With the No. 1 preseason ranking for 2017, expectations for the Horned Frogs are clear: return to the College World Series in Omaha and bring home the crown.
Head coach Jim Schlossnagle said the team’s position is enviable, but complicated.
“You’ve got two options when those things come along: you can not talk about it and run away from it, or as the Cubs did this past year, you can embrace it,” Schlossnagle said.
The Chicago Cubs, whose starting rotation includes former Horned Frog Jake Arrieta, broke a 108-year championship drought last October. A college World Series win would be a first for the Frogs.
“We kind of stole something from the Cubs. We’re going to embrace the target,” pitcher Brian Howard said.
Much of last year’s team is back, including eight everyday position players and nine pitchers – the entire weekend rotation, their left-handed setup arm and closer.
The recruiting class is led by left-handed pitcher Nick Lodolo, who was selected with the No. 41 pick in the 2016 draft by the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Howard’s return gives Schlossnagle options with the starting rotation.
“Obviously Howard, Jared Janczak, Mitchell Traver will be in competition for the rotation, and we have three freshmen that we really like: Lodolo, Charles King, and Jake Eissler,” Schlossnagle said. “That’s six guys for four spots, and we’ll let them compete over the next two-and-a-half weeks.”
Two of TCU’s top hitters, catcher Evan Skoug and first baseman/designated hitter Luken Baker predicted that batters will have the most trouble with one starting pitcher in particular: Jared Janczak.
“Jared is a guy who can go 92-93 with a lot of sink, really good change and breaking balls,” Skoug said.
Baker added: “Jared is the hardest to bat against for me because his sinker/slider combo is something that gets a lot of us most of the time.”
Schlossnagle said that he expects Sean Wymer to step up in the bullpen this season. Adding, “We didn’t lose a lot of pitching, but Brian Trieglaff and Preston Guillory threw some big innings for us, and Sean I think can pick up some of that load.”
Sophomore closer Durbin Feltman is back. He led the Frogs with nine saves in nine save opportunities while throwing 49 strikeouts and just nine walks to go along with a 1.56 ERA in 34.2 innings pitched. Feltman held opponents scoreless in 24 of 27 appearances.
“Durbin can just overpower you with high 90’s fastballs and good breaking balls,” Skoug said.
As for the TCU offense, Schlossnagle preached versatility.
“We don’t want to be categorized in one particular way offensively, because we want to be able to steal bases. If you’re great at holding runners, then we’ll hit and run, and we have guys that can hit the ball out of the ballpark,” Schlossnagle said. “We have power guys, speed guys, right-handed hitters, left-handed hitters, one-switch hitter, and if they can stay healthy, it should be a very fun offense to watch and that can excite you in a variety of ways.”
The Offensive Breakdown
Baker led the team last season in batting average, hitting .379 and hitting 11 homers.
Nolan Brown returns to the field after a hand injury forced him to take a medical red-shirt in 2016.
“He’s a guy who can hit it out of the ball park, and he’s as good of a pure base-stealer as Cody Jones was for us, so if we gets on base enough in our offense he can steal 40-plus bases, even 50,” Schlossnagle said.
He said defense is what will separate his club from the rest of the competition.
“Everyone likes to talk about our pitching and offense [because] that’s sexy, but the defense is what’s going to carry us,” Schlossnagle said.
The Defensive Breakdown
Defensively, TCU will line up with Skoug at catcher, and Baker splitting time at first base and the designated hitter spot with Connor Wanhanen and Michael Landestoy.
Cam Warner will reprise his role at second base, Ryan Merrill with start at shortstop, Austen Wade in right field, Elliot Barzilli will man the hot corner at third, Brown in center field, and Josh Watson in left field.
“Josh is going to hit in the middle of our lineup, and we’d like to see him cut down on strikeouts a little bit, but there’s a give and take with his power,” Schlossnagle said.
Baker will play defense after exclusively pitching or batting as a designated hitter in 2016.
“Luken is going to play some first base, no doubt about it, and it’s important he’s a good first baseman for us No. 1, and No. 2 so he can prove to Major League Baseball that he can play a position, and he can,” Schlossnagle said.
Players and coaches alike are locked in and ready for opening day.
“This is one of my favorite days of the year, and I can’t wait to start this journey,” Skoug said.
TCU’s first series is Feb. 17-19 against the Penn State Nittany Lions at Lupton Baseball Stadium. First pitch on the 17th is set for 6:30 p.m.