The Big 12 is back, and as it looks during the preseason, deeper than ever.
Texas, coming off a deep tournament run that ended in Omaha, has reloaded, with several key returners and a couple of transfers who can have immediate impacts. Texas Tech and Oklahoma State are right behind the Longhorns, and TCU, the defending league champion, cannot be counted out either.
Just as last season revealed the parity and depth of the conference across the board, with four Big 12 teams selected, and a couple more on the fringe of an at-large bid, 2022 is expected to be more of the same. With the majority of teams playing high-quality non-conference schedules, these teams will be battle-tested, and possibly ranked by the time Big 12 play begins.
But even before the first pitch of the season has been thrown, we already have a good feeling when it comes to the league’s top contenders. The question that remains unanswered is, who will take home the Big 12 title come May?
The Frontrunner: #1 Texas
Number one in College Baseball Nation's Preseason Top 50, the Longhorns appear destined for Omaha. Following last season’s appearance at the College World Series, head coach David Pierce brings back two talented starters in left-hander Pete Hansen (7-5,2.45 ERA, 80 K in 2021), and right-hander Tristian Stevens (11-3, 3.31 ERA in 2021). Tanner Witt and Aaron Nixon are expected to be the Horns’ go-to relievers, especially in the late innings, after both threw over 27 innings out of the bullpen a year ago. That core, combined with some of the younger talent on the pitching staff, players such as Justin Ekhardt and southpaw Lucas Gordon, forms a group that can get the Longhorns through a number of the challenging weekend series that are so prevalent in a conference as deep as the Big 12. Pierce has indicated that Winthrop transfer Daniel Blair could play a role on the staff this season, after striking out 48 batters in 56.2 innings of work in his first two collegiate seasons.
A year ago, Texas led the Big 12 in ERA, a 2.93, and could very well do it again, especially as it appears there is no weak point when it comes to either the starting rotation or bullpen.
At the plate, the Longhorns bring back a good portion of their lineup, including power hitter first baseman Ivan Melendez, who hit .319 with 13 home runs in 2021. The starters at second base and shortstop are also back, in Mitchell Daly and Trey Faltine, respectively.
Next Up: #20 Texas Tech
Tim Tadlock’s team is always deep, and that is the case again in 2022, as the Red Raiders return a number of key position players, such as second baseman Jace Jung, along with several key starters. Losing Micah Dallas, who often came out of the bullpen but could throw a high number of innings if necessary, as well as shutdown reliever Ryan Sublette is a hurdle to overcome for sure, though Brendan Girton showed flashes of being a similar caliber player last season and returns for 2022. The starting rotation has a chance to be one of the best that Tech has had in recent years, led by Brandon Birdsell (4-1, 3.06 ERA in 2021).
But from this perspective, the Red Raiders’ strength appears to be found in their offensive abilities. Jung can hit to all fields, with tremendous power (.337, 21 HR in 2021), and Kurt Wilson, Parker Kelly, and Easton Murrell are each consistent at the plate, with an exceptional ability for contact with runners in scoring position.
The Dark Horse: #31 TCU
With a new head coach in Kirk Saarloos, there will certainly be a transitional period in Fort Worth. But the Horned Frogs appear poised at a run in the NCAA Tournament.
Austin Krob headlines a pitching staff that helped TCU to a 41-19 record a year ago, having posted a 2.81 ERA with an 8-1 record in 2021. The southpaw has an incredible ability to mix speeds and is likely to be TCU’s Friday night starter after making 16 starts, with tremendous success, as a sophomore last season.
Losing Phllip Sikes will possibly challenge the Horned Frog lineup’s scoring ability early in the year, but third baseman Brayden Taylor performed well at the plate last season with a .324 average, and infielders Tommy Sacco and Elijah Nunez are solid contact hitters.
There might be question marks as to the team’s proven depth entering the season, but once some of the younger relievers can get more innings and the offense finds a rhythm, this TCU team will be hard to stop.
Also Keep an Eye On: #16 Oklahoma State
The Cowboys are tremendously competitive entering the year, though their success on the mound will likely be decided on how well the bullpen performs. There is no denying that Justin Campbell (2.57 ERA, 102 K in 2021) will be in competition for the conference’s Pitcher of the Year award, but after that, the Saturday and Sunday starting roles are not as set in stone. Bryce Osmond showed flashes of greatness last season, but his 2-5 record and 7.42 ERA was worrisome.
In relief, the loss of Brett Standlee leaves a significant hole (3.09 ERA in 32 IP in 2021), though Trevor Martin and Kale Davis logged quality innings a year ago and are back this season. Additionally, Miami transfer Victor Mederos can either come out of the bullpen or start, and limits opposing power hitters well.
More key losses can be found within the position players group, as OSU returns just four. Christian Encarnacion-Strand (.361, 15 HR in 2021) is now in the Minnesota Twins organization and Cade Cabbinness (.252, 37 RBI in 2021) graduated. But the lineup remains strong entering this season. Griffin Doersching can easily take over the power hitting role that Encarnacion-Strand played last season, as the Northern Kentucky transfer hit 20 homers last season, and outfielder Jake Thompson hit .342 a year ago.
The number of newcomers will help even out the losses, the only question will be in terms of how soon those newcomers can contribute. We will get a good look at just how good Oklahoma State is, as the Cowboys travel to Vanderbilt for a season-opening three game series in Nashville, Feb. 18-20.
Riley’s Pick: Texas
You cannot go wrong with the Longhorns, whose pitching core appears to be one of, if not, the nation’s best, boasting a number of proven starters and relievers. At the plate, the return of hitters including Ivan Melendez and Trey Faltine should offset the losses of Mike Antico and Cam Willams, and keep Texas’ run production high. The Horns get a good test March 4-6 in Houston, Texas at the Shriners Hospitals for Children Classic, battling Tennessee, LSU and UCLA.
Three Best Series of the Year
Texas at Texas Tech: March 25-27: Lubbock is a tough place to play, period. Can the Red Raiders take an early lead in the standings against the league favorite to open Big 12 play?
Oklahoma at Oklahoma State, April 8-10: The Sooners, ranked at #32 in College Baseball Nation's Preseason Top 50, have a number of quality bats and have the makings of being a dark horse candidate in the Big 12 race. The Bedlam rivalry always brings out the best in both programs, but Oklahoma State has the home field advantage in this one.
Texas Tech at TCU, April 14-16: The Horned Frogs are at home, but are coming off a tough Tuesday matchup at Dallas Baptist, a surefire contender in the Missouri Valley Conference. This series is always a must-see, and comes at the midpoint of the conference schedule for both teams. TCU knocked Texas Tech out of the Big 12 Tournament in 2021, so the Red Raiders might be looking for revenge.