he has “freak show” power and could surprise some people this spring. McKenzie is a talented freshman who was one of BU’s top hitters this past fall, and Downey is an established prospect who has big-time potential in terms of hitting for average and power.

“It’s time for Davion to step up and become that guy that we know he can be,” he said. “He’s had some help around him in the past, and it’s time for him to take the lead from an offensive standpoint.

“McKenzie has a chance to be really, really good. He was one of the better hitters for us this fall, and also was very good defensively,” he continued. “He can really run, and he covers a lot of ground. It doesn’t look necessarily fast, but he has long strides and can cover a lot of ground.

“As for Seay, he really stepped up offensively this past fall,” he continued. “He changed his swing a little bit and looked much more comfortable. We’ve manipulated a few things with his swing and are hoping he’ll have one of those fantastic senior years. I think he can hit for some power for us, too.”

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With Wendzel gone at the hot corner, the third base position should be hotly contested leading up to Opening Day. Right now, it looks like freshman Tre Richardson, who graduated early, has the upper hand. Richardson is a terrific athlete who can play anywhere in the infield. Should he not win the third base job, he could shift and play somewhere else, outside of shortstop with Loftin there.

The other option at third is Ricky Martinez, who hit .238 in limited action last season. Martinez showed improvements this past fall, while Kyle Nevin is another potential option to watch. Nevin is a little raw at the moment and will need to put on some weight, but Rodriguez said he has a chance to be a big-time contributor in the future.

Chase Wehsener and Ryan Bertelsman are the other two position players to watch. Wehsener was impressive at times last season, hitting .291 with 21 RBIs. Rodriguez said Wehsener continues to make strides from an offensive standpoint this past fall. Bertelsman is a senior who had a strong offensive fall for the Bears. He’s yet another experienced player who could have one highly productive final hurrah.

There’s no doubt the Bears have question marks from an offensive standpoint. But there’s plenty of leadership and experience to mitigate those departures.

To what extent? We’ll soon know.

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