The Texas Aggie baseball program starts its maiden voyage into the SEC on Friday when head coach Rob Childress and the No. 24 ranked Aggies open the season against the Flames of Illinois-Chicago at 6:35 PM at Olsen Field.
There are many unknowns heading into the 2013 season. First, the Aggies are heading into a meat-grinder of a conference schedule facing three Top 5 SEC teams (Arkansas, LSU, South Carolina) along with Top 25 teams Ole Miss and Mississippi State. In addition, Texas A&M will also face preseason No. 1 North Carolina and Top 25 Rice in the Minute Maid Classic while also traveling to California to battle perennial west coast power Cal St.-Fullerton. In short, the Aggies just may have the toughest schedule in all of college baseball which is not a great position to be in when trying to replace two all-American pitchers (Wacha, Stripling) and an all-American outfielder (Naquin).
However, this is college baseball and healthy programs like Texas A&M are prepared for such attrition. In fact, the A&M staff expected the loss of juniors Tyler Naquin and Michael Wacha along with senior Ross Stripling and they recruited knowing the odds of losing these top players were very high. So, did the coaching staff adequately replace the loss of three all-American players, and can they succeed on the field while embarking on the nation’s toughest schedule in the nation’s toughest baseball conference. That’s the $64,000 question for the 2013 season.
With all-American weekend starters Michael Wacha and Ross Stripling, along with surprise sophomore Rafael Pineda, the 2012 Aggies had a formidable weekend rotation going a combined 24-6 with a salty 2.62 ERA. The remainder of the pitching staff combined for a 19-12 record and a 3.34 ERA, but it was several late inning collapses by the bullpen that eventually defined what ended up being a disappointing 2012 season.
Based on fall practice and early spring workouts, it appears that the weaknesses in the bullpen last season will actually be a strength in 2013. The biggest news of the offseason has been the retooling and emergence of veteran senior Kyle Martin as a starting pitcher. In 2012, the submariner was moved into the closer role after freshman Daniel Mengden struggled in several early appearances where he did an admirable but at times inconsistent job. In the summer, Martin went back to a more traditional ¾ delivery and he dominated in the Texas league with increased velocity and better control. That performance carried over to fall practices and spring workouts at Texas A&M and he’s earned the opening day start.
Once Daniel Mengden was moved from the bullpen to mid-week starter in 2012, his fortunes changed significantly. Armed with mid-90’s velocity and a nasty breaking ball, Mengden felt more comfortable as a starter registering three shutouts in four starts. While Mengden focused most of the fall working out at catcher and in the field, he resumed his work at pitcher in the spring and has been very sharp in a starting role. Mengden will likely be the team’s clean-up hitter, so his role as the Saturday starter will be closely monitored. Rarely do you see a player that is projected to be an integral part both on the mound and at the plate. It will be Childress’ responsibility to manage the situation properly. Several years ago, the Aggies’ starting left fielder Scott Beerer was also the team’s dominant closer. By mid-May, he physically wore down and both his hitting and pitching suffered in the critical postseason.
Junior Rafael Pineda is penciled in as the Sunday starter, but this spot is far from settled. Pineda was limited in the summer and fall battling a tender arm, and he also tailed off down the stretch in 2012 as his durability waned. Still, he’s been solid in the spring and will be given the first opportunity to earn the weekend spot.
However, the big news coming out of the offseason is the emergence of several young arms that will challenge for some weekend spots and provide much better depth for the bullpen…an area of weakness in 2012. Sophomores Corey Ray, Gandy Stubblefield, and Jason Freeman along with freshman phenom Grayson Long will compete for mid-week starting spots and will be ready to step into the weekend rotation if needed. The 6-foot-6 Long really turned heads in the fall, and he’s somebody to watch as the 2013 progresses. If he doesn’t earn a weekend spot in 2013, expect to see him in the weekend rotation next season. Corey Ray has also shown a lot of promise in the spring, so he’s another that could work his way into weekend action if needed.
Of course, when the schedule pairs down to one mid-week game a week in March, several of these pitchers will become key middle relief guys in the bullpen. But as far as the critical closer role, that will fall to Jason Jeter, the JUCO product that was scheduled to close last year before becoming academically ineligible. The righty can run his fastball up to the mid-90’s and has the experience and mentality to handle the high profile role. However, the biggest freshman surprise on the mound this offseason was lefty A.J. Minter who hit 96 mph on the radar this fall and will finally give A&M a power reliever from the left side for the first time in several years. Another freshman surprise in the fall was lefty walk-on Greg Maisto from Southlake Carroll. Ironically, the last walk-on pitcher to make a major impact on the pitching staff was Ross Stripling, also a Southlake Carroll graduate. With lefties Matt Kent, Ty Schlottman, and Nate Sorenson, Coach Childress finally has several options from the leftside. Parker Ray, Patrick Michon, and Andrew Vinson round out a pitching staff that could be the deepest in Childress’ eight seasons in College Station.
Hitting and Fielding
The Aggies lost a lot of hitters from last year’s team, but to be honest, except for Naquin, that may not necessarily be a bad thing. As with the pitching in 2012, A&M was top-heavy in the lineup with a couple of big hitters like Naquin (.380) and Jacob House (.308), but overall the team struggled offensively especially against better pitching in the Big 12 and in the postseason. The Aggies were counting on veteran players like Krey Bratsen (.226), Matt Juengel (.292), and Brandon Wood (.258) among others to provide quality depth up and down the batting order. And while these players had their moments and delivered at times during the season, overall the lineup fell short of expectations.
