In an earlier post this week, I highlighted the losses from our record setting 2012 team. Now, let's turn our attention to something more upbeat: the coming season. The Big XII Coaches' Poll picks Baylor to come in 4th in the conference. PerfectGame (my favorite source for college baseball news) also picks Baylor to come in 4th in the league with an appearance in the post season. The USA Today Coaches Poll went so far as to rank the Bears 23rd in the country. Pretty impressive stuff for a team that lost as much talent as the Bears did.
As for my own expectations, I believe we'll have a winning season, make it to a CWS Regional, and come in anywhere from 4th to 2nd in the Big XII conference, which still only houses nine baseball teams after realignment. Let me reiterate: Screw you, math. When the conference lost A&M, it lost a perennial baseball powerhouse. When it nabbed TCU, it gained back a perennial baseball powerhouse. When it lost Missouri, it lost a team that played baseball. When it gained WVU, it gained a team that sort of plays baseball. Oh, and Iowa State is still filled with baseball hating Commies.
I, like most people, have TCU winning the conference in their first year. They are an excellent team that lost to UCLA in the Super Regional last year after beating up on Texas A&M and Mississippi in their Regional. Oklahoma should also be tough, but I'm not sold on UT the way PerfectGame is. They had a mediocre year at best in 2012, going 30-22 overall. The Bears have a good chance to knock them off. Let's have a look at why.
The Position Players
The 2013 Bears return three senior starters from last year: Nathan Orf (.303/.453/.389), Cal Towey (.295/.428/.469), and Jake Miller (.278/.315/.363). Along with them, Lawton Langford (Jr. - .301/.419/.354) and Adam Toth (So. - .286/.331/.370) should be back at second base and right field respectively. I'm hoping for a big season from Toth, who should continue to grow and refine his game after a very productive freshman year.
Orf transferred to Baylor last year as a catcher, but he didn't play a single game there. This year, he's listed as an outfielder, and I have to assume that he'll see time in LF and DH. Orf will hit toward the top of the lineup because of his excellent on-base skills and his success stealing bags (17 of 20). I have to imagine that Towey will bat third or fourth in the lineup, as he is the only returner with any power to speak of. He should get plenty of opportunity to drive in runs with Orf and Langford hitting in front of him.
If there's one player that I hope has a return to form at the plate, it's our shortstop, Jake Miller. In 2011, he hit .299/.350./.412, leading me to believe he was on his way to a breakout season in 2012. That didn't happen, and he ended up being the weakest link in the offensive chain. If that breakout finally happens, it could bolster a lineup that, on paper, doesn't compare to its predecessor.
Along with these returning starters, I expect Logan Brown (So. - .269/.321/..288) to see quite a few ABs. Brown didn't flash much power as a freshman, but he certainly has speed (7 of 9 stolen bases in only 55 plate appearances) and could be a leadoff hitter extraordinaire if he keeps developing. I believe Brown will see time in both left field and center field.
That leaves the team with three remaining holes: catcher, first base, and DH (or LF depending on where Orf plays on a given day). I don't have insider knowledge of how the competitions to fill these spots are playing out, but I do have a few educated guesses.
Time at catcher will probably be split between Jr. Nate Goodwin and RS-Fr Jimmy Landes, who started for the Gold and Green teams respectively during the fall scrimmage. I'm very high on the possibilities for freshmen Matt Menard and Joe Sabatini, but it may be a stretch to say that we'll see them this year.
In a handful of ABs last season, Goodwin didn't show much power, but he absolutely showed the ability to take a base-on-balls. I think we all know how much Steve Smith likes players who get on base at a high rate. Landes obviously didn't get any playing time last year, but it appears that he was the primary long snapper for our football team during the 2011 season... wait, what? Apparently, he walked on in 2011 and after our first string long snapper was injured, Landes played in the next 11 games. If that's true, he's obviously an athletic guy. Hopefully, we'll get to see what he can do.
