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Like many programs over the past few months, fall workouts had a much different look for the Texas Longhorns.
Typically, UT’s practices are filled with scouts, families and fans alike looking to get a glimpse of the club. And the fall usually ends with the Orange-White series. But this fall was different because of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Thanks to directives from the Texas administration, the Longhorns did not host any open workouts.
In essence, practices this fall only included players, coaches and support staff. Though UT head coach David Pierce enjoys his players being evaluated by scouts and others, he admits the fall went relatively smooth, and he enjoyed the intimate setting.
“It was definitely different,” Pierce said. “But if I’m being honest, I think I kind of liked it.
“We got a lot accomplished this fall, and if you look at the dynamic and diversity of this team, from an age perspective and more, I really like this team. I really like our mentality,” Pierce added. “We’ve got a lot of competition happening on the field right now. We have a group of guys who spent five months off a baseball diamond, so they arrived here pretty motivated to play, and feeling pretty privileged to be playing college baseball again.”
Without becoming the ultimate jinx, it’s safe to say the Longhorns should have high hopes for the 2021 campaign based on the roster and how things transpired this fall. This program feels like it has some unfinished business.
Two seasons ago, the Longhorns entered uncharted waters by finishing last in the Big 12 Conference and failing to reach the conference tournament. For a storied program like UT, it was soul-searching time in the offseason between the 2019 campaign and the 2020 season. Whatever searching was done worked.
Last season, Pierce’s club looked like one that was going to turn the corner. UT got off to a 14-3 start before the season was shut down, and the high point of the campaign was a series sweep over Cal State Fullerton and a solid showing at the Shriners College Classic, despite going 1-2 in the event.
I feel confident in saying UT was going to have a solid season and likely be in the mix for a Regional host at the end of the spring.
But as with everyone in college baseball, it didn’t get a chance to prove that.
Now, the Longhorns press forward and have a team that not only can compete for a Regional host; the personnel is there to make another run at the College World Series.
From a pitching standpoint, UT will have one of the nation’s better one-two punches with right-hander Ty Madden and left-hander Pete Hansen. There’s depth in the bullpen and a trio of potentially elite freshmen arms. And offensively, this unit should be better in the spring. Guys like Trey Faltine continue to make strides, and the addition of a veteran slugger like St. John’s graduate transfer Mike Antico gives the Longhorns a productive and experienced weapon to rely on.
“I feel pretty good about where we stand offensively,” Pierce said. “And pitching — our pitching is going to be really interesting. Obviously, there’s no doubt Ty Madden will be our Friday night guy. Pete Hansen will go on Saturday, and then things get interesting. There’s a ton of competition for those other starting spots, so I’m interested to see how things shake out over the next couple of months.”
Let’s dive into UT’s fall workouts:
The Longhorns have a multitude of options on the mound as the 2021 campaign nears, but two arms are certain to be in the rotation — Madden and Hansen.
Madden, a 6-foot-3, 215-pounder, was off to a terrific start in 2020 before the season came to an abrupt halt. He’s only gotten better since. Madden was anywhere from 91-94 and up to 95 mph with his fastball when we saw him against LSU at the Shriners College Classic this past March. His velocity has increased since, sitting more 93-96 and up to even 97-99 mph with his fastball this fall. Madden continues to repeat his delivery well and is throwing the 84-88 mph slider well, while the changeup (84-87) and curveball (77-80) were both pitches he worked on extensively during fall workouts. Madden is a slam-dunk first-round pick right now.
“Ty is one of the most mature pitchers I’ve ever had,” Pierce said. “When you look back at where he was as a freshman coming in to where he is now, he’s clearly worked very hard to improve and repeat his delivery. He knows what he wants to do when he goes out there on the mound.
"He understands his routines, he’s a grinder and has ambition,” he added. “He wants to be one of the greatest at Texas, and that much is clear. He was electric this fall. It was 94-96 with the fastball and he definitely touched 98 and 99 at least once. He maintained his velocity throughout his performances, the slider was really good, and he continues to make strides with the curveball and changeup. Even when he doesn’t have his best stuff, he’s still really good.”