The batting lineup remains a question heading into tonight’s season opener. What we know for sure is that senior Mikey Reynolds (.306), the team’s best returning hitter, will be the starting shortstop. He’s coming back from offseason shoulder surgery, and his throwing looks stronger than at the end of last season when he was ailing. He’s been leading off in many of the team’s scrimmages. Sophomore Cole Lankford will also be the new first baseman. Despite his low average in 2012, Lankford is one of the best pure hitters on the team and there’s high expectations for him in the middle of the batting order. Both Troy Stein and Mitchell Nau will platoon at catcher, with Stein getting most of the starts. He hit .304 last season I expect him to hit in the No. 6 hole. What impressed me in the offseason was his time on his throws from home plate to second base and his ability to throw out runners in fall practices. Nau also has a nice home-to-second time, but he’ll more action in the DH role. Still, catchers need a day off and Nau will get those starts behind the plate.
Krey Bratsen had a disappointing 2012 after hitting nearly .325 as a freshman. For some reason, Bratsen did not utilize his speed and rarely tried to bunt for a single in 2012 like he did in 2011. Hitting near the bottom of the order in spring scrimmages, it still looks like he’s swing away more than he did as a freshman which surprises me. Now, he is swinging the bat better in scrimmages versus last season and if he can raise his average to .280-.290 then that bodes well for the Aggies. Still, his value comes with his speed and defense in centerfield where he covers ground like a deer.
Frankly, the other two outfield spots are up for grabs. Brandon Wood is a returning starter and will likely get the first shot at winning the left field position. His speed/power combo is very intriguing. Despite his .258 average he still had one of the top slugging percentages on the team in 2012. If he can reduce his strikeouts and increase his quality at-bats, then he’ll be a big presence in the middle of the order, but he must put the ball in play. Chance Bolcerak and Jace Statum both platooned in the outfield last season, and they continue to battle for a starting spot in 2013. They will get some early starts and if one can get hot over an extended period, he will likely become an every-day starter. Veterans Daniel Mengden and Blake Allemand, along with freshmen Jonathan Moroney and Cory Raley have all seen scrimmage time in right field. On days when Mengden is not pitching, you may see him in right field. But freshman Jonathan Moroney has made a strong push late this spring to earn some playing time.
In an early spring scrimmage I attended, Blake Allemand played right field and made a great diving catch going back to the 375 sign. He also threw out a runner at home plate from right field. He’s also a capable fielder at second base and at third base. His hitting has been impressive so he’ll be in the lineup, but expect to see him move around the field until Childress settles on a lineup.
That could all depend on how true freshman Logan Taylor performs at third base. The Deer Park product has made spectacular plays at the hot corner and I think he’ll be given the opportunity early to show he can be consistent defensively when the lights go on. If he is steady at third base, expect to see Allemand focus his efforts at second base along with veteran Charlie Curl. Allemand jumped out quickly as a freshman hitting over .400 in the first weeks of the season, but he cooled off in the middle of the season and ended at .289. Given his versatility and potential at the plate, his performance at the plate is a big key to the entire lineup.
In fact, A&M’s success in 2013 will likely depend on the productivity of hitters such as Mikey Reynolds, Cole Lankford, Daniel Mengden, Brandon Wood, and Allemand. If these batters can hit consistently over .300, I like A&M’s chances to score runs and give a deep pitching staff plenty of cushion. If the middle of the lineup struggles with inconsistency, then the Aggies will struggle with a very difficult 2013 schedule and a brutal SEC slate.
The bad news is that Texas A&M must play 20 of its 56 regular season games against teams ranked in the preseason with a relatively inexperienced but talented pitching staff. The good news is that Texas A&M’s RPI and strength of schedule will be very high. Thus, he Aggies should be able to make a regional with a 31-25 record, and they can likely host a regional with a 37-21 record.
Getting to 37 wins means that Kyle Martin, Daniel Mengden and the weekend starters have a good season. It doesn’t need to be up to Wacha or Stripling standards, but these weekend guys need to consistently provide quality starts going into the sixth or seventh inning. Someone like freshman Grayson Long who has Friday night potential could really add some star power to the weekend pitching lineup. His emergence as a weekend starter would be huge.
At the plate, it will be critical to get quality at-bats and production from the middle of the lineup where the staff is hoping that Daniel Mengden, Cole Lankford, Blae Allemand, and Brandon Wood will anchor a productive lineup. Mikey Reynolds at the top of the lineup will also be critical in setting the table for the RBI hitters in the middle, and getting .280-.290 production from veteran Krey Bratsen would be a huge boost to this lineup even if he’s in the bottom of the order.
College baseball performance is the hardest of the major sports to project simply because individual performances can drastically change from season to season. Just ask Krey Bratsen who was a .325-hitting freshman all-American who dropped to .225 as a sophomore who barely kept his job in 2012. With the college season so short, success depends on who gets hot at the right time, and who goes cold at the wrong time. In 2012, the Aggies went cold late in the year and they walked away losers in their own regional.