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David Pierce had a strong first season at the helm of the UT program and will look to build upon that in year two. Texas was hit hard by the MLB Draft over the summer, but Pierce recruited a nice mix of incoming freshmen and junior college transfers that will provide strong reinforcements.
Texas does not have a large group of incoming freshman as only 10 players committed, but two – Tristen Lutz and Landon Leach – were drafted and signed to MLB teams. Of the eight that made their way to Texas, three will most likely have a greater immediate impact in 2018. The other five all have great qualities and project to make a mark in their time at Texas.
Bryce Elder, Kamron Fields, and Nico O’Donnell are the three that are most likely to make significant contributions in their freshmen campaigns. All three pitch from the right side, but Fields also plays a stellar outfield and can fly on the basepaths. Fields played football in addition to baseball in high school, earning many Division-I offers to play quarterback, but decided to come to UT for baseball to show off his elite athleticism. Fields is an all-around talent on the baseball diamond and expect him to make an impact as a freshman with occasional starts in the outfield, relief work and potentially many late game substitutions as a pinch runner or defensive replacement.
Bryce Elder and Nico O’Donnell were both key late additions as pitchers who blossomed in their senior years in high school. Expect both to at least pitch out of the bullpen as freshmen as well as compete for jobs in the starting rotation. O’Donnell is a tall and skinny kid at 6-foot-3, 180 lbs. out of San Antonio with bundles of potential, while Elder is a big kid at 6-foot-1, 230 lbs. out of Decatur, and made headlines in the UIL playoffs after throwing consecutive no-hitters. Both pitchers hit the low 90s with their fastball.
Coach Pierce went out and brought in a great group of JUCO transfers to supplement the current loss and fill gaps of the players that graduated and left early. Pierce brought in eight JUCOs headlined by Duke Ellis, D.J. Petrinsky, Donny Diaz, Masen Hibbeler, and Matteo Bocchi.
Duke Ellis is an incoming sophomore and a toolsy outfielder out of Panola College who turned down an offer from the Padres to come to Texas after being drafted in the 20th round of this year’s draft. Ellis has elite speed, a great bat, and plays good defense in center field. Look to see him in the starting lineup on opening day and beyond. Petrinsky is a junior catcher out of Hill College who comes to UT with a reputation of a bat-first catcher with a strong arm. He should split time with Michael McCann behind the plate with Michael Cantu transferring out of the program.
Diaz comes to Texas from San Jacinto College as a junior right-handed pitcher where he dominated last season and was drafted by the Red Sox, but chose to come to UT instead. Diaz is expected to have an impact role as a late inning reliever, sharing duties with Chase Shugart and Beau Ridgeway to finish games. Diaz could also push Ridgeway for the closer role and I would not be surprised if Pierce tries him as a starter with his dominant repertoire.
Hibbeler is out of Odessa College and can play all over the field. He is primarily a shortstop and could take David Hamilton’s spot if he is unable to improve at the plate. Otherwise, Hibbeler will spend time either in the outfield corners or at second or third base. Regardless of where he plays, he will be expected to hit well, get on base, and run fast. Bocchi is an Italian and also attended Odessa College before coming to UT.
Bocchi is a junior right-handed pitcher that the Texas coaches are very high on and he could compete for a rotation spot, but will at least pitch out of the bullpen.
While Texas lost several key players from their lineup and on the mound, there is still a strong core of returning players that will occupy most of the important lineup holes and lead the rotation and bullpen. Big 12, All-Freshman Team members David Hamilton and Austin Todd will be back and looking to improve as sophomores. I expect Hamilton to retain his spot at shortstop and Todd will most likely be the starter in center or left field.
Kody Clemens will begin the season with a completely healthy arm and will be able to play the field or continue as the designated hitter where he was limited to last year after Tommy John Surgery after his freshman campaign. Clemens could compete to play at either third or second base.
Ryan Reynolds returns after a so-so freshman season but could be the odd man out with all of the JUCO transfers after starting most of last season at third. Joe Baker returns from injury after missing most of his junior season. He qualified for a medical redshirt and will look to take over at second base full-time after Brett Boswell’s departure to professional baseball.
As mentioned above, Michael McCann returns at catcher after a breakout season and should remain the starter at his position or platoon with Petrinsky. Trace Bucey and Tate Shaw will also return and both will look to claim a starting spot in a crowded outfield. Shaw burst onto the scene when injuries forced him into action last year before cooling down as the season went on, and Bucey was a highly touted recruit coming out of high school and will look to make a name for himself after limited playing time last season.
Zach Zubia will commence his redshirt freshman campaign this upcoming season after sitting out last year due to transfer rules. Zubia had an outstanding summer winning MVP of the Northwoods League and looks to most likely take over at first and hold a spot in the middle of the lineup following Kacy Clemens’ graduation.
On the pitching side of things, the rotation has some question marks with the departures of Morgan Cooper, Kyle Johnston, and Nick Kennedy but will return ace Nolan Kingham who will look to improve upon his stellar sophomore campaign. Blair Henley will also return as a sophomore after pitching well as a true freshman. Look for Henley to slide in as the Saturday starter and take a big leap after an impressive summer.
Josh Sawyer is the only other player on the roster to record a start for UT when he started 11 times in 2015. I do not expect him to pitch in that role this season coming off a season that he missed entirely due to injury. Beau O’Hara or Chase Shugart could potentially be stretched out to start, but I believe they will most likely stay in the bullpen and one of the incoming freshmen or JUCO pitchers will have to pick up the slack in the rotation. The good news is the bullpen should be strong with the return of Ridgeway and Shugart. Parker Joe Robinson could also see an increased role this coming season after posting a 1.93 ERA across 9.1 innings last season. Jake McKenzie also returns after a solid junior season.
Texas will look to improve upon last season when they came one win away from advancing to the Super Regionals. David Pierce lost a lot of impact bats and arms from last year’s squad but will look to replace them with talented incoming players. My prediction as that the offense will be as good if not better than last year’s and the team will also have a deeper bullpen. The question mark comes with the starting rotation; an area that is usually a strength for the Longhorns will have some questions on the backend that will need to resolve quickly in order to have another strong season.
Projected starting lineup
C: Michael McCann
1st: Zach Zubia
2nd: Joe Baker
3rd: Masen Hibbeler
SS: David Hamilton
LF: Austin Todd
CF: Duke Ellis
RF: Trace Bucey
DH: Kody Clemens
Check out UT’s website for full rosters and stats when spring rolls around – TexasSports.com