Baseball: Repeat will require lots of new faces

Texas won its fifth national title and first since 1983 with a team made up of both youngsters and vets, which means that the Horns will have a solid nucleus but will have several huge holes to fill when they begin defense of their title next February.

The biggest hole, both literally and figuratively, may be Jeff Ontiveros. The senior started 69 of 71 games at first base while moving to the top of the Horns' all-time home run list with 55 long balls. The slugger's two HRs in Omaha pushed his '02 season total to 20, also a UT record. The only other seniors on the squad are outfielders Kalani Napoleon, Chris Carmichael and Matt Rosenberg. Napoleon struggled at the plate during the regular season but turned in clutch hit after clutch hit during the playoffs to go along with his outstanding defensive work in centerfield. Carmichael, although relegated to a back-up role for most of the second half of the season, also provided clutch hitting and solid defense in 16 starts and 40 overall appearances. Rosenberg missed the first two-thirds of the season due to injury but returned to start 16 of the Horns' final 25 games, struggling from the plate (.215 overall) but turning in several defensive gems in right field.

Several juniors are expected to move on to pro baseball after being taken in the early June Major League Baseball Draft. The New York Yankees snagged four of the eight Texas juniors drafted. Alan Bomer (fourth round), Brad Halsey (eighth round), Ray Clark (14th round) and Ben King (20th), who sat out this season after having arm surgery, all received a draft call from the Bronx Bombers and are probables (although not definites) to sign, hitting hard Frank Anderson's staff. Bomer (11-3, 3.94 ERA)), Halsey (7-2, 2.74) and Clark (6-4, 3.61) combined for 24 of the Horns 57 wins on the season.

Position players Ryan Hubele and Brandon Fahey went to the Baltimore Orioles in the eighth round and 12th rounds, respectively, while the Boston Red Sox picked top hitter Dustin Majewski in the 12th round and the San Francisco Giants grabbed little-used reliever Daniel Muegge in the 41st round. Hubele started all 71 UT games (55 at catcher) and did a masterful job handling this year's Longhorn pitchers, a group that turned in a second-in-the-nation 2.82 ERA. Fahey started 39 games -- 24 in the outfield and, mainly during the latter part of the season, 15 at short -- and batted .303 with 20 RBI and nine SBs in 11 attempts. If he signs, Majewski would be the biggest junior loss among the bat-swingers. The Blinn transfer, who started 49 games in the outfield or at DH, led the team with a .401 average and contributed 10 HRs (third on the team behind Ontiveros and J.D. Reininger) and 50 RBI (fourth behind Ontiveros, Hubele and Reininger).

Obviously, Texas stands to lose some serious talent and a lot of production -- on the mound, at the plate and in the field -- from its national championship team, but the cupboard will by no means be bare for Augie Garrido and Anderson in '03.

The infield in particular is well set.

Sophomore-to-be Reininger, who spent the first part of his true freshman season at third before moving to the DH spot, is Ontiveros' heir apparent, both at first base and as the team's No. 1 power source (although King could also fill the role if he returns). Reininger smashed 13 homers, second only to Ontiveros, and, with 51 RBI, trailed only Ontiveros (59) and Hubele (52) for the team lead in that category. Another sophomore-to-be, Michael Hollimon, despite giving way to Fahey during the Super Regional and CWS because of a hitting slump, started 63 games at shortstop over the course of the season and is an outstanding defensive performer at the position. Both Reininger and Hollimon earned Freshman All-American honors.

Juniors-to-be Tim Moss and Omar Quintanilla round out next year's projected infield. Second baseman Moss set a single season UT record in '02 with 112 hits, stole 40 bases in 49 attempts and finished second on the team in batting at .371. And, oh yeah, he routinely made seemingly impossible defensive plays look, well, routine. The only worry relating to Moss is the outcome of his legal troubles stemming from an early May arrest that resulted in charges of assault causing bodily injury and evading arrest. Word around the program is that the circumstances surrounding the fight that led to the assault charge mitigate Moss's actions, although disciplinary action, which according to Garrido will be handled within the team, is still possible. Quintanilla, who missed the first third of the season because of NCAA disciplinary action revolving around accepting plane tickets to El Paso and playing in a Mexican baseball league during the fall semester, started all 51 games at third base upon his return, batting .329 (third on the team among regulars) and driving in 32 runs.

