It's opening day at Olsen Field on Friday, so time for a little hardball discussion. This year's team will have solid pitching as usual. In fact, the projected weekend starters were all on the hill last season. Junior Daniel Mengden will again serve as the ace of the staff and take the ball on Fridays. Parker Ray was the biggest surprise of last season, rolling through the second half of the season after essentially being a walk-on bullpen guy to start the season. But he developed a wicked breaking pitch, and he really became A&M's most effective pitcher in the last month of the season. From all indications, he has not slowed down at all having been dominant with the Brazos Valley Bombers this summer and putting on an impressive display in the fall and early spring. Grayson Long probably has as much potential as any prospect on the team, and as a freshman he earned a few Sunday starts in 2013. Inconsistency was his downfall at times as he struggled with his control in spots. As a sophomore, I'm hearing he's been rock solid in the spring and they expect a lot more consistency in 2014.
But really, good starting pitching on the weekend has not been this program's problem. It's been hitting, especially against good pitching. A&M has struggled not only with power and run production in the middle of the batting order, but also with striking out and not putting the ball in play that puts pressure on the opposing defenses. Frankly, a lineup filled with singles hitters that strike out 30+% of the time is a bad combination for a productive offense. Coach Childress realized the offensive issues and in the offseason made a concerted effort to bring in some bigger players with more power potential. From the JUCO ranks he signed 6-2, 210+ lb. guys like Logan Nottobrok and GR Hinsley along with highly regarded 6-3, 220-lb. freshman 3B/C Ronnie Gideon and one of the top-hitting prospects from the state of Texas, outfielder Nick Banks. Of course, the Aggies return Hunter Melton, the 220-pound kid who burst his way into the starting lineup in the second half of the 2013 season.
The retooled lineup appears to have more productivity based on fall workouts and recent spring practices. Expect to see Nottobrok, Hinsley, and veterans Cole Lankford, Mitchell Nau, and Troy Stein in the middle of the order. Hinsley has had a slow start this spring, but when it's all said and done, he'll be in the lineup because he's just too good. Sophomore Logan Taylor absolutely crushed pitching in the summer Texas Collegiate League and that carried over to a very productive fall where he was hitting in the No. 3 spot. However, he's been injured in the weeks leading up to Opening Day and he won't be available in the first few games. In his place in the middle infield positions, expect to see veteran Blake Allemand while surprising Cisco JC product Patrick McLendon continues to defy the odds and has made it impossible for Childress to keep him out of the lineup. In fact, as I'm writing this piece, the starting lineup has been released for tonight's game:
SP Daniel Mengden
Just a reminder, Taylor was the leading candidate to start at SS before his injury. In addition, we're hearing that Krey Bratsen is under the weather and is unable to start. Even if and when he's healthy, he's in for a battle to retain his centerfield position this spring.
The bullpen and mid-week pitching should be deeper this season than in recent years. Jason Jester returns as the primary closer. In addition, solid veterans Jason Freeman, Corey Ray, and AJ Minter return and have looked pretty good by most accounts. But I'm hearing rave reviews about three freshmen who will push the veterans big-time. Lefty Tyler Stubblefield has probably made the biggest move in the early spring and he is making a big push to be a Tuesday starter. He's a guy the staff has been buzzing about the past couple of weeks. Other freshmen that have earned innings in the early going are Ryan Hendrix and Mark Ecker. The staff feels they can count on 10 arms this season. That's about 2-3 more than what Childress could rely on in recent years.
So bottom line, this team has more depth at all areas of the roster, both at the plate and on the rubber. The overall talent appears similar on the bump, while there does seem to be optimism that the offense will have more pop and will be more productive in 2014 than in recent years. But with all that said, it simply matters what happens in a short 56-game season. You can have a good group of players and talent, but in a very short season by baseball standards, good players can have a slump. And in college ball, a two week slump can find a player on the bench the rest of the season. A perfect example is GR Hinsley who set several all-time TCL offensive records last summer with the Bombers and who tore it up in the fall as well. But, in the 2-3 weeks in January/February leading up to tonight's opener, he's struggled a bit and finds himself on the bench tonight. Baseball is a funny game. Unlike basketball and football where the best player is usually playing the best at any given time, baseball is a long series of ups and downs where the league's best hitter is successful a third of the time. Even the best hitters in MLB will have a cold stretch and a mediocre month hitting .230. In the pros, you have 162 games to hit your way out of it. In college, a manager can't afford to stick with a cold bat longer than 3-4 games. Thus, the college game is much more unpredictable from that standpoint. Add in 30-40 degree temps and wet weather in February, and strange things happen. The key for most teams is having enough quality depth to plug in good talent when a player or two is struggling.
And that's why I think this could be a good season for the Aggies. They have that depth they've lacked in recent years. I see no reason why this squad can't win enough games to host a first-round regional, and battle for a top 8 seed. I'm not saying that will happen, but there's enough talent and depth in place that if the ball bounces right for this team, a top 8 national seed is a realistic goal to shoot for in 2014.
With the surprise commitment of Illinois sharpshooter Peyton Allen last night, the current recruiting class is starting to look pretty good, especially given the circumstances of the season so far. As I've said since last year, this staff recruits well, and nobody outworks them on the road. Glyn Cyprien and Kyle Keller are great recruiters. It's a shame that they've been working with a short deck these past three years. But it is what it is, and the staff has to take the responsibility for the current environment surrounding the program. But they have not been deterred on the recruiting trail. When the wolves start howling and the whispers of a change start circulating among the fanbase, you typically see coaches start to retreat and circle the wagons. This staff seems more energized (or possibly out of fear) to enhance this roster. They've already added four new pieces for next year…Alex Robinson, Sidy Ndir, Peyton Allen, Jalen Jones (transfer). Tony Trocha is expected to make that five new pieces. He's still enrolled in remedial classes at A&M, and he attends every basketball game decked out in A&M gear. It's clear he's still in the plans for next season.
But from what I have learned even after Allen's commit last night, this staff is not done. I've been told they are still scouring their international options and JUCO options looking for another point guard as well as looking for another post player who can help immediately. As one source close to the staff told me, "The starting lineup you see now will be nothing like the starting lineup you'll see next year"…and remember, there aren't any seniors on the current starting lineup. So the staff is still thinking big, which tells me that they truly believe they will be back next season. I've been told to expect them back barring a complete meltdown to end the season…and I think the LSU win certainly helped in that regard. Anyway, that's what I'm hearing on that front.
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