“If you’re a returning player, your time is short,” head coach Jim Schlossnagle said. “If you’re a new player, you don’t want to be a guy that is part of a team that doesn’t put us in a good position to get back.”
The Frogs are only fielding three returning position players, junior first baseman Luken Baker, junior left fielder Josh Watson and senior right fielder Connor Wanhanen.
Schlossnagle is unfazed.
“I have a theory that the best organizations and teams reset to zero every year,” Schlossnagle said. “We were in this position two years ago, and I love the culture of our program and how the older guys help the new players and we’ve had that going on all year.”
The three returning position players have been top contributors. Baker is the offensive linchpin.
“He’s certainly going to be an anchor in our lineup every day and he’s going to play a lot of first base where he does a good job over there,” Schlossnagle said.
Baker missed the last 21 games of 2017 after injuring his left arm. He was a 2016 Freshman All-American and is batting .355 with 103 RBIs in 114 career games.
“Everything has healed up 100 percent,” Baker said. “It was only about a three-month recovery, really quick. I’ve been back at full health for a while.”
Wanhanen and Watson are also bright spots.
Wanhanen became the full-time first baseman last year following Baker’s injury. He put up good numbers, hitting .281 and posting a career-high .430 on-base percentage that shook a sophomore slump.
Watson enters 2018 looking for a junior year rebound. As a first-year student, he tied Baker for the club lead in home runs with 11 while hitting .280 and batting in 44 RBIs. Last season, he had one home run while hitting .239 with 38 RBIs.
“He’s been working just as hard as anyone else if not harder, and some of the stuff he’s been working on you can see the results already,” Wanhanen said of Watson. “He’s the type of guy that’s going to continue to put his head down and work, so it’s going to show up on the field this spring.”
Schlossnagle sees the switch-hitting Watson playing a crucial role in 2018.
“He made some adjustments, played some in the summer,” Schlossnagle said. “Made some adjustments in the fall with Coach Mosiello, played a good fall.”
Expect fresh faces at second base, shortstop, third base, center field and catcher.
“With three-quarters of our infield gone from last year, all of those guys being seniors, that’s a transition just from an experience standpoint,” Schlossnagle said. “I like our talent level, it’s just a matter of getting them out there in their first college game and moving forward from that.”
Catcher sophomore Zach Humphreys is poised to take over behind the plate. He hit .267 and drove in 19 RBIs in a limited role last season. First-year student Coby Boulware will likely be fielding balls at second. Sophomore transfer Connor Shepheard could be manning the hot corner. Outfield junior transfer Johnny Rizer will likely begin the season patrolling center field.
Shortstop has been locked down by Grandview native, first-year student Adam Oviedo. He was named the District 8-4A MVP following his senior season at Alvarado High School.
TCU starting pitcher Jared Janczak is looking forward to watching them grow.
“It’ll be fun watching them perform, definitely Adam Oviedo, man he’s talented at shortstop,” Janczak said. “He’s going to be really good three years from now, and it’s going to be fun watching him out there.”
Schlossnagle said he’s fine with the growing pains because of the luxury his pitching staff provides him.
“The game is about pitching and defense.”
TCU enters 2018 with ace All-American Janczak, Freshman All-American Nick Lodolo, and 2017 USA Baseball Collegiate National Team member Sean Wymer in the weekend rotation.
“If the season started today, those would be the three: Janczak, Lodolo, and Wymer,” Schlossnagle said. “I’ve always said the game starts and ends with starting pitching.”
Wymer had a solid season as reliever leading the team with 30 appearances out of the bullpen and posting a 6-4 record with two saves to go along with a 2.10 earned run average.
“We would love to keep Sean in the rotation,” Schlossnagle said. “That’s a great spot for him, which opens up some innings to be had in the bullpen.”
Schlossnagle said two early candidates for the weekday rotation spot are first-year student Russell Smith and sophomore Jake Eissler.
Smith set a school-record with a 0.44 ERA and only eight hits allowed as a senior at Midlothian High. He also totaled 100 strikeouts and threw two no-hitters.
Eissler struck out 38 batters in 37 2/3 innings pitched and went 4-0 with a 5.02 earned run average in his first season as a Horned Frog.
“Jake Eissler has made some big strides and pitched a lot for us as a freshman in a limited role, but his stuff has taken a jump,” Schlossnagle said. “Not sure what role he’ll be in, but he’s going to play a huge role in the pitching staff.”
In the bullpen, Schlossnagle said the team “needs to solidify some things” in front of All-Big 12 closer Durbin Feltman, who had the most saves, 17, in the country last season along with Florida’s Michael Byrne.
“I’ve been sitting around since the summer after we got back from Omaha,” Janczak said. “I’ve been itching since then. We have a good group of guys, a bunch of talented young guys. It’s going to be fun seeing what they can do this year.”
TCU begins its season Friday on the road in Phoenix against Grand Canyon University. First pitch is set for 7 p.m.