Texas Baseball Season Preview

For a program with the rich history of the Texas Longhorns, it seems impossible that this year's Texas baseball roster has zero players with College World Series experience. Despite the lack of CWS experience, this year's club is deep and talented and much is expected of the club that will contend for the Big 12 championship.

When Seth Johnston trotted on to the field before last Sunday's Alumni Game, he was announced as a "four-time College World Series participant." Johnston not only took part in four trips to Omaha, but he also brought home two National Championship rings while never placing lower than third.

Some things have changed in the years since Johnston was a cog in the Longhorns' middle infield. But perhaps no change is more glaring than the fact that, for the first time since 1999, this year's Texas baseball roster has zero players with College World Series experience.

Coach Augie Garrido and the ‘Horns hope that changes this season. While this year's club is short on big-time experience, they are certainly not lacking in elite talent. In fact, the 2009 Texas club has arguably the program's deepest talent pool since the 2002-2005 teams.

Players and coaches alike are optimistic about the team's talent level and performance in workouts, but they know something must be proven this season. The core of this year's team is young, and this is their opportunity to match the previous mini-dynasty created by last Sunday's Alumni opponents.

Behind the Plate

Projected starter: Preston Clark

Clark is the team's longest-tenured player, as he redshirted during the Longhorns' 2005 National Championship run. The fifth-year senior has put together an excellent, but injury-riddled, career. Clark began last season with a shoulder ailment that kept him from playing behind the plate, and ended it with a knee injury during the Houston Regional.

After another successful knee surgery, Clark is ready to regain his job as the team's primary catcher. The Rockwall native has been taking it slow in workouts, but he caught during the Alumni game and will be ready for opening day.

Sophomore Cameron Rupp started nearly every game behind the plate for the Longhorns last year, but he'll take a backseat to the healthy Clark for the time being. Rupp isn't as polished as his veteran teammate when it comes to receiving or game calling, but he does have an excellent body and a cannon for an arm. Another Metroplex product, Rupp figures to take over the full-time catching duties again in 2010, but for this year, he'll help keep Clark's knees fresh.

With no true backup first baseman on the roster, both catchers could help spell Brandon Belt at first base. The Longhorns will want to get Rupp's powerful bat in the lineup, and he could also see time as the team's designated hitter and primary reserve left fielder.

Although the ‘Horns have two of the Big 12's best catchers – and they will have trouble getting both players on the field – depth could be an issue if Clark gets banged up this season. A recent knee injury to freshman J.T. Files will likely keep him out for the season, and it means that Clark and Rupp are the only two available scholarship backstops.

In the Infield

Projected starters: Brandon Belt, Travis Tucker, David Hernandez, Brandon Loy

The Longhorns return three-quarters of last season's starting infield, including slugging first baseman Brandon Belt. The left-hander was a valuable asset to the Texas bullpen in 2008, but he won't be pitching this season. After getting off to a scorching start last year, Belt's batting average gradually fell, and the coaching staff feels they can prevent such a decline by having him focus solely on hitting and defending. Belt figures to be a key cog in the middle of the Longhorns' lineup in 2009.

The other two returners comprise the middle infield – second baseman Travis Tucker and shortstop David Hernandez. A senior leader, Tucker is sure-handed defensively, an excellent bunter, and an intelligent base runner. He should open the season as Texas' leadoff hitter. Hernandez surprised with the bat when he hit .291 while starting all 61 games last season. He has been hitting the ball well in practice and seems to be improved defensively.

Freshman Brandon Loy will probably be the only newcomer in the starting lineup, as he will likely be the club's starting third baseman. A natural shortstop, Loy was regarded as the state's top high school defensive player last year, and he has lived up to expectations with the glove thus far. Senior on-base machine Michael Torres will see most of his time at DH, but he will also play some third base. Although Torres isn't the defender that Loy is, he batted .354 with just 15 strikeouts in 240 at-bats last season. The Longhorns will do whatever is necessary to keep Torres' bat in the lineup.

In the Outfield

Projected starters: Russell Moldenhauer, Connor Rowe, Kevin Keyes

Georgetown native Connor Rowe is close to locking up the starting job in centerfield over junior Kyle Lusson and freshman Tim Maitland. Rowe had just six at-bats in six games as a freshman last season, but he provides the team's best overall arm in the outfield and a promising offensive game.

