When fans meet outside the gates of Olsen Field and toast to their favorite teams of the past, the conversation almost always includes a brief discussion of each club's achilles heel. All too frequently, some form of pitching is discussed as the item that kept good teams (see 1998 and 2004) from being great, or great teams (see 1989 and 1999) from standing on top of the world.
In fact, when fans discuss the most complete club in A&M history, the discussion quickly moves to the 1993 club, which featured probably the best pitching staff in school history. Optimism for 2009 is abundant, partially, because the 2009 club may push the '93 club for that title.
When discussing the '09 pitching staff, it's almost hard to figure out where to start. Last season's Friday, Saturday, and Sunday starters all return. The outstanding "do it all" reliever returns. The closer with a tremendous stat-line returns. Two key middle relievers who combined for 27 appearances and an ERA south of 3.50 return. Throw a seasoned junior who has 23 starts in an Aggie uniform and a career ERA right of 3.99 back into the mix. As if you needed more, how about a junior transfer that's projected to be a first round pick in the June draft and three newcomers capable of contributing on day one.
Carl Torbush once uttered a word that fits that scenario perfectly.
A&M's three true weekend starters from 2009, Brooks Raley (stats), Barret Loux (stats), and Clayton Ehlert (stats), all return in an efforto to reclaim their roles from 2008. All three were pitching in their first full season of college ball; Raley and Loux were freshmen, while Ehlert's redshirt was pulled midway through the '07 campaign, and they can all be expected to be better than last season - but even a pure reproduction of the '08 campaign would make Aggie fans happy. Through no real fault of his own, Ehlert's role as the Sunday starter is under serious fire from Alex Wilson, who has the best pure stuff on a team loaded with talented arms, and is almost certainly a millionaire once the Aggie season ends.
Kyle Thebeau (stats) returned for his Senior season after an outstanding 2008, and looks primed to continue his "anytime, anywhere" role in the bullpen. Childress would surely prefer to use Thebeau as a set-up man for closer Travis Starling (stats), whose arms appears to have recovered from the strain that the '08 campaign placed upon it.
Before those known commodities get handed the ball, Childress will have a number of options in the pen. Scott Migl (stats) is the often forgotten face in the crowd, and faced some injury adversity in the fall, but brings more experience and solid past performance back than any pitcher other than Thebeau. Shane Minks contends to be another factor at the back-end of contests, as a lowered arm slot has made him particularly devastating both last summer and fall. Toss in Hank Robertson, who was the most trusted middle reliever outside of Thebeau last year until he was hampered by injury, and the Aggie pen just gets deeper and deeper.
Don't forget that there's plenty of new faces, as well. Chad Sherman (Jr, transfer from Panola college) is a strikeout artist with gaudy JUCO numbers and a solid fall under his wings. Two freshmen seemed to separate themselves from the pack and figure into the season mix as well, right-handed Denny Clement (Cascia Prep - OK) and southpaw Ross Hales (Barbers Hill).
The past is the past, and the fall is the fall, and all are really irrelevant when it comes down the success in the 2009 campaign, but the potential sum of these parts undoubtedly creates giddiness in the Aggie dugout and has propelled A&M to their lofty preseason rankings. Simple math shows the Aggie staff going legitimately 12 deep with Big 12 caliber arms, while a recent history lesson shows some College World Series champions with no more than 6 arms to rely on.
That figure, 12 pitchers, is difficult to grasp from the college baseball perspective and it's more likely that group gets trimmed to 8-9 key contributors by the time the postseason arrives. The ridiculous depth, though, provides with Childress with two key advantages; the ability to limit innings for key players earlier in the season, and the ability to dig out of games or tournaments by just going to the bullpen.
The '07 and '08 teams struggled at the end of the season partially due to the depth of the staff, and having more arms (and fresher ones) to turn to should keep the '09 team on good footing. That same depth is a huge asset when managing a series or tournament as well. When a team falls behind by several runs on a Big 12 Friday night, you will frequently see a skipper turn to the "mop-up" guy to keep the top arms fresh to win the remaining games. With this depth, Childress doesn't have to turn to a substandard inning-eater if his starter gets into a huge early pinch, or just doesn't have his "stuff" that day. Lose an early tournament game, and spend a few arms in the process? No worries, there are plenty of good arms to follow.
While the parts are not perfectly interchangeable (no one expects Hales, for example, to equal Raley on day one), such depth is an asset not often found at the college level. There may or may not be the number of very high draft picks for the '09 team as there were for the famed '93 squad, but make no mistake - this Aggie team has all the right pieces on the mound to make the '09 squad as memorable as they want it to be.
Top Storylines to Follow on the Mound for 2009
How good, how quickly, is Alex Wilson? - Wilson seems to have turned the corner in overcoming the surgery that sidelined him in 2008, but how good will Wilson be? Even if he becomes the best pitcher on the staff, don't expect him to move to the Friday night role - Raley's skill with the bat makes it much more sensible for him to pitch on Friday and then be used freely at the plate on Saturday and Sunday. So long as Barret Loux stays healthy, the Saturday role is his. Wilson has too much talent to be relegated to consistent mid-week performances, so if he struggles early, expect Ehlert to start and Wilson to come from the pen. Wilson's "stuff", however, is likely too good for that to happen, but don't be shocked if he's held to some relatively strict pitch counts early int he season.
Aggie Baseball 2009: Pitching
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