The alumni game tomorrow afternoon signals the return of Texas baseball is close. The Longhorns are 14 days away from kicking off the season against San Diego. The 2023 season ended with a gut-punching loss at Stanford in a Super Regional. Expectations for the upcoming season remain high as the Longhorns welcome back several core pieces from last season and signed one of the best freshman classes in the country.
There are not many question marks in the infield for Texas. 3B Peyton Powell, who tied Dylan Campbell with a team-leading .339 average last season, is back and looking to build on a breakout season. The departure of Mitchell Daly to Kentucky opens the door for Jalin Flores to take over duties at SS. Flores had an up-and-down freshman season but was singled out by head coach David Pierce as one of the most improved players during the fall. Sophomore Cade O’Hara will back up Flores and flashed tremendous defense in limited action last season. Jack O’Dowd will be penciled in at 2B after starting 63 games in 2023 and hitting .284. Jared Thomas, who started 60 games at first base last year, figured to see time in the outfield this season with the addition of 1B Luke Storm from Duke in the transfer portal. Those plans will likely change though after Storm recently announced he is stepping away from baseball for personal reasons. Thomas will now likely end up back at first base.
Catcher is the biggest question mark heading into opening day. Sophomore Rylan Galvan saw consistent time behind the plate last season backing up Garret Guillemette and hit 4 homers in 84 AB’s. The power at the plate is undeniable, but defense will likely determine if Galvan takes over primary catching duties this year. Kimble Schuessler is the other option behind the plate. Schuessler saw limited action in 2022 backing up Silas Ardoin before missing 2023 with an injury. Expect Galvan and Schuessler to play early in the season until one separates.
One of the standouts in the freshman class was Waco native Nik Sanders. Sanders came to Texas as a catcher but has worked at 1B and in the outfield. He is an exciting young bat. Fellow freshmen Sam Ardoin (brother of Silas) and Dee Kennedy will provide depth in the middle infield. Kennedy could also see time in the outfield. Casey Borba, one of the top HS bats in California last year, will be someone to keep an eye on as the season progresses. He saw time at first base throughout the fall.
Texas welcomes back LF Porter Brown after a breakout 2023 season that saw the TCU transfer hit .323 with 12 homers. The other two spots will have a little more competition. Freshman Will Gasparino, one of the top HS players in the country to make it to a college campus, appears to be the favorite to start in RF. The 6’6 California native who played at powerhouse Harvard-Westlake flashed major power in the Fall World Series and has a chance to be a special player.
The likely move of Jared Thomas back to first base opens up some interesting possibilities in CF. One of the biggest surprises throughout the fall was freshman Tommy Farmer, another California kid. Farmer is a walk-on but has not played like it, flashing good defense and elite speed. Two other newcomers that could be options are Penn transfer Seth Werchan and JUCO transfer Casey Cummings. Werchan, an Austin native returning home for his final season of eligibility, started in CF for the Quakers and hit .250 with 9 stolen bases. Cummings hit a grand slam in the Fall World Series and stole 24 bases for Chabot College in 2023.
Sophomore Max Belyeu, who saw time at RF and DH last season, might have had the most impressive summer of any Texas player and is likely in line for some AB’s early in the season. Jayden Duplantier, who saw time in the infield and outfield last season, will look to build on a freshman campaign that saw him hit .256 in 43 at-bats. One freshman to watch is Oliver Service, another guy who came to Texas as a catcher but likely profiles long-term in the outfield.
The weekend rotation should be one of the biggest strengths for Texas this year. Lebarron Johnson Jr. is back and was named the preseason Big 12 Pitcher of the Year. LBJ finished the 2023 season with a 2.91 ERA and 98 strikeouts in 86.2 innings. He will likely be taking the ball every Friday night. Tanner Witt, now close to 2 years removed from Tommy John surgery, is back for his redshirt Junior season. Witt returned late in the 2023 season and saw mixed results. David Pierce said they brought Witt along slowly during the fall, and they feel good about where he is. If Witt returns anywhere close to his pre-injury form, Texas will have one of the best 1-2 punches in the country. Senior Charlie Hurley will round out the rotation. Hurley finished 2023 with 4.42 ERA in 55 innings. Pierce seemed very pleased with Hurley’s progress throughout the fall and said his fastball velo has ticked up.
The midweek starter role is a question mark at this point. LHP Ace Whitehead started 4-midweek games a season ago and is now pitching full-time after splitting time between the field and the mound his first few seasons.
Bullpens can be a rollercoaster ride at the college level, especially at the beginning of the season as roles are established. The good news for Texas is they return several arms with high-leverage experience and will add. The bad news is their likely best arm (Notre Dame transfer Will Mercer) will miss the season with an injury.
LHP David Shaw ranked second on the team in appearances in 2023 with 26 and is back on the mound after undergoing the internal brace procedure (shorter recovery time than full-blown Tommy John surgery). RHP Heston Tole led all Texas pitchers with a 1.90 ERA in 2023 in 23.2 innings. He will not overpower anyone but possesses a good slider. RHP Andre Duplantier is back for a 5th season after posting a 2.40 ERA in 19 appearances. RHP Cody Howard is one of the most intriguing arms on the roster. Howard only made 8 appearances last season, but is now 2 full years removed from an arm injury and was running his fastball up to 95 MPH in the fall. Chase Lummus is another left-handed option who could come out of the bullpen or start some midweek games. Lummus posted a 5.17 ERA in 2023 but saved the pitching staff multiple times with multi-inning appearances to limit damage. Sophomore Max Grubbs was one of the top arms in Texas in the 2022 class but struggled with control last season, walking or hitting 5 batters in only 8.2 innings. Pierce said they have tightened up his sinker/slider combo and he is ready to take on a bigger role this season.
Do not forget about LHP Luke Harrison, who missed the 2023 season after undergoing elbow surgery but recently began throwing to hitters again and will likely return in March or April. Harrison had a 3.06 ERA in 32 appearances in 2022.
There are a handful of freshman and JUCO arms that joined the program. Freshman righties Easton Tumis, Hudson Hamilton and Cole Selvig will likely find roles in the bullpen in some capacity. Tumis and Hamilton can run their fastballs into the mid 90’s. Righties Grant Fontenot and Gage Boehm joined the program from the JUCO ranks. Fontenot originally started his career at LSU and was the #1 player in Louisiana coming out of high school. Boehm stands at 6’5 and averaged over a strikeout per inning at junior college powerhouse San Jacinto.
David Pierce opted to take over pitching coach duties this past offseason, allowing Philip Miller to slide back into the third assistant spot added throughout College Baseball. Pierce will be assisted heavily by Chris Gordon, who is in his second season as Director of Hitting and Pitching Development. Gordon previously served as the pitching coach at Duke.
The other big coaching news was the return of Troy Tulowitzki as Director of Player Development. Tulowitzki’s role will be slightly different from the volunteer assistant role he previously occupied from 2020-2022, but his return should only benefit the program.
The schedule will look much different for Texas this year, with the biggest change being the increase from 24 to 30 conference games. This means the Longhorns will only have 4 weekends of non-conference games and only two double midweek matchups (Air Force and Texas State).
In Big 12 play, the Longhorns will not play Cincinnati or West Virginia. They do travel to Big 12 newcomers Houston and UCF while hosting BYU. Texas does also get the benefit of hosting TCU and Oklahoma State. The toughest road trips will likely be to Texas Tech, Oklahoma and Kansas State.
Texas has been ranked in every major preseason poll, something they could not say last year as they turned over much of the roster and coaching staff. Expectations will be high as the Longhorns look to exit the Big 12 with a statement and make their 39th trip to the College World Series.