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FALL PROFILE: Texas A&M Aggies
2011 record: 47-22 (College World Series)
Final 2011 PG ranking: No. 6
Top returning players: OF Krey Bratsen, 1B Jacob House, INF Matt Juengel, P Kyle Martin, OF Tyler Naquin, P Ross Stripling, P Michael Wacha, OF Brandon Wood
Notable departures:P John Stilson, P Nick Fleece, 3B/P Adam Smith, P Brandon Parrent, SS Kenny Jackson, C Kevin Gonzalez, P Steve Martin, 2B Andrew Collazo, P Joaquin Hinojosa
Areas of concern: The Aggies again are expected to compete for a College World Series appearance with several key cogs back in the spring. However, there definitely are some concerns that must be rectified between now and the spring. For the instance, the bullpen was a concern for the Aggies last season. And now they must replace two quality bullpen arms in Nick Fleece and Joaquin Hinojosa. Newcomer Jason Jester is expected to provide an immediate punch, but the proof is on the field. The Aggies also have the tough chore of replacing veteran defensive backstop Kevin Gonzalez, while there’s at least some instability elsewhere in the infield with the departures of Andrew Collazo, Kenny Jackson and Adam Smith. Establishing a strong bullpen is the primary goal between now and February.
What we think: The Aggies certainly have some question marks in the bullpen and at the catcher position. Otherwise, they’re in solid shape as fall workouts continue. A&M will have one of the nation’s best one-two punches on the weekend with veterans Michael Wacha and Ross Stripling leading the way. They also have some core leaders back at the plate with Krey Bratsen, Matt Juengel, Tyler Naquin and Jacob House leading the way. A&M will enter the spring as the Big 12 favorite, but its ability to establish a dominant bullpen will determine its fate as a potential national title contender.
What they’re saying:“Last year’s team probably was a little further along at this point, only because it had a few more upperclassmen. We’re going to be relying on some young guys at some premium positions in the field. We’re not as far along.” – Texas A&M coach Rob Childress.
CB TICKET: More inside scoop on Texas A&M
Texas A&M is in the midst of a $28 million renovation project to Olsen Field, which is expected to be completed by the start of the 2012 campaign. It just so happens the Aggies will head to the SEC in 2013 with what essentially amounts to a brand new ballpark.
The Aggies would like nothing more than to finish their final Big 12 season with a bang and head to the SEC with a full head of steam on the field.
A&M is on the right track to accomplish that goal. The Aggies put together an impressive 2011 campaign, which included the program’s first trip to the College World Series since 1999.
As fall workouts continue for the Aggies, there’s reason for both excitement and cautiousness. They welcome back one of the nation’s best one-two punches in talented right-handers Michael Wacha and Ross Stripling, but must replace some key cogs from last year’s CWS club.
“This fall, it was about creating a team and making our guys much tougher,” Texas A&M coach Rob Childress said. “We will have plenty of experience back, but we’re also going to rely on some newcomers at some pretty key positions.”
On the mound, the Aggies welcome back an All-American in Wacha, and Stripling, who posted an impressive 2.29 ERA in 125 2/3 innings last season. The Aggies are without right-hander John Stilson, who signed with the Blue Jays this past summer, making the third starting spot in the weekend rotation a heated bout between now and February.
The Aggies have several options for the No. 3 spot, including freshmen right-handers Corey Ray and Gandy Stubblefield, freshman left-hander Ty Schlottmann, and veteran lefty Estevan Uriegas. Stubblefield turned down the Houston Astros as a 14th-round pick this past summer, while Uriegas posted a 3.60 ERA in 20 innings last season.
“Having a very solid No. 3 pitcher is very important, so that’s something we must find between now and the start of the season,” he said. “Uriegas continues to increase his velocity and he’s only getting better. Schlottmann hasn’t let anything bother him this fall and is making strides, while Ray and Stubblefield are velocity guys with good stuff.”
Stubblefield pitches in the low 90s with an explosive fastball and good breaking stuff, while Ray has a good fastball and plus changeup. Schlottmann also has been impressive, and could move to an important bullpen role before the season arrives.
“All three of those guys came from outstanding high school programs, and they’re ready,” he said. “Again, they’re just the type of guys who don’t get overwhelmed by being new to this situation.”
The bullpen is another interesting unit to watch between now and February. Veteran Kyle Martin is the best returning reliever. Otherwise, the Aggies need a new closer and must adequately fill other important bullpen roles.
Hard-throwing JUCO right-hander Jason Jester is expected to step in at closer. Jester only stands at 5-foot-11, 185 pounds, but impressed scouts at the Texas Collegiate League this past summer with a fastball that touched 95 mph. The Aggies also expect big things from redshirt sophomore right-hander Rafael Pineda, who like Jester, impressed observers at the TCL this past summer.
“Jason Jester has a big-time arm and he’s going to fit with our bullpen quite nicely,” he said. “Pineda had a great summer and is having a good fall. He’s finally healthy and pitching up to his potential.”
Others to watch include veteran left-hander Ross Hales, right-hander Derrick Hadley, freshman left-hander Matt Kent and freshman two-way player Daniel Mengden, who’s expected to earn significant playing time at catcher in the spring.
Mengden has some stiff competition at the catcher position. He’s entangled in a fierce bout with fellow freshmen Cole Lankford and Mitchell Nau, and sophomore Troy Stein, who batted just .192 in 26 at bats last season.
“This is going to be the first time we haven’t had a seasoned catcher since I’ve been here at A&M,” he said. “Mengden is very good at the plate with plus throwing ability from behind the plate, while Lankford is the type of guy who can play catcher or anywhere else in the field and contributor. Nau is a straight-up catcher who can really hit. Stein, meanwhile, brings experience and great leadership to the table.”
Also worth watching is the race for the shortstop position. The Aggies must replace Kenny Jackson, who was a pleasant surprise last season. Candidates to do so include JUCO transfer Mikey Reynolds and freshmen Nik Castilleja and Blake Allemand.
“Reynolds can really, really run and plays very solid defense. He has been very impressive this fall,” he said. “Castilleja is very talented and Allemand is an extremely tough kid, who like Lankford, can play several positions.”
Even with some areas of uncertainty, the Aggies should feel good about their chances of competing for another CWS berth in ’12, and their future beyond next season with an influx of young talent.
They welcome back two of the nation’s best starting pitchers and an offensive lineup with several key cogs from last year’s club.
The Aggies are more than ready for their final Big 12 season. Then it’s SEC time.
Kendall Rogers is the college baseball managing editor for Perfect Game USA and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org