BEVO BEAT

Lyttle’s baseball forecast: Shaky start, smoother finish

Posted February 14th, 2014

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Our own Kevin Lyttle, tasked with writing the Longhorns’ baseball season preview ($) today, attended the team’s media availability at Disch-Falk, where he interviewed Augie Garrido, centerfielder Mark Payton and shortstop C.J Hinojosa.

After he filed his story Thursday afternoon, we asked if he’d share some thoughts about the coming season, which starts today at Cal.

The initial thought was to run his take as part of this morning’s Breakfast with Bevo blog. But what he gave us was much, much more expansive, and we decided it needed its own blog entry to house it.

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Over the past five years, baseball has gone 206-94-2 overall, and 80-47-1 in the Big 12. The Longhorns have won three conference titles in that span. Last year, they went 27-24-1 and 7-17 and missed the Big 12 postseason tournament. Two years ago, Texas went 30-22 and 13-10 and didn’t get invited to the NCAA postseason tourney.

The last five years:

2013: 27-24-1 (7-17 Big 12), no postseason.

2012: 30-22 (13-10), missed out on the NCAAs.

2011: 49-19 (19-8), Big 12 champions.

2010: 50-13 (24-3), Big 12 champions.

2009: 50-16-1 (17-9-1), Big 12 champions.

Here are Lyttle’s thoughts:

You never want to be suckered into offseason stories about teams who declare, “we’ve got a new attitude. We worked harder than ever, we get along better than ever, it’s a whole new ballgame.”

But I think Longhorns baseball fans really should be cautiously optimistic about this team.

First of all, they’ve got to be better than last year. Granted, that wouldn’t take much. In fact, looking back, how in the world could these guys be bad enough to go 7-17 in conference play? To lose a home series to West Virginia, a team that can’t even get out of the snow until April? With all the resources thrown into UT’s program, no way there is a carbon copy of last year’s abomination.

Secondly, 2014 Big 12 baseball will resemble 2013 Big 12 football, not 2013-14 Big 12 basketball. No power-houses.

Case in point: The highest ranking a Big 12 team has in any of the four polls is No. 18. Second case in point: Kansas State is favored to repeat as champion. No knocking the Wildcats, who’ve done a marvelous job, but when a cold-weather school is supposed to be your bell cow in baseball … well, let’s just say the door is wide open in the Big 12.

Thirdly, I am buying into these declarations by the Longhorns and coach Augie Garrido that they’ve buried the sense of entitlement they’ve had the past few years. Starting pitcher Parker French, who earned the opening assignment tonight at California, said that Garrido made the players use the cramped visiting locker room at Disch-Falk Field and took away all their niceties.

Center fielder Mark Payton said the players have had to earn everything all over again. No more givens.

This appears to be a focused bunch. Several players pointed to how the school’s basketball team, in similar circumstances, overhauled their attitude … and their record. They plan to follow that example.

Fourthly, there is a major infusion of new talent, enthusiasm and a fresh outlook coming from a rookie class ranked No. 2 in the country by Baseball America. Four of those freshmen will be in the starting lineup tonight. Garrido and the coaching staff believe they have some really big-time players in catcher Tres Barrera and third baseman Andy McGuire. He’s so confident in their abilities that he’s batting Barrera cleanup and McGuire fifth from day one.

Yeah, he wouldn’t do that if he had proven run producers. But he still could have tried to work in the rookies slowly near the bottom of the lineup and go with his veterans in the middle of the order. Major League scouts see McGuire, a Virginia kid, as a first- or second-round choice and Barrera as a third-round talent. Right now. Who knows how high they go by their junior seasons?

This team is bound to score more than the 3.8 runs per game that ranked 275th of 296 teams last year. Look for shortstop C.J Hinojosa to have a big year, hitting in the 3 hole. Payton is the defending Big 12 batting champ (.393) who turned down the Cleveland Indians as a 16th-round pick. “I want to have one last chance to get back to Omaha,” he said Wednesday.

French told me to expect much improved versions of Hinojosa and Payton. Garrido says Hinojosa is “half the man he used to be,” and he meant it as a compliment, saying he’s lost 15 to 20 pounds.

A couple of keys to the offense, besides the obvious freshmen factor:

Can leadoff man Brooks Marlow get on base enough? The second baseman from Giddings must take it up several notches after posting only a .302 on-base percentage in 2013.

And will a Ben Johnson of Westwood or someone from the lower part of the lineup provide some pop? Johnson, the starting right fielder this year, hit just .220 as a freshman last year.

Garrido says he has no plans to tinker with the lineup. “We have a depth chart we’re constantly monitoring, and a lot of guys aren’t happy about where they are on it,” he said. “But they’re not gonna play until they earn it through their daily actions.”

You know Texas will get strong starting pitching out of a veteran group that starts with French and also has Dillon Peters, Nathan Thornhill and Lukas Schiraldi. The bullpen is unsettled, and there is no obvious closer candidate with Ty Marlow injured. But there are a lot of good arms who can fill roles. And given the choice between an excellent rotation or a rock-solid bullpen, give me the starters. Garrido said his only pitching concern is developing the promising freshmen to take over in 2015 when he stands to lose most of his rotation to the MLB draft.

Garrido, 75, seems reinvigorated. He knows he’s on the hot seat and cannot afford to miss the NCAA tournament a second year in a row. But he’s a fighter who wants to keep coaching, he likes this group and senses the good, old days are just around the corner.

“We have an impressive freshmen group and we’re rounding up another for next year,” he said. “If we can keep that class together like we did this one, we’re gonna be (blankety-blank) tough to beat.”

So how will this year play out?

I’m guessing the first few months will be filled with uneven performances, the team looking excellent at times and then suffering some mystifying losses. The offense isn’t going to magically click overnight. But I see this team making a lot of improvement as the season goes on.

I’ll call for a 35-17 overall record and 15-9 in conference, which should at least keep the Horns in the conversation until late May. And, yes, back in the NCAA tournament.

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