Texas Baseball: Five Questions to Answer Entering 2021

Image credit: Zach Zubia (Photo by John Williamson)

Texas went 14-3 in the abbreviated 2020 season and finished on the precipice of the Top 25. It was a solid start after the Longhorns’ disappointing 2019 season that saw them finish in last place in the Big 12 and miss the NCAA Tournament.

The Longhorns had a bevy of young, exciting players contributing in big roles to their 2020 team. To that core, they added the No. 8 recruiting class, infusing the team with even more talent. How it all comes together remains to be seen, but there’s a reason to be excited about the Longhorns, which rank No. 11 in the Never Too Early Top 25.

As Texas looks to build on its momentum, here are five questions it will look to answer this fall as it prepares for the 2021 season. 

What is the progress of Texas’ youth movement?

Texas has now landed three straight top-10 recruiting classes and they now form the core of the team. Five freshmen or sophomores got regular playing time in the lineup last spring, and seven of the nine pitchers who threw more than five innings were freshmen or sophomores. To that group, the Longhorns add another strong recruiting class. Texas still has some veteran players like outfielder Austin Todd and slugger Zach Zubia who were a part of its 2018 College World Series team, but for the most part it is a younger group.

Coach David Pierce is pleased with the progress last year’s freshmen, such as catcher Silas Ardoin and shortstop Trey Faltine, have made.

“It’s a huge comfort difference from a year ago,” Pierce said. “Just look at Ardoin. He’s got 17 games under his belt, knows all the coordination of the coverages, the calls, knows the annual schedule, his body is right. Faltine has gotten bigger and stronger, is playing with even more confidence and showing some power.

“Those two really stand out. They’re different in a sense that more comfortable and they understand the annual schedule a lot better.”

Texas in large part had already turned the keys over to its young players last year. But now, with another year in the program under their belt, the Longhorns will need them to play like veterans and bring along the latest newcomers.

Is the offense ready to take a step forward?

The Longhorns don’t need to be an offensive juggernaut and playing in Disch-Falk Field they’re never going to produce big offensive numbers. But after hitting .256/.357/.382 and averaging 5.9 runs per game in 17 games in 2020, can the lineup take its play to another level in 2021?

The pieces are there for Texas to do so. The 2020 lineup was particularly young and if players like Ardoin (.241/.371/.276) and Faltine (.259/.343/.362) are ready to take a step forward in their second year, that would be a boost. Texas also returns leading hitter Todd (.375/.430/.500) for a fifth season and Zubia, who has hit 19 career home runs, gives it an experienced hitter in the middle of the order.

The Longhorns must replace speedy outfielder Duke Ellis, who signed as a free agent, and figure to do so with Mike Antico, a graduate transfer from St. John’s. Antico was a career .332/.451/.519 hitter for the Red Storm and can slot in at the top of the order.

It’s not going to be the conference’s most explosive offense, but it should be deep and versatile, giving Pierce a lot of options when he’s filling out the lineup card.

Who replaces ace Bryce Elder on Friday nights?

Texas’ biggest loss from last season’s team is Elder, who went 2-1, 2.08 and was drafted in the fifth round by the Braves. While Elder had been a constant, reliable presence on Friday nights for the Longhorns for two seasons, the Longhorns’ rotation is still well positioned.

Righthander Ty Madden, who is the No. 16 college prospect in the 2021 draft class, is slated to move to the front of the rotation, Pierce said. Madden this past spring went 3-0, 1.80 with 26 strikeouts and four walks in 25 innings. Behind him, Texas has plenty of options.

Righthander Coy Cobb has made 14 starts over the last two years. Righthander Kolby Kubichek has a big arm and is throwing well this fall, as is righthander Cole Quintanilla. Lefthander Pete Hansen was outstanding pitching mostly out of the bullpen as a freshman but could get in the mix to start. Newcomers Lucas Gordon, Aaron Nixon and Tanner Witt all have rotation potential as well.

There’s an enviable amount of depth and, with it, will come versatility in managing the pitching staff.

“We have really good options,” Pierce said. “We have some guys in there that, if they don’t start, they can definitely be three-plus innings guys that can piggyback, especially with what you deal with early in the year. We’re trying to mold into multi-inning guys. Then we’ll ease some guys into bigger roles.”

What’s the plan for two-way standout freshman Tanner Witt?

Witt was the 92nd-ranked prospect in the 2020 draft and was the 11th-highest ranked high school player not to be selected. He instead headlined the Longhorns’ recruiting class and gives the Longhorns one of the most exciting newcomers in the nation.

Witt has true two-way ability as an infielder and righthander and Texas will give him the opportunity to do both. Listed at 6-foot-5, 200 pounds, he as a powerful righthanded swing and, on the mound, an exciting fastball-curveball combination.

Texas has modeled its fall schedule like a spring season, with a weekend series and a midweek game. Right now, Witt is starting on the mound in the midweek and hitting on the weekend, serving as DH on Friday (and sometimes Saturday) before moving to the infield.

“He’s learning that role of durability, to be an infielder and pitch,” Pierce said. “There’s a lot on his plate. He’s done really well offensively. His offense has been ahead of his defense and pitching. He’ll help us in both areas.”

Are the Longhorns ready to compete for the Big 12 title?

Texas won the Big 12 in 2018, en route to a trip to Omaha, before falling to last place in 2019. The Longhorns looked to be at least in the top half of the league in 2020 going into conference play—though it should be noted that nobody could have accurately predicted their finish in the two previous seasons based on the first month of action.

Texas Tech is the Big 12’s early favorite and the Red Raiders rank No. 2 in our Never Too Early Top 25. But Texas has as much, if not more, talent on its roster than any other team in the conference. If some of its second-year players take the step forward they’re anticipated to and the Longhorns get impact from newcomers like Antico and Witt, the pieces are all there for them to contend in the Big 12 and play deep into June.

Texas still must show it can put it all together and managing all the options in both the lineup and pitching staff will be a key for Pierce, the 2018 Coach of the Year. But there’s certainly reason for optimism on the 40 Acres.

“Pitching and defense is going to set the standard for us,” Pierce said. “I do feel like we’ve got some guys that are going to hit this year. Honestly, there’s a lot to like about this team. Their attitudes are incredible, and their work exceeds their talent. When you get that, you’ve got a chance for greatness.”

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