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February 26, 2009

Wait 'Til Next Year

Horned Frogs, Riding High

by Bryan Smith

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When coach Jim Schlossnagle leaves Fort Worth, dominance in the Mountain West Conference notwithstanding, the caliber of pitchers that have passed through Texas Christian University is likely to be his most important legacy. Consider that in the last four June amateur drafts the Horned Frogs have seen six pitchers taken in the first five rounds. In 2005, Lance Broadway became the school's first-ever first-round pick, a feat duplicated last year by Andrew Cashner. In 2007, ace Jake Arrieta fell to the fifth round before signing for first-round money.

Amazingly, in the same four drafts, six pitchers were taken in the first five rounds from Texas A&M, Baylor, and University of Texas combined (two from each). Schlossnagle will talk about the difficulties of recruiting in Texas, but that statistic is a recruiting tool that few in the nation can duplicate. It has already had an effect-in 2008, the team had Greg Holle in the weekend rotation, touted as the school's top freshman recruit of all time. Holle is pitching on weekdays to start this season, effectively replaced in the rotation by Kyle Winkler, a new freshman fireballer whose fastball hits the mid-90s. The talent is coming full circle, and ultimately, it is talent-not a school's budget-that guides a team through the postseason.

Texas Christian, one of the toughest omissions from my pre-season top 25, earned a spot in the rankings this week by upending Cal State Fullerton on the road in the school's first series. After dropping the series-opener on Friday, the Horned Frogs scored 19 runs in two days to win two out of three. Back home during the week, the team kept the momentum going with wins over Dallas Baptist and Texas State, allowing just two runs overall. With a trip to Oxford, Mississippi this weekend to battle Ole Miss, TCU has an opportunity to prove that not only do they belong in the top 25, but they are a real threat to host a regional and make it to Omaha.

The first few weeks of the college baseball season are always a grim reminder of the long odds of ever being able to truly contextualize statistics at this level. Arizona State, for instance, really impressed many last weekend when they allowed just nine runs in a four-game series while scoring 53, but it came against Wisconsin-Milwaukee. How can we learn anything about the Florida State Seminoles in non-conference play if their toughest opponent is a depleted Auburn Tigers opponent? Sorry, but Hofstra University isn't a tool by which to gauge anything. This is why it's refreshing to see a school like TCU challenge themselves out of the gate with two road series against top 10 teams.

"Playing a great team-like Fullerton especially-really helps you learn where your team is at that time, and what you need to improve upon," coach Schlossnagle e-mailed this week. "Playing a soft team early may help with confidence, I guess, but I don't think you get better."

There are logistical reasons as well: the Horned Frogs will begin conference play on March 20, and for the next two months their most difficult weekend opponent will be San Diego State. Hosting a regional has proven next to impossible for a team whose conference will naturally hurt its RPI, so Schlossnagle's decision to begin the season with road-testing matchups is twofold: it helps the team's RPI should they be a potential regional host, and if they are ultimately selected as a two-seed instead, the team has already tested its mettle in difficult road environments. It's the experience, more than winning or losing, that guides the decision. Last year, the eight teams in Omaha in pre-conference play were just 20-19 against teams in the top 50 of Boyd Nation's Iterative Strength Ratings. Fresno State, Georgia, and Rice all stumbled out of the blocks before using their early season experience as a post-season strength.

What the Horned Frogs are really doing, without anybody noticing, is following the Wayne Graham/Rice University blueprint for building a top-notch baseball school within a highly contested state. Rice consistently tests itself in the opening weeks-last year, they played nine games against schools in Boyd Nation's top 50 before conference play began. The Owls have a long history of great pitching and good defense-talents that Schlossnagle is preaching, and recruiting, at TCU. Last year, the Horned Frogs ranked sixth in the nation in Defensive Efficiency, which does far more to explain the team's 3.63 ERA than their pitching staff, which, from a talent perspective, is their weakest of the past five years.

By contrast, this year's pitching staff is probably the strongest they've had. It must be with Holle pitching on weekdays-while still a raw talent, his stuff might be the best in the Mountain West Conference south of Steven Strasburg. He's not even the first option on weekdays, as junior Steven Maxwell is finally healthy after having elbow issues. On Tuesday, he shut down Dallas Baptist for five innings, allowing just two hits while striking out five and garnering eight ground-ball outs. The team also appears to have the bullpen depth to make it through a long season. Through five games, TCU relievers have pitched 20 2/3 innings, allowing just four earned runs for a 1.74 ERA. Taylor Cragin led the group with a hero's performance in relief of freshman Kyle Winkler on Sunday-he shut down Fullerton by facing the minimum while working six full innings.

Schlossnagle knows that a regression in defense is inevitable-the team lost senior shortstop Bryan Kervin, and the lineup has a few positions where sluggers are being played for the sake of offense. Taylor Featherston, a freshman slugger who leads the team with six RBI through five games, already has four errors. Junior college transfer Matt Curry will never be confused with a Gold Glover at first base, but he already has two home runs, and he could make a run into the teens this season. The talent on the pitching staff can afford a drop-off in defense-the talent of the bats on this roster will ensure that the team wins when the pitching staff falters.

After this weekend, no matter what the outcome against Ole Miss will be, it's going to be easy to forget about the Horned Frogs for a few months-at least until they become a victim of the Strasburg Express. Hopefully the committee, and those of us ranking the top 25, won't forget the challenges that Schlossnagle presented to his team in March, or the talent that is on this roster. It's doubtful Schlossnagle will get another arm into the top five rounds this year, but thanks to those great arms of the past, TCU has its deepest roster in program history, and their best chance of making it to Omaha.

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Baseball Prospectus NCAA Top 25: February 26, 2009

 1. Louisiana State
 2. Texas
 3. Texas A&M
 4. North Carolina
 5. Cal State Fullerton
 6. Clemson
 7. UCLA
 8. Ole Miss
 9. Baylor
10. Georgia
11. Georgia Tech
12. Stanford
13. San Diego
14. Missouri
15. Rice
16. UC Irvine
17. Oklahoma
18. Florida State
19. Florida
20. Arizona State
21. TCU
22. Oklahoma State
23. Coastal Carolina
24. Miami
25. Arkansas
Off: Louisville, Alabama, Pepperdine

A real problem is developing with this list, as I have become sufficiently unimpressed by any of the available options from five through 10, with the exception of Clemson. Who else in what I have proposed as college baseball's second tier took a step forward on opening weekend? Perhaps the two schools from Georgia-except that there is no fix to be found for Georgia Tech's shallow pitching staff. UCLA looked great while outscoring UC Davis 18-3 in the series' first two games, but they've lost three straight since. Missouri and Rice both floundered, and San Diego and Baylor were merely OK. Even Ole Miss and Cal State Fullerton were significant disappointments, so for lack of a better option, and with the goal of trusting my pre-season instincts, I chose to drop only Missouri from my top eight, and I just rearranged the back of my top five. The notice is out for the schools that made the cut: it's time to put up or shut up.

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Weekend Preview: Premier Match-Ups

Friday: Miami at Florida, Chris Hernandez vs. Patrick Keating
For as strong as this weekend looks, I'm rather disappointed by the Friday night matchups. Nevertheless, I include this series because it will be the best attended of any played this weekend, and with two control pitchers and good defenses, it should be the nation's best baseball. I chose Florida last week as Sunday's best matchup, eagerly anticipating Nick Maronde's college debut, and he delivered: 6 1/3 innings without an earned run that helped the Gators complete a sweep of Louisville. But it was Keating on Friday that set things off, hitting his spots and out-pitching Cardinals ace Justin Marks. Can he do the same going up against another command-first lefty?

By the way, for all of the coverage that Jason Kipnis and Dustin Ackley received for their fantastic first weekends, did anyone notice Yasmani Grandal? The Hurricanes' sophomore catcher was fantastic. In the Friday debut, Grandal went 2-for-3 with a walk and his first home run. In Saturday's doubleheader, he added another home run and three more walks, and he reached base three more times on Sunday, scoring two of Miami's 18 runs in the series-clincher over Rutgers. Six walks and two home runs, and Grandal is again looking like a potential first-rounder a year from now. Can the Hurricanes facilitate the same lemons-to-lemonade transition for freshman Harold Martinez?

Saturday: UCLA vs. Baylor, Gerrit Cole vs. Shawn Tolleson
I'll admit that there were some personal reasons for choosing this game over Texas A&M vs. Rice, even if the latter comes a week after Aggies Saturday starter Alex Wilson struck out 14 batters. But I've seen Wilson before, as a freshman at Winthrop pitching at the North Carolina regional; rumors have the slider being tighter than ever, so I don't doubt we'll be featuring a Wilson start down the road. This week, we'll pick Gerrit Cole's start, to follow the star freshman who led UCLA to a series-clinching victory in his debut last week by pitching one-hit ball over six innings. With reports of his velocity saying he's throwing in the high 90s, Cole's decision to pass on the Yankees and their offer of low first-round money has never looked smarter-if he can stay healthy, we can anticipate scenarios where he might go as high as second behind Bryce Harper in 2011. As for his opponent, Tolleson was a summer stud in the Cape Cod League, but he hasn't pitched very well in his years with the Bears. He has the arm, and as a sophomore-eligible draftee, the time is now if he wants a payday come June.

Sunday: Missouri at Arizona State, Nick Tepesch vs. Seth Blair
It's no guarantee that the Sun Devils will go with Blair on Sunday-Pat Murphy already has his foot on the gas pedal. They'd be wise to protect Blair's arm, as the sophomore is showing signs of living up to his promise, with eight strikeouts in six innings in his Sunday season debut. Tepesch was just the opposite, pitching horribly on Sunday, and he'll need to do better this week to avoid facing a potential move back to the bullpen. At 1-4, the Tigers must show something in the Arizona State Tournament.

Other Series I'd Happily Pay to Attend: I would love to watch both Cal State Fullerton and Ole Miss this weekend-to see the fire in the eyes of both teams players after both lost their first series. Ironically, Ole Miss will face TCU, who took down Fullerton a week ago. The Titans, meanwhile, will face Stanford, who looked awfully good against Vanderbilt at home. There are good pitching matchups across the board there, but none better than Drew Pomeranz going up against sinkerballer Steven Lockwood in the Rebels-Frogs series on Friday.

Bryan Smith is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Bryan's other articles. You can contact Bryan by clicking here

Related Content:  Cal State Fullerton,  The Who,  Texas,  Nick Tepesch

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