Let's begin with a tweet that set my heart aflutter...
"Thought we'd have to rely on newcomers quite a bit this year but the returners really improved in offseason. Glad to see it." @BUCoach34
— Baylor Baseball (@BaylorBaseball) January 25, 2014
I hope that we see the fruits of their labor starting this Friday against Arizona State. I've already highlighted the big losses from last year's team; now, we turn our attention to returnees and incoming freshmen. To begin, let's highlight the players that we've seen enough to know...
THE KNOWN QUANTITIES:
Lawton Langford - Sr. 2B - 2013 Line .278/.410/.306 - Langford is about as close to a sure thing as you can find in baseball life. He's right there with the other universal standards of death, taxes, and Bob Costas' pink eye. (Side note: Is anyone else concerned that Costas might go blind from the combo of pink eye and Russian medicine?) Langford will very likely bat second, get on base at a .400+ clip, and play a really solid defensive second base. That's just what he does after he wakes up in the morning.
Adam Toth - Jr. OF - 2013 Line .264/.343/.315 - On first appearance, Toth had a bit of let down season in 2013, but when you delve a little deeper into the numbers, he improved in one important area: OBP. With his speed, Toth can get himself into scoring position after taking a walk, so I would argue that OBP is the most important stat for a player like him. At .343, it was still pretty low to bat leadoff on a Steve Smith team, but if he can push it closer to .380 this year, he's an ideal leadoff candidate.
Logan Brown - Jr. OF - 2013 Line .276/.365/.337 - The only thing that will keep Toth from batting leadoff is Mr. Brown. Although, Toth is a higher percentage base-stealer, Brown's superior OBP probably makes him a better choice. You could probably also bat Brown in the three spot if he continues his trend of improvement from the last two seasons. A little more batting average and a few more doubles this season, and Brown could become Logan Vick 2.0. How nice would that be?
... And that's it. Those are all of the known quantities from the position player ranks this year, and we're looking for improvements from two of them. Have I mentioned that it's incredibly difficult to predict how this year's team will fair?
Dillon Newman - Sr. RHP - 2013 Line 77.1 IP, 2.91 ERA, 3- 4 Record, 52/5 K/BB - When Newman was drafted last summer in the 16th round, I would have put money on him going pro. He didn't, and I couldn't be happier for Baylor baseball. Newman was easily our best starter last year when he was healthy, and his return gives the team a strong senior anchor. I expect to see Newman on opening day and every Friday after as long as he stays healthy.
Austin Stone - Jr. RHP - 2013 Line 55.1 IP, 3.74 ERA, 3-3 Record, 43/22 K/BB - Stone put up nice numbers last year as a sophomore, although he walked a few too many opposing batters and gave up 10 additional unearned runs. He gives us a nice one-two combo of experienced, successful starters for weekend series.
Brad Kuntz - RS Jr. LHP - 2013 Line N/A - Kuntz took a redshirt last year because of injury, but his return gives the Bears another pitcher with starting experience. In 2012, Kuntz started 5 games before moving to the bullpen toward the end of the season. He could really go either way in 2014: Sunday starter or lockdown reliever. One thing Kuntz does differently than other Baylor pitchers? Strikeouts. Kuntz averaged almost a K per inning in 2012. I'm always a fan of that.
Bullpen - The Baylor pen is a talented and experienced crew for 2014. Both Sean Spicer (28.1 IP, 5.40 ERA, 14/27 K/BB) and Ryan Smith (46 IP, 5.48 ERA, 25/18 K/BB) have starting experience and could start mid-week games or step in if a weekend starter falters. Bobby McCormack (10 IP, 1.80 ERA, 7/4 K/BB) and Dough Ashby (23.2 IP, 1.90 ERA, 16/16 K/BB) were both effective lefties out of the pen, and should contribute even more this coming year. The workhorse of the bullpen will probably be Josh Michaelec (47.2 IP, 2.64 ERA, 36/19 KK/BB). After the innings he logged last year, Michaelec could probably start this year, but I think the safer bet is that he logs starter type innings in relief much like Crayton Bare did last year.
So there you have it. While our position players are a mass of question marks, our pitching is talented and experienced. It will be the strength of this team without a doubt.
THE QUESTION MARKS:
Duncan Wendel - Jr. IF - 2013 Line .276/.333/.310 - In a down 2013, Wendel was a relative bright spot. He hit for solid average in his first real exposure to college baseball. He's a question mark simply because he didn't do a lot besides hit for average. If Wendel can handle third base defensively, I think he'll get the first crack at replacing Cal Towey. If he can add a little pop, then he becomes a true offensive threat.