The outfield, unlike the infield, will largely be populated by less experienced players. Junior-to-be Eric Sultemeier, though, made 50 starts, mainly before Rosenberg's return from injury, will be back but needs to dramatically improve at the plate, where he finished with just a .244 average. Joe Ferin also is an outfield possibility in '03. The speedy senior-to-be started 13 games -- nine in right and four in center -- in '02, but, like Sultemeier, showed little in the batters box, hitting a paltry .224 for the season. A couple of the Horns' fall '02 signees, Corpus Christi Moody's Andrew Casares and Bay City's J. Brent Cox, could compete for outfield PT, and don't be surprised to see at least one juco prospect, a la Majewski last season, also compete for an OF spot. High schooler Brent Clevlen from Westwood would be almost a sure starter in the outfield, but Detroit picked the UT signee in the second round of the draft and he is expected to sign with the Tigers.

At catcher, Garrido consistently touted sophomore-to-be Curtis Thigpen as Hubele's '03 replacement. And a very good one, at that. Thigpen started 15 games behind the plate in '02, plus four in left field and seven at DH, and turned in a .256 average. The versatile athlete will almost certainly be in the Longhorn line-up somewhere next February.

As described above, pitching coach Anderson has his work cut out for him rebuilding the Texas staff if all of his junior hurlers sign pro contracts, but he does have one small luxury. Well, that's two small luxuries. Actually, make that two big luxuries in junior-to-be starter Justin Simmons and sophomore-to-be closer Huston Street. College player of the year finalist Simmons (16-1, 2.52 ERA) and USA Baseball National Team member Street (4-1, 14 saves, 0.96 ERA), both All-Americans, will anchor next year's staff. Street, who pitched and played short in high school, may also get a look as a position player. Lanky junior-to-be lefty Eugene Espineli is a candidate to step into the weekend rotation after going 5-0 with a 2.08 ERA as a spot starter and middle reliever. Junior-to-be rightie Tim McGough (1-0, 3.93) is another potential starter, as is King if he turns down the Yankees. Senior-to-be relievers rightie Jesen Merle (3-3, 2.35), lefty Brantley Jordan (1-1, 2.96) and rightie Kevin Frizzell (0-0 in six appearances, 2.25) return, as does sophomore-to-be lefty Buck Cody (0-0 in 10 appearances, 1.64).

The Horns signed a bevy of pitchers last fall -- Bay City's Cox, Westlake's Zach Gallenkamp, Ryan Greives of Otterbein, Ind., John Hunter of West Lafayette, Ind., Scott Kazmir of Cy-Falls, Sam Lecure of Jefferson City, Mo., and Round Rock's Garrett White -- and are also in line to pick up J.P. Howell, a transfer from USC. And, as in the recent past -- with Albert Montes and Gerritt Simpson in '01 and Halsey in '02 -- Anderson is likely to bring in at least one juco pitcher than ends up in the starting rotation.

The task of repeating as champions, in any sport at any level, is a daunting one, and it doesn't solely rely on replacing players with other players capable of putting up similar or better stats. With continued outstanding recruiting and player development, the Texas coaches seem quite capable of that. The toughest part, though, will be replacing the intangibles that seniors like Ontiveros and Napoleon brought to the field, and that junior Hubele brought to his handling of the staff. The Horns should be an outstanding team next year, possibly as talented as this national championship bunch. Whether it will be capable of a repeat, though, will fall not only on the play of Simmons and Street, Moss and Quintanilla, but on their leadership as well. And perhaps on the play of one of the guys mentioned above in passing, or on a guy not mentioned at all. As the Horns proved in '02, it takes a top-to-bottom, total team effort to bring home the trophy.


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