TCU opens with few faces from back-to-back College World Series teams

Coach describes TCU's pitching challenges in 2016

Horned Frogs coach Jim Schlossnagle says some pitchers will have to develop, but that it's happened before.
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Horned Frogs coach Jim Schlossnagle says some pitchers will have to develop, but that it's happened before.

TCU might be hard to recognize when the college baseball season begins Friday night.

Gone are Preston Morrison, Trey Teakell, Riley Ferrell, Keaton Jones, Cody Jones, Derek Odell, Garrett Crain and more.

The entire infield. All but one starter (and he’s hurt). The closer. The setup man. The leadoff hitter. The center fielder.

All gone.

Most of what powered TCU to back-to-back College World Series appearances has graduated, gone to the pros or used up eligibility.

So now what?

“I can’t wait to start a new adventure this year with this new club,” catcher Evan Skoug said.

TCU begins the season in the top 20 in every major set of rankings, including No. 11 in the USA Today Coaches’ Poll.

No one knows what to expect. Except that it will be mostly new. Veterans account for only 16 of the 34 roster spots. The rest are newcomers to TCU, including five expected in the opening night lineup, plus the starting pitcher.

“Obviously a lot less experience,” coach Jim Schlossnagle said, when asked to describe the change. “You know, I think there’s some talent there. But you don’t know what you have until you start to play the game. There’s a lot of things about this team that I like, at least that I’ve seen in practice and in our intrasquad games and in the Alumni Game. But you don’t really know anything about your team until you start to play.”

For TCU, that’s at 6:30 p.m. Friday against Loyola Marymount at Lupton Stadium. Mitchell Traver was scheduled to start for the Horned Frogs, but a strained muscle in his back has him sidelined for up to six weeks.

Horned Frogs coach Jim Schlossnagle says some pitchers will have to develop, but that it's happened before.

That leaves the Frogs turning to left-handed junior-college transfer Rex Hill for the opener. Last year’s long reliever and fifth starter, Brian Howard, is scheduled to start Game 2 on Saturday. Prized recruit Luken Baker, bumped into the weekend rotation while Traver is out, is scheduled to start Sunday in Game 3.

This team has a chance to write its own story.

TCU coach Jim Schlossnagle

Behind them will be an infield with junior college transfers at shortstop and second base and veterans Elliott Barzilli and Connor Wanhanen at the corners.

In the outfield, freshmen will patrol in left and right. In center, Dane Steinhagen will open in place of Nolan Brown, who is still probably two weeks from finishing his recovery from surgery on his wrist.

Behind the plate, Skoug returns after leading the Horned Frogs in home runs, doubles and RBIs as a freshman.

Who will close and who will be the fourth starter are among the remaining questions.

They’re some studs. … There are some guys that can flat-out play.

TCU catcher Evan Skoug, on the Horned Frogs’ 18 newcomers

But some things are clear.

“We’ve got a hitting team,” Brown said. “I mean, we’ve got a lot more bats, a lot more freshmen that we can really count on that will be in the lineup and playing every day for us.”

And the Frogs do not downplay the potential of the new players. Schlossnagle said freshman outfielder Ryan Johnson has “really, really impressive physical tools” and that swing infielder Mason Hesse is “an elite defender.”

Baker, the national Gatorade Player of the Year last season at Conroe Oak Ridge High School, will pitch and hit for the Horned Frogs, splitting time at first base and designated hitter when he’s not on the mound.

Junior college shortstop Ryan Merrill was a 15th-round pick of the St. Louis Cardinals last summer who opted to play for TCU.

2.33ERA for TCU pitching over the past two seasons, lowest in the NCAA in that time. Six pitchers return from last season’s staff.

“They’re some studs,” Skoug said. “I like watching BP every day just to see what they can do. Guys will hit a ball, and I’m just in awe sometimes of what they can do. Once they really start to figure it out, there’ll be a certain moment where it just clicks for them in a season, and I’m just excited to be there and watch it. Because there are some guys that can flat-out play.”

It may take time for Schlossnagle to sort it all out, however. Brown might still be unavailable for two more weeks, although he might pinch-run or enter as a defensive replacement. Traver may not pitch until the Big 12 schedule begins. Another outfielder, senior Evan Williams, is recovering from a broken collarbone suffered in a car accident in January. Merrill missed practice this week with a back injury.

“You really don’t know anything about your team until you start to play and figure out the areas where you need to get better and start to see some guys deal with adversity, both individually and as a team,” Schlossnagle said.

Jim Schlossnagle needs one victory to tie Lance Brown for most wins at TCU. Schlossnagle is 515-236 in 12 seasons in Fort Worth.

Schlossnagle does not downplay or heighten expectations about going back to Omaha. He said it’s the reason many of the newcomers came to TCU.

“But you don’t get there today,” he said. “You get there by having a really good practice today and worrying about tomorrow when it gets here. I know it sounds coachy, but it’s really true, and that’s the culture of this place. If you do that, then it’s really hard for you not to reach your potential, whatever that is.”

So that’s Schlossnagle’s first assignment for his new team. Figure out what it is and go from there.

“This team has a chance to write its own story — young pitching staff and all-new players,” he said. “That can either scare you or it can excite you. And I know the players are excited. I’m not scared. We’re just ready to play. It’s time to get going.”

Carlos Mendez: 817-390-7760, @calexmendez

Center fielder Nolan Brown says the Horned Frogs' newcomers add to the power in the batting order. (Carlos Mendez/Star-Telegram)

Coach Jim Schlossnagle pulled off the big reveal to his Horned Frogs team. (Carlos Mendez/Star-Telegram)

TCU vs. Loyola Marymount

6:30 p.m. Friday

2 p.m. Saturday

1 p.m. Sunday

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