Oklahoma State Baseball: Five Questions to Answer Entering 2021
Oklahoma State has achieved an extraordinary level of consistency under Josh Holliday. The Cowboys have been to the postseason each year since Holliday arrived and they’ve finished lower than third in the Big 12 standings just once during that time.
The next step for the Cowboys is competing on a national championship level more often. Strides have been taken in that direction. There was a College World Series appearance in 2016, they were one win away from a return in 2019 and they’re currently recruiting at a level that suggests future Omaha trips could be in store.
These are five pressing questions surrounding Oklahoma State as it tries to keep that momentum going heading into the 2021 season.
Who is a breakout star to watch on the mound?
Fourth-year junior righthander Zach Cable is the name to watch here. After transferring from the junior college level, Cable had a 5.14 ERA in seven relief innings last season, although some of his peripheral stats, such as his 11 strikeouts and .207 opponent batting average, hint that he was probably better than the ERA would lead you to believe.
This past summer in the Coastal Plain League, Cable’s fastball reached 98 mph and he was far and away the league’s hardest-throwing pitcher, all while striking out 19 hitters in 11 innings of work. On the other side of the coin, though, he also walked 10 in those 11 innings, but if he can continue to hone his control, his stuff, which also includes a hard slider, is such that he can be a dominant arm.
“(Cable) returned from a great summer and really threw the baseball with tremendous aggression,” Holliday said. “At times, (he) was completely overpowering and dominant in scrimmages. His fastball has climbed to the upper 90s, the slider is right around 90 (mph), so he threw two pitches in his outings that were really overpowering in the sense that I don’t think we’ve had anybody really feature those pitches at that level in a while.”
Cable’s profile most neatly fits into a short reliever mold, and with Ben Leeper signing as a free agent this offseason, there are innings to be had at the back of the Oklahoma State bullpen.
How is the rest of the pitching staff taking shape?
There are some known entities on the staff. Fourth-year junior lefthander Parker Scott, who likely isn’t back in Stillwater if not for the shortened draft, will be back in the rotation. Fourth-year sophomore righthander Brett Standlee and fifth-year senior righthander C.J. Varela can start or relieve depending on the team's need. Fifth-year senior righthander Eric Walker, a grad transfer from Louisiana State, is a newcomer, but his experience can only help.
Pitchers from last year’s outstanding freshman class of arms like righthanders Bryce Osmond, Justin Campbell, Wyatt Cheney and Kale Davis will also be in the mix. Because of the 2020 season cancellation, we don’t have a fully-formed picture of these guys, but all are talented and had positive moments a year ago.
Holliday is also quick to highlight lefthander Colton Bowman, another pitcher from that heralded 2019 recruiting class, as someone who impressed during the fall.
“I think Colton Bowman, of the returning pitchers, really stood out,” Holliday said. “Big jump for him from last year as a freshman to this year. I thought he really, really made big strides (and got) more physical. He was throwing three excellent pitches.”
Another pitcher who impressed according to Holliday is junior college transfer lefthander Justin Wrobleski, who began his career at Clemson. He began the 2019 season in the Tigers’ weekend rotation and spent the summer after that season pitching on the Cape, making clear the high-end potential he possesses, even if he’s yet to enjoy a breakout season.
The depth Holliday and pitching coach Rob Walton have here is impressive, and when you combine that with knowing what you’re going to get from a typical Oklahoma State offense, you can see how this team can be an even more well-rounded outfit than the 2019 super regional club.
What can be expected from Nolan McLean?
It’s hard to know exactly what McLean, a two-way player and the top recruit in OSU’s 2020 class, will contribute right away because he’s been a little bit busy with his responsibilities as a quarterback on the football team. He’s had time on the diamond here and there, but he’s well short of the typical fall practice time a freshman would normally get.
Still, he’s talented enough that the lack of reps in the fall may not impede his progress toward a big role on this team as early as the 2021 season. On the mound, the righthander can run his fastball into the mid 90s. In the field, he’s a big-bodied shortstop listed at 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds whose best offensive tool is his massive raw power.
“From the limited look on him on the baseball field, it’s a very gifted player,” Holliday said. “He has incredible raw power. He’s a very explosive, strong athlete. And he’s also a talented pitcher, (although) we haven’t been able to develop the pitching side with the frequency of football throws and such, but he’s a very, very talented kid. When we get him out here full-time in January, I think you’re going to see him take off on this side of the street as well.”
McLean’s situation will bring good news all around for the Cowboys. If he finds his way onto the field in a big role right away, it’s likely because talent won out and he couldn’t be denied the playing time. And if he doesn’t, it’s probably just because OSU has impressive depth, and at that point, McLean becomes a clear breakout candidate for 2022.
Who will be vying for playing time on the infield?
Things could be very crowded for Oklahoma State on the infield in 2021.
Third-year sophomore Hueston Morrill returns to the shortstop position after being a catalyst in the field and in the lineup for the last two seasons. Normally you would pencil him in there again, but he may find himself in competition with Kentucky transfer Matt Golda, who hit .318/.404/.477 as the Wildcats’ primary shortstop last season.
Fifth-year senior Alix Garcia is also back as the incumbent at first base, but he could be pushed by physical freshman M.J. Rodriguez, who projects to fit right into the OSU offensive mold as a power-hitting masher. Both of those guys are also likely DH candidates.
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Last season, Jake Thompson, now a fifth-year junior, spent the bulk of the time at third base, splitting time with Kaden Polcovich, who is now out of the picture after being drafted in the third round. This coming season, Thompson will likely be in a battle with incoming junior college transfer Christian Encarnacion-Strand, who hit 33 home runs in 81 games for Yavapai (Ariz.) College prior to arriving at OSU.
Second base is probably the biggest question mark on the dirt. Last season, Polcovich got most of the time there, before he slid over to third base late in the abbreviated season. Morrill played second base almost exclusively in 2019, so he could find his way back there if Golda (or someone else) earns more playing time at short.
Fifth-year senior Max Hewitt, who was OSU’s best hitter for average in 2020, spent time at second after Polcovich moved to third. He could be an obvious answer, but that will depend on the team not needing Hewitt at catcher, where he filled in for part of last season as well.
Freshman Orlando Salinas could earn some run at second base. He’s an advanced defender who can also do some damage at the plate. Fellow freshman Marcus Brown will look to carve out a role in the same way, but his defensive versatility may make him a better fit, at least initially, as a utility infielder who can fill in everywhere. Fourth-year junior Dylan Gardner will provide additional depth and versatility.
McLean is also something of a wild card in this competition. His talent, and specifically his prodigious power, could help him force his way onto the field, but without having seen much from him yet on the baseball field, it’s hard to project where he might fit best and where he stacks up right now.
Who will do the bulk of the catching?
With the departure of Colin Simpson after the 2019 season, it felt like Oklahoma State never quite found the exact right answer at catcher in 2020. Two players, Hewitt and fourth-year junior Brock Mathis, split time last season.
Both swung the bat well, with Hewitt leading the team in average and Mathis hitting .310/.371/.655 with three home runs, tying him for the team lead. Even in a small sample, that had to feel good for Mathis, who really struggled to the tune of a .164/.291/.287 slash line in 48 games for Louisiana State in 2019.
Mathis has a reputation and track record as a good blocker and vocal leader, and it’s hard to beat the experience he’s had as a regular at two power programs now. If the improvements he showed offensively last season are real, perhaps he’s ready for a true breakout year.
If he’s not, Hewitt will be ready to step back in, and the aforementioned Rodriguez, whose bat could earn him time at first base or DH, is also an option.