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TCU might have been the biggest beneficiary of the season shutdown, but head coach Jim Schlossnagle believes it’s important to be cautious.
Sure, the Horned Frogs welcome back a plethora of players who were seniors last season and decided to return to the program for another year. But this is also a group that, while improved in 2020, didn’t finish the season. Therefore, Schlossnagle believes the Frogs still have plenty of unfinished business.
“I think the overarching thing for me as I look at this team following the fall is that I know everyone looks at our team and the returning seniors and thinks we’re automatically in great shape,” Schlossnagle said. “And there’s no doubt there’s an advantage there, to an extent. But you also want the right players out there on the field.
“You always hear coaches say well, we have everyone back. Well, what if you just went 5-6 the previous season in football. Do you really want everyone back,” he added. “What good does that do, exactly? With that said, I really like the makeup of this team and the kids. But our best players must stay healthy for us to have a shot to do what we want to do at the end of the season.”
One prime example of what Schlossnagle is talking about is veteran slugger Hunter Wolfe. Wolfe hit .301 two seasons ago before hitting .341 to start the 2020 campaign. But he’s never been fully healthy. If he can stay healthy, he’s one of the better players in the Big 12 Conference and arguably TCU’s best hitter. But staying healthy is the key.
“He’s the best example of what I’m talking about,” Schlossnagle said. “He’s been our best player at times, and he’s been drafted two or three times. However, he’s always had issues staying healthy. We need all of our productive veteran players to stay healthy.”
TCU has plenty of reasons to feel confident about the upcoming campaign. In addition to returning several key offensive pieces, including Wolfe, Gray Rodgers, Gene Wood, Tommy Sacco and Zach Humphreys, among others, it also has a deep pitching staff loaded with premium options.
Everyone knows about Charles King, Russell Smith and budding flamethrower Johnny Ray, but left-hander Austin Krob could be primed to be the next great TCU pitcher, following in the footsteps of guys like Nick Lodolo and Preston Morrison in recent years. Krob was terrific in seven appearances out of the bullpen last season. But now he’s ready to show his grit as a starting pitcher. The list of high-quality arms goes well beyond that quartet, too.
“I really like where this team stands right now. We certainly have some talented returning players, but we also have some talented newcomers, too,” Schlossnagle said. “I hate to put a crown on any freshman who has never played a Division I game, but we’re in a situation where even with our returning players, we’ve got two or three young players who are in position to beat out guys who are four of five years older than them.”
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Let’s dive into the Horned Frogs this fall:
“We have two guys in particular that are young and have been extremely impressive,” Schlossnagle said. “They were ultra, ultra-impressive, to the point where we had an older player, unsolicited, come tell us that this guy and this guy were going to be special players. They were just saying they’ve got a chance to be really good.
“Who knows, maybe they’ll get into the heat of the season and not have the kind of year they’re expecting,” he added. “But maybe they will.”
Those two freshmen are outfielder Elijah Nunez and utility infielder Brayden Taylor. Nunez is a 5-foot-10, 180-pounder, who will likely play one of the corner outfield spots in the spring. He’s a high-end player and plus runner who defends his position well and has good actions at the plate. Meanwhile, Taylor is a 6-foot-1, 165-pounder, who is an above-average runner and has an advanced approach at the plate. He has good zone awareness and actually finished the fall with more walks than strikeouts, something Schloss said he rarely sees from a first-year player.
“Elijah and Brayden would be in our lineup if the season started today,” he said. “Nunez would play one of the corner outfield spots and Taylor would be at second or third base, more than likely with Tommy Sacco at shortstop. They’re both elite defenders and have such an impressive awareness of the zone. Both had more walks than strikeouts in the fall, and they’re both confident yet humble. They come to the park the same person each day.”
Also keep an eye on freshman outfielder Luke Boyers. Boyers is a 5-foot-11, 195-pounder, who only played the last four weeks of the fall. But the look from him was impressive enough to where Schlossnagle believes he could have a large role. Boyers is a switch-hitter who has as much speed as Nunez and who possesses some power in his frame.
“I’m not sure he’d be in the lineup if the season started today because we only got to see him a few weeks in the fall, but he’s got a chance to be a good one,” he said. “I think he has a chance to be a huge piece for us.”
In terms of returning players, perhaps no player is more important than Sacco, the talented shortstop. The hard-nosed infielder is known for his exceptional defensive skills that makes him one of the better middle infielders in the Big 12, but his offensive production was solid in 2020 as well. He’s taken yet another step forward with his overall game and has earned praise from Schlossnagle.
“I think he might just be the best defensive shortstop we’ve ever had,” he said. “He’s super, super consistent and he’s one of those guys you can gain an appreciation for in just one day of workouts. And then, after a week, you might sit back and say he’s the best player on the team.”
We mentioned the return of Gray Rodgers, Gene Wood and Zach Humphreys earlier, while steady player Connor Shepherd also returns to the Frogs. All four are productive players who bring a wealth of experience to the table. But keep a particular eye on fellow veteran Austin Henry. Henry is a 6-foot, 200-pound, senior, who hit .288 with seven homers and 43 RBIs two seasons ago before contemplating moving on from his baseball career after hitting .133 in 45 at bats in 2020. However, once the draft got trimmed down to five rounds, Henry decided to give it one more shot at TCU with a little extra motivation.
