That's right, folks - fire up that John Fogerty and get your minds right for Fightin' Texas Aggie Baseball season! After ending a very up-and-down 2014 season one win away from a Super Regional appearance (I've chosen to block the regional loss out of my memory forever), the Aggies come into 2015 with renewed optimism. Head coach Rob Childress had to replace longtime assistant and hitting coach Andy Sawyers, who took the same position at Kansas State in July. Childress brought in Will Bolt, who spent the last 3 years as an Associate Head Coach at Nebraska where he helped the Huskers return to the NCAA Tournament in 2014 after missing out the last 5 years. Bolt's Huskers ranked 19th nationally in hits (623) and 31st in batting average (.293) in 2014; A&M, for reference, finished the 2014 season 30th in hits (607) and 52nd in batting average (.286).
The Aggies lose a few major contributors from last year's team, but there should also be some new faces who make significant contributions in 2015 as well as some sophomores who take steps forward with a year of experience at the collegiate level now under their belts. We'll focus primarily on the players who departed, returned and arrived for the Aggies this season, and then we'll look at some major dates to keep an eye on for the 2015 season.
Position Players (2014 Stats)
It goes without saying that 1B Cole Lankford is the most significant departure from that group, and one that quite frankly was a big surprise to me. Cole was drafted by the St Louis Cardinals with the last pick in the 27th Round (825th overall pick) of the MLB Draft (a full 12 picks before the San Diego Padres drafted one Johnny Manziel, for the record) and made the decision to forego his senior year at A&M to go pro. It will also be weird seeing someone other than Krey Bratsen roaming center field for the Aggies, as it certainly feels like he's been covering all sorts of ground in the outfield at A&M for forever now. Troy Stein was also a regular starter for A&M last year at catcher, and Jace Statum's versatility and defensive abilities. The good news is that A&M has a number of solid options for replacing all of these guys - more on that in a bit.
Pitchers (2014 Stats)
Daniel Mengden also chose to skip his senior year at A&M to sign a contract with Major League Baseball, but he was drafted much higher than Lankford. Mengden's hometown Houston Astros selected him in the 4th Round (106th overall pick) of the 2014 Draft. Corey Ray was a graduating senior who proved to be one of the better options out of the bullpen for the Aggies in 2014, but Jason Jester had a disappointing season after setting the A&M record for saves in a season in 2013.
Position Players (2014 Stats)
RF Nick Banks will certainly be the primary player to watch this year for the Aggies after an extremely strong freshman season in 2014 that earned him a spot on the USA Baseball Collegiate National Team over the summer. Also keep an eye on 2B Ryne Birk who, like Banks, put together a nice season in his first year in maroon and white and has also looked impressive in fall and spring scrimmages leading up to the season. J.B. Moss and Nick Choruby are both in the mix for replacing Bratsen in center field, and both have looked strong defensively in scrimmages. Coach Childress also has a number of options at both of the corner infield spots, with Logan Nottebrok, Hunter Melton, Ronnie Gideon and G.R. Hinsley all being potential choices.
Pitchers (2014 Stats)
You'll notice the asterisk by Tyler Stubblefield's name, and that is not a good thing in this case. Stubblefield, one of the Aggies' leadig candidates for the Friday night starter spot, tore his ACL in a scrimmage a couple weeks before the season while attempting to field a ground ball. He will most certainly miss nearly all if not all of the regular season for A&M; there is hope that he could be back in time for postseason play, though. That means that A.J. Minter and Grayson Long will almost certainly be your top 2 starters for the Aggies to begin the season. Grayson fought through some inconsistency in 2014 - with walks being his primary issue - and Minter spent last season coming out of the bullpen for A&M, but both have big opportunities to step up and win weekend starter roles for 2015. Andrew Vinson and Ty Schlottmann were both big contributors for the Aggies in the bullpen last season and I expect to see more of the same this year.
In the interest of time and space, I'm not going to list every single new addition to the A&M roster for 2015. These are the guys who I think are likely to have the best chance at seeing time on the field this year for the Aggies. I'm also going to do these in alphabetical order because, well, I can.
Michael Barash (C; JUCO) - A catcher who transfers to A&M from Palm Beach State College in Florida, Barash has looked good in scrimmages and very much has a chance to start behind the plate for the Aggies in 2015.
Cole Bedford (C) - A player who was a bit unlucky with injury history in high school (including Tommy John surgery), Bedford can play a number of positions - including catcher and middle infield.
Matt Collins (OF) - Collins is a true freshman from Memorial High in Houston and is listed as an outfielder, but saw time at DH and even 1B in scrimmages leading up to the season. He may need some time to develop at the college level but there is potential.
Lee May Gonzalez (RHP) - Gonzalez transfers to A&M from Laredo Community College, and the sophomore saw some limited work in this spring's scrimmages, but he flashed signs of potential and could have a chance at earning some innings out of the bullpen.
Brigham Hill (RHP) - Another player who has a Tommy John surgery in his past, Hill is an East Texas native who Assistant Coach Justin Seely referred to as "a silent assassin when he gets to the mound." Hill topped out around 90mph in velocity from what I saw in scrimmages, but worked in some good offspeed pitches that got him strikeouts.
Blake Kopetsky (OF; JUCO) - The Bryan native comes to A&M via Temple Junior College brings speed and a left-handed bat to the Aggies' lineup. Kopetsky has a chance to start in left field right away.
Turner Larkins (RHP) - The Arlington Martin HS pitcher drew high praise from Coach Childress who called him the "most polished pitcher in the state" in his senior season. Larkins is 6'3, 200lb and his velocity was in the 90's during scrimmages, not to mention flashing a good curveball and changeup. I wouldn't be surprised to see him starting quite a bit this season.
Kyle Simonds (RHP; JUCO) - Simonds chose to come to College Station from Hutchinson Community College in Nebraska, where he posted an undefeated record in 2014 and was one of three National Junior College Athletic Association Pitchers of the Year. His velocity was in the upper 80's during scrimmages, but he'll likely log quite a few innings in 2015.
Cody Whiting (RHP; JUCO) - Whiting is a sophomore who transferred from Crowder College who got a good amount of action in spring scrimmages. His fastball tends to sit in the upper 80's, but he showed a nice mix of pitches and the ability to strike out good hitters.
Tyler Woodmansee (RHP) - A freshman from Buda High School, Woodmansee is a pain to type but he's a guy who throws a lot of strikes and could be a bullpen contributor or even get a shot at a midweek starter spot this season. His velocity in scrimmages was mid- to upper-80's, but he showed good use of offspeed pitches including a nice curve.
Dates to Know
February 13-15: Opening Weekend vs Holy Cross
March 6-8: Houston College Classic - games against #23 Nebraska, #7 Houston and Baylor
March 13-15: SEC play starts vs Auburn at Olsen
April 10-12: Mississippi State comes to Olsen looking for revenge after A&M took 2 of 3 in Starkville in 2014
April 17-19: Arkansas makes their first trip to Olsen since the Aggies joined the SEC, but perhaps more importantly the Good Bull Hunting Real Life Tailgate/Meetup on April 18 (7:35pm first pitch)
April 23-25: The Aggies head to Alex Box Stadium in Baton Rouge for the first time since joining the SEC.
I was looking back at my 2-part preview last year in putting this together and audibly laughed out loud at most of my predictions and projections for the 2014 season. As such, I've decided not to further embarrass myself by going into very much detail here this year. I'll keep this short and sweet, then.
I fully expect the Aggies to continue their streak of making the NCAA Tournament. I think this team has the ability to win enough games to host a regional, but I don't expect it to happen. I do think the hitting will be improved for A&M in 2015, but losing Stubblefield is a big blow to the pitching staff and I'm concerned about who else will step up into a starter role. I think a number of newcomers can play big roles this season, but I'm not sure I see enough pieces together to make a run past the regional round. I also certainly hope I'm wrong about that.
For once it appears that we're going to have absolutely gorgeous weather in Aggieland for Opening Day/Weekend, so be sure to get yourself to Olsen Field and enjoy some Fightin' Texas Aggie Baseball. First pitch times are 6:35pm Friday, 2:05pm Saturday and 12:05pm Sunday. BTHO Holy Cross!