Hansen, a 6-2, 200-pounder, looked the part at times early last season, and has the potential to be a first-round pick next summer as a draft-eligible second-year player. Hansen didn’t pitch for much of the fall because of some arm tenderness and contact tracing but has massive upside. The first thing that stands out about Hansen is his presence on the mound. He’s composed in the moment and attacks hitters with a four-pitch arsenal, including a fastball that gets up to 92-93 mph.
The other two important spots in the rotation are TBD at this point, but the Longhorns aren’t void of options.
The candidates for other starting jobs include Kolby Kubichek, Tanner Witt, Lucas Gordon and Aaron Nixon.
Kubichek raised some eyebrows two summers ago by taking a step forward from a stuff standpoint, and he’s apparently done that yet again this fall. Kubichek, a 6-foot, 180-pounder, was impressive this fall, sitting 90-93 and up to 94-95 mph with his fastball. His average fastball speed was 92.5 this fall. He also showed a quality slider at 84-87 and the changeup is nearing plus at 83-86.
Witt, Gordon and Nixon are all true freshmen, and all three bring something special to the table. Gordon, a 6-foot-1, 190-pounder, reminds me of Hansen from listening to Pierce describe what kind of pitcher he is. Like Hansen, Gordon, who was up to 92-93 mph with his fastball this fall, can attack hitters with several offerings, including a curveball at 73-75 and a changeup at 80-82. Witt sits anywhere from 88-92 and up to 93-94 mph with is fastball, along with a curveball at 75-77 and a changeup at 80-83, while Nixon, like Witt, could help this team both offensively and on the mound. Nixon, a 6-foot-1, 200-pounder, was 90-93 and up to 94-95 mph with his fastball this fall, along with a slider at 85-87 and a changeup at 82-83.
“Kubichek entered the fall with a lot of confidence,” Pierce said. “He knows what he needs to do out there and he looked very good this fall. He was up to 95 and he’s one of those guys who’s going to pitch in the low 90s with a good slider and plus changeup.”
“I really like Tanner Witt and Aaron Nixon in both roles — offense and defense — but I think they’re going to be able to help us a lot more on the pitching side this season,” Pierce said. “Nixon is really interesting. He’s a bulldog and he’s kind of max effort out there, but he repeats his delivery. Witt is so intriguing because he has angle and velocity. He’s very cognitive and he understands coaching.
"As for Gordon, he’s one of those smaller bodied left handers who is really, really competitive, and he mixes his pitches really well,” he added. “He maintains his velocity and his curveball is really good. He’s working on a couple of different grips with his changeup. We just want the changeup to match the fastball, so it tunnels to hitters a little better. He’s just one of those guys who makes great adjustments.”
Veteran right-handers Tristan Stevens and Cole Quintanilla made notables strides this fall, and the two should have enhanced roles in the spring.
Stevens is a 6-foot-2, 200-pounder, who’s hard-nosed and attacks hitters with a fastball up to 92-93, while Pierce believes Quintanilla is finally ready to take a step forward. He’s been snake bit since a blown save against TCU two seasons ago, but he might be ready to turn the corner. Quintanilla was up to 94-96 mph with his fastball this fall, along with a power curve at 82-84 and a changeup at 85-88. Pierce specifically mentioned that Quintanilla’s confidence has grown, and his command improved.
The Longhorns have some other arms to watch. Coy Cobb has dealt with some injury issues in the past, and he’s back with a fastball up to 91-92 mph. He has some work to do to crack the more important roles in the depth chart. Meanwhile, Dawson Merryman has some funk in his delivery and attacks hitters up to 94 mph from the sidearm motion, while Justin Eckhardt was up to 93-94 mph with his fastball in the fall along with a slider at 85-87 and a changeup at 83-85. Also keep an eye on UTSA graduate transfer Palmer Wenzel, who can get up to 94-95 mph with his fastball, but pitches better and more accurately at 88-90, while Florida product and right-hander LeBarron Johnson has some projection. Johnson is a 6-foot-4, 200-pounder, who sits 90-93 and up to 94 mph with his fastball. He’s behind a few guys on the depth chart but could grow into a quality option as the spring progresses.
From an injury standpoint, the Longhorns will be without physical right-hander Andre Duplantier in 2021. Duplantier had offseason surgery to clean up and repair his UCL.