Grayson Porter - Jr. IF - 2013 Line .229/.297/.359 - Remember in my last post when I asked where the power might come from? Here. Porter shared the team lead in 2013 with a .130 ISO slugging percentage, despite only hitting .229 on the year. He accounted for a third of the team's homeruns by himself. If Porter can make contact more consistently, he'll become a true cleanup hitter. His summer league performance was excellent: He hit .316 in the West Coast League while ranking in the top ten in doubles, homeruns, runs, and RBI. Porter is a breakout candidate.
Mitch Price - So. 1B - 2013 Line .234/.322/.364 - Another power candidate, Price got around 87 at-bats in limited playing time last year. He didn't hit for much average, but when he gets a hold of one, he can crush it. I haven't seen any summer league stats from Price, but he's still just a sophomore. He has time to develop. In my best-case scenario for 2014, Price and Porter terrify opposing pitchers from the middle of the order.
Catcher - The Bears got very little production out of the catcher position in 2013. Current senior Nate Goodwin got the majority of starts, and hit .182/.261/.260 over the course of the season. Matt Menard got playing time early in the year, but he took a medical redshirt after being injured early on. Menard played summer ball in the Northwoods League and hit .257 with 23 walks, 6 doubles, and a homerun in 44 games. If he could replicate that performance for Baylor, it would be a major step up at the position.
Shortstop - With Jake Miller gone, we have a major hole to fill. The two most experienced players on the roster are Brett Doe (.181/.257/.202 in 2013) and West Tunnel (.087/.222/.087 in 2013). You can see from the numbers that this is not an ideal situation. Even taking into account the limited sample size, either Doe or Tunnel needs to improve a great deal this year to avoid becoming an offensive liability. It's also possible that a newcomer, like Steven McLean, could swoop in and take the job.
THE KEY NEWCOMERS:
Darryn Sheppard - Fr. OF - Sheppard comes to Baylor as the highest rated prospect we've had in years. Rated First Team All-Texas Region and Third Team All-American by Rawlings. Rated a top-sixty recruit by ESPN. Drafted by the Texas Rangers in the 24th round last summer. He has five-tool potential, with centerfield-quality defense, power, and speed. I fully expect Sheppard to contribute in his freshman year, and I'll go so far as to say he'll start in the outfield alongside Brown and Toth. I should throw in the caveat that baseball is perhaps the most developmental sport, so it's possible that even a player as highly rated as Sheppard won't be a star immediately. Even so, look for him to get early playing time.
Josh Pettitte - Fr. RHP - Here's a scouting report that should shock absolutely no one: Josh Pettitte is an extremely advanced pitcher for his age! I'll give you a moment to get over your shock. Pettitte is a great pickup for Baylor, a pitcher who pounds the zone aggressively, and uses both sides of the plate. He can already locate his off-speed pitches well, and has solid control. All of this helps his fringy fastball (88-90 mph) play up. Pettitte will contribute immediately this season. He may even get the chance to start midweek games, but I expect to see him primarily out of the pen based on the way Smith usually works guys in.
Kyle Ott and Daniel Castano - Fr. RHP and LHP - This highly rated pair of recruits should also see time out of the pen immediately. Both were in the Perfect Game Top 500 National recruits.
WHEW. This ended up being a lot longer than I had planned, but don't worry, it's almost over. For my last little exercise, I want to take a crack at the lineup:
1) Logan Brown, cf
2) Lawton Langford, 2b
3) Duncan Wendel, 3b
4) Grayson Porter, 1b
5) Mitch Price, dh
6) Adam Toth, rf
7) Darryn Sheppard, lf
8) Matt Menard, c
9) Brett Doe, ss
Keep in mind that this is my ideal lineup if everything breaks right. What does the ODB community think? Does this look about right? Grayson Porter can also play leftfield, so if Sheppard isn't ready you might see him out there. It's also possible that a newcomer like Kameron Esthay could jump into the third base competition if Wendel struggles.
The Big 12 Coaches poll picked the Bears to finish sixth in conference. I wish I could say that seems too low, but it actually sounds about right to me. So much has to break right for the offense to be anything but a total disaster. Our pitching should be excellent, but they were pretty effective last year and we all saw how that turned out. Here's hoping the team starts proving me wrong this weekend against Arizona State. Sic em!