Right fielder Kevin Keyes also has a strong arm, but his best tool is undoubtedly his light-tower power. In 59 at-bats last season, Keyes batted .339 with four home runs and 24 strikeouts. While Keyes' strikeout rate is expected to decline a bit, he figures to hit for a solid average while being the team's biggest power producer. The 6-foot-4, 225-pound slugger should be popular with professional scouts over the next two seasons.

The Longhorns' two leading returning hitters – Russell Moldenhauer [.355] and Tant Shepherd [.357] – will split time in left field. As is the case with all odd-men-out, both players will also comprise part of a crowded DH role. Both Moldenhauer and Shepherd are line-drive hitters who make contact at an exceptional rate. While the two hitters have power, their swings will lead to far more doubles than home runs. Both are better known for their offensive ability than their play in the field, but Moldenhauer in particular has looked much improved in the outfield during workouts.

On the Mound

Projected weekend starters: Chance Ruffin, Brandon Workman, Taylor Jungmann, Cole Green

With all the recent talk of the emergence of high-ceiling talents Brandon Workman and Taylor Jungmann, it's easy for forget that the Longhorns return one of the nation's best pitchers in Chance Ruffin. Despite being a freshman last season, Ruffin displayed the maturity and toughness of a veteran while posting a 1.96 ERA in 78 innings. The right-hander may not have the best arm on the staff, but he's a fierce competitor who demands the ball in tight situations. He will lead the Longhorns staff again in '09 and should be the Friday night starter all season.

Ruffin will be the staff leader, but Workman and Jungmann have a chance to be just as dominant. Workman has the stuff to be a top 15 overall pick in two years, and he has shown flashes of that potential during pre-season workouts. The tall righty struggled to keep his fastball down in the zone at times last season, but he looked just fine last Sunday while throwing 92-96 mph fireballs by the UT Alumni hitters.

The 6-foot-6 Jungmann, a true freshman, doesn't consistently reach the mid-90s yet (he was 89-93 mph last Sunday), but he has impressed the coaching staff with his polish and maturity on the mound. The youngster works low in the strike zone with his fastball and has displayed excellent control. The two batters Jungmann walked last Sunday were his first in 30-plus innings of scrimmages.

Sinkerballer Cole Green was inconsistent as a freshman, but he could be primed for a breakout year in 2009. With an excellent sinker-slider combination – and an advanced changeup for his age – Green has some of the best stuff on the pitching staff. Because of the four-game series' against Illinois-Chicago and Penn State the first two weekends, Green will begin the season in the weekend rotation, but he will have to fight with Jungmann and Workman to keep his spot when the traditional three-game sets begin on March 6.

Pitching coach Skip Johnson tinkered with Austin Wood's mechanics and arm slot after a rough start last season, and he finished the year with a 2.93 ERA over his final 40 innings (six appearances). This year, the senior will take his new herky-jerky motion back into the bullpen, where he will serve as the team's closer.

Reliever Stayton Thomas turned heads early last season when he began his career by surrendering just one hit in his first 9.2 collegiate innings. The right-hander battled some control issues and wasn't quite as dominant down the stretch, but he has a good fastball and an excellent breaking ball. Thomas should be Texas' go-to setup man out of the bullpen this year.

Because of a heavy high school workload, the Texas coaching staff elected to rest Austin Dicharry during fall workouts. Though Dicharry still hasn't pitched much in a Texas uniform, those who saw him in high school believe he could be as good as – if not better than – Jungmann. At this point, the 6-foot-4 Klein Collins product is the favorite to open the season as the Horns' primary midweek starting pitcher.

There won't be any southpaws in the starting rotation this year, but – counting Wood – the bullpen will feature four left-handers. Riley Boening, one of three senior lefties on the staff, is once again sidelined with a shoulder injury, and his status for the 2009 campaign is in doubt. Another veteran, Austin native Keith Shinaberry, is likely to see time as the club's situational left-handed reliever. Freshmen Andrew McKirahan and Sam Stafford are promising arms who should both contribute in middle relief.


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