Offensive production has been one of the biggest concerns for the Longhorns the past couple of seasons, and they appear to be on the right track with assistants Troy Tulowitzki and Philip Miller teaming up to guide the unit.
The Longhorns received an early Christmas present this past summer when St. John’s graduate assistant Mike Antico decided to transfer to Austin. Though Antico struggled offensively in 2020, his pedigree is strong, and he put together a great fall offensively. Antico is a hard-nosed player who has a ‘fullback’ mentality, according to Pierce. He has power and utilizes the short game well, while also showing a strong arm in the outfield.
“You don’t really see the speed immediately with Antico, but he’s got some. He’s powerful and he utilizes the short game well,” Pierce said. “He catches everything in center field and the most surprising thing to me is how good his arm is. To go along with his range, he has a really strong and accurate arm. He solidifies our outfield and gives us a quality, experienced bat in the lineup.”
The rest of the outfield is in good shape and loaded with experience, too. Austin Todd is athletic and back for another season at UT, while speedy Eric Kennedy has made some strides. Kennedy has impressive speed, can execute the short game and has some pop in his bat. But the concern in the past has been his defense in left — specifically his routes and range. Those two aspects of his game were addressed this fall. Doug Hodo also is expected to have an important role for the Longhorns, though Pierce said they’ll have to get creative in the way they use him.
“I think I saw the most improvement in Kennedy since he’s been here this fall,” Pierce said. “He’s becoming an elite outfielder, and that’s not something I would have said, maybe, a year ago or when he got on campus. He’s more comfortable around the ball and his angles have improved.”
The Longhorns know what they have at other positions in the field, too.
Hard-hitting first baseman Zach Zubia continues to improve as an overall player. He made physical strides last season and his defensive skills improved this fall. Up the middle, the shortstop position looks set in stone with Trey Faltine leading the way. Faltine showed terrific defensive instincts and skills last season, and Pierce said he’s made some significant strides with the bat this fall.
“Zubia has turned into a very good defender at first, and that’s a good development for us,” he said. “Faltine has become the guy for us. He’s got a great clock in his head, and he’s a great leader in the middle of the field.”
Behind the plate, the Longhorns are in good shape with the return of veteran DJ Petrinsky and Silas Ardoin. Petrinsky has dealt with injuries over the past year or so, but he has experience and has history of production. Meanwhile, Ardoin is a stocky 5-foot-11, 200-pounder, who showed a good balance of strong defense and ample offensive production this fall.
“Silas has done very, very well defensively for us this fall, and he’s swinging the bat well, too,” he said. “And to make things even better, Petrinsky looks like a veteran who’s ready to have another productive year. I thought he made some really nice adjustments toward the end of the fall. With the potential to have four-game series in the spring, having two more than able catchers give us good security back there.”
The most intriguing position battles are occurring at third and second base. At third, the Longhorns won’t have Andrew Duplantier as an option with him out for the season with an injury. Therefore, there are now three options with Cam Williams, Ivan Melendez and Murphy Stehly in the mix.
Williams is a talented junior college transfer who missed much of the fall with an injury. However, Pierce expects him to be back and ready to roll in the spring. Melendez, a physical 6-foot-3, 225-pounder, was very impressive offensively this fall, but his defense still needs some work. However, Pierce did say if Melendez wins the third base job, they could shift Williams over to second to compete for that job.
“I don’t think there’s any uncertainty about those positions, I think there’s just very good competition,” he said. “I think Melendez has been exceptional from an offensive standpoint. He might be our best hitter right now. He’s also gone to work to improve his defense over at third. We’re going to prioritize his defense a bit more leading up to the season.
“Dylan Campbell could also be in the mix at both positions, and you have to consider Murphy Stehly as well,” he added. “He’s just one of those kids who’s going to find a spot in the lineup. He’s going to help this club in some form or fashion.”
Campbell, a 5-foot-11, 200-pound, freshman, made a strong impression this fall and is heavily in the mix at second, along with returning second-year player Lance Ford. Brenden Dixon, who got some playing time up the middle last season, transferred to Weatherford (TX) College after fall workouts.
“Campbell has been terrific offensively, and I think he’s going to do very well at second,” he said. “Lance’s growth has been noticeable this fall, and it’s always good to have experience up the middle. We have some different, quality options at that position.”