“He certainly struggled in the spring, but decided over the summer to come back,” Schlossnagle said. “It seems like his investment to want to be the best possible player he can be is off the charts. He has completely flipped a switch and it showed up in a big way this fall.”
Then, of course, there’s Wolfe. Wolfe being able to stay healthy and play in the field would be a big bonus for the Frogs and would give them the flexibility to move some personnel around in the lineup.
The early returns on the offense are promising.
Want to get an idea of how deep and talented the TCU pitching staff has a chance to be this spring? My notes from Schlossnagle on their cornucopia of pitchers totals over 1,000 words.
First and foremost, the Frogs have some strong options for the weekend rotation. Well-built right-hander Johnny Ray showed good stuff last spring but has evolved into an even better premium weapon this fall. Ray still throws his fastball in the 94-97 range, but he’s able to do it for longer periods of time. Last season, he would throw 94-97 the first couple of innings, and then settle in around 91-93. Ray also attacked hitters with a filthy 89-91 mph cutter during fall workouts. Tall left-hander Russell Smith is expected to occupy another starting spot, and he possesses good stuff as well. He has good angle on his fastball, the changeup is a plus and his breaking ball continues to improve.
“Johnny has only gotten better, and he’s holding his velocity. That’s huge for us. He’s not just a power pitcher anymore,” he said. “Smith’s breaking ball has improved and he’s just one of those guys who goes out there and throws endless strikes.”
Krob, a 6-foot-3, 205-pound, left hander, was the story of the fall. He shined in seven appearances for the Frogs last season and is ready to become a premier starting pitcher. The best prospect on the team, Krob, Schlossnagle said, is kind of a blend between Brandon Finnegan and Nick Lodolo, both high-drafted former standouts. He attacks hitters with a fastball ranging 92-94, while he will show you some 95s at times. He throws the sinker at 89 and the four-seam fastball in that 92-95 range. He has two breaking balls, one being a power slider, along with a quality changeup.
“If you watched our team and said which guy on this club could be a first-rounder, it’s Krob,” Schlossnagle said. “He’s one of those guys you watch and say, ‘yeah he’s going to be in the big leagues the longest out of these guys.’
“He’s what a big-time prospect should look like,” he continued. “He has confidence right now, and he has the stuff where he can go look in the mirror and say to himself that he can be one of the best pitchers in the country. He will more than likely pitch on Saturdays for us, but we’ll see.”
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King is another potential starter for the Frogs. The tall right hander has had a successful career and is the type of pitcher who will give up some hits and a couple of runs a game but is steady each week. Another arm, young righty Jacob Meador, also will be in the starting mix, albeit as a midweek starter/fourth game starter. Meador struck out 29 and walked five in 22.1 innings this fall, while also getting up to 94-95 mph with his fastball and showing a quality, tightened up, curveball.
“Charles is very much still in the mix for our starting rotation, but I also kind of like the idea of him being used like a Trey Teakell type of pitcher for us. So, we’ll see,” he said. “Him and a guy like Haylen Green can essentially be super relievers for us — they can start, or they can come out of the bullpen and give us quality innings.”
The Frogs have a plethora of other high-quality pitchers back this season.
Right-hander Marcelo Perez could evolve as a weekend starter, but the Frogs also like him as a potential shutdown reliever out of the pen with his electric fastball 93-96 and up to 97. He has a good slider and continues to develop the changeup. Drew Hill’s velocity was down during the fall, but there’s upside there, as he was up to 96 earlier this year, while Harrison Beethe is a huge right-handed arm with a fastball up to 98 and will be in the mix with Garrett Wright for the closer role. Heralded righty Riley Cornelio has dealt with some mechanical corrections this fall, but like the others, he has a premium arm with a fastball sitting 92-94 and up to 95. He just needs to show improved commands. Others to watch include Augie Mihlbauer and John Kodros. Mihlbauer showed much improved stuff this fall and is ready for a larger role, while Kodros, the LSU kickback, is really intriguing. Kodros is a 6-foot-4, 200-pound, left hander who changed his arm action and went through the Driveline throwing program and has reaped the benefits of doing so with an improved fastball and velocity up to 90-91 with the offering. He’s throwing more strikes and the breaking ball has good spin rate.
In terms of young arms, physically impressive right-handers Garrett Wright and Cam Brown are ready to make a huge impact. Wright is a 6-foot-2, 215-pounder, who reminds Schlossnagle of a combo between Riley Ferrell and Durbin Feltman. He actually had a fastball more in the 90-91 mph range out of high school, but he’s worked extra hard in the weight room to shed off some pounds. That has allowed him to touch into more velocity with the fastball more up to 96-98 this fall, along with a power slider at 91. Meanwhile, Brown is a 6-foot-3, 215-pounder, who reminds Schloss a little of former TCU standout Jake Arrieta. He’s a former two-sport standout in high school and he was 95-96 and up to 97 mph with his fastball in the fall. Command needs to be better, but the premium stuff is certainly there for the talented righty.
“We’re trying to work on some things, but he’s going to pitch a lot for us. He’s a huge part of the future in this program and he clearly has premium stuff,” he said. “As for Wright, we have to see it in the spring, but he’s further along at the same stage than guys like Ferrell were. He’s really impressive.”