I'm going to lump 1B and DH together for the sake of brevity. I think this competition will come down to Jr. Grayson Porter, So. Duncan Wendel, and Fr. Mitch Price. Both Porter and Wendel got some pinch-hit ABs last year, and could be in line for a lot more playing time. Porter also played CF in the Green and Gold scrimmage, so there's a good chance that he finds time in the outfield as well. Price is another freshman that I'm quite high on. I expect him to have a nice career at Baylor, but I'm not sure that it will happen just yet.
A few other players that will no doubt fight for playing time are Jr. IF Brett Doe, Sr. IF Steve DalPorto, and Fr. IF West Tunnel. Because the Bears have three returning starters in their infield, I'm not sure that these guys will get that many at-bats, but DalPorto will be a valuable and experienced player off the bench. This will be Doe's first year at Baylor after spending time at New Mexico and Navarro College. I'm probably the most excited about West Tunnel though. Besides his amazing name, Tunnel comes in as a highly touted shortstop who could man the position for years to come.
After losing our entire weekend rotation from last year, the mound is wide open in 2013. I've known clearly who was going to start on opening day for the last two years with Logan Verret and Josh Turley playing the role of ace. This year, I'm really not sure who will fill out the Bears' rotation. There are plenty of worthy candidates though.
We'll start with the guys that have some starting experience. The first few names on that list are Jr. Brad Kuntz, So. Austin Stone, and Sr. Max Garner. Kuntz began last year in the rotation and had mixed results for before he found a home in the pen. I have to think he'll be given another chance to start, but I'm not opposed to him playing the part of lockdown late-inning reliever either. Garner started a few games last year, but ended the season as the Bears' closer - a role he excelled in. In fact, he now finds himself on the NCBWA Stopper of the Year watchlist.
Austin Stone is the pitcher out of these three that I definitely see in the rotation. His 4.60 ERA with 21 Ks against 16 BBs may not be the most impressive line, but he did that as a true freshman. I also have to take into account his 5.1 innings of no-hit ball against Dallas Baptist in the Waco Regional last year. That's a freshman pitching in a win-or-go-home playoff atmosphere. That is impressive stuff.
Three other names to watch for in the rotation are Sr. Kolt Browder, Sr. Crayton Bare, and Jr. Dillon Newman. All three were exceptional out of the pen in 2012. In fact, one could argue that they were the Bears' three best relievers. Each provided swing-and-miss stuff while limiting walks and homeruns. Don't be surprised to see all three get starting opportunities as the season moves along.
Three dark horse candidates for the rotation are juco lefty Bobby McCormack, So. Ryan Smith, and Fr. Sterling Wynn. McCormack was a starter for Angelina College and put up impressive numbers. Smith, the son of head coach Steve Smith, was dynamic out of the pen last year. Wynn is a freshman from China Spring who brings the heat from the left side. It's much more likely that we'll see all of these guys coming out of the pen, but it wouldn't be unheard of to see them start a weekday or tournament game.
To Sum up
It's interesting to me that I'm not worried about the rotation. Despite losing our three best starters, I really feel like we have a good mix of experience and talent on the mound, and I believe we'll see a couple of the aforementioned pitchers blossom into dominant starters this year. What does worry me is the Bears' complete lack of power. What the team really needs is for someone to pull a Ludy.
Coming into the 2012 season, Josh Ludy had shown a high average and good eye at the plate, but he had never shown much homerun power. In fact, through 321 career plate appearances, Ludy had hit 20 doubles and 5 homeruns before his senior season... What happened after that was the stuff of legend... until he was drafted by the evil Phillies and therefore became dead to me. So I ask you: Who will be this year's Josh Ludy? For the Bears to reach the heights of the 2012 team, they're going to need someone to fill that void.
So there we are, Baylor fans: A quick guide to the 2013 edition of Baylor Baseball. Friday, the Bears open their season against UC Irvine. I'll be in attendance for at least one game, so I'll be able to throw out some personal observations. Maybe I'll even take some pictures since SBNation refuses to give me any good ones for college baseball. Sic ‘em, and of course... FEED. THAT. BEAVER.