Boulders On Their Shoulders: Houston Opens 2020 With Something To Prove

Todd Whitting enters his 10th season as head coach at Houston following a 32-24 (12-12) season that was disappointing by the program's standards given its success in 2017 (tied for the regular-season conference title in AAC) and 2018 (regular season conference champs). 

After missing out on the NCAA Tournament — and a good case can be made the Cougars should have been in it — Whitting’s club shouldn’t lack motivation heading into 2020. 

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Let’s examine the Houston Cougars as they enter the 2020 season.

Offense

If it seems like Lael Lockhart has been a standout at Houston for a long, long time, it’s because he has. A top two-way talent in college baseball, Lockhart is coming off a strong summer in the Northwoods League and Houston will make sure his bat is in the lineup somehow. 

Derrick Cherry, another two-way talent, should provide some thunder in the middle of the Houston lineup after hitting four homers in 32 starts last season. After stealing 16 bags in 19 attempts with a .397 on base percentage in 2019, Brad Burckel should provide a competitive and very speedy presence at the top of the Houston lineup. 

The Cougars added a lot of junior college bats during 2019 recruiting cycle, and there’s a real chance Ryan Hernandez, a large presence in the batter’s box and corner infielder, emerges as a key piece for Houston and one of the better power bats in the AAC. Like Hernandez, Andrew Papantonis transferred from junior college powerhouse San Jacinto, and could provide some thump in the lineup.

Houston will need as much power as it can get from JUCO additions like Hernandez and Papantonis. Joe Davis is gone after he blasted 18 homers last season, and top hitter Jared Triolo was selected No. 72 overall in last year’s MLB Draft.

Pitching & Defense

On paper heading into the offseason, Houston’s pitching staff had a real chance to be the best in the conference. But it was hit with the unfortunate news in late January of projected weekend starter Sean Bretz and impact reliever Layne Looney being out for the season because both needed Tommy John surgery.

Fortunately for the Cougars, Lockhart (3.58 ERA in 83.0 innings last season) is back as a projected Friday starter and so is Saturday starter Clay Aguilar (3.06 ERA and 73 strikeouts in 67.2 innings). A good competitor on the mound who can throw strikes, Lockhart brings stability to the Friday spot while Aguilar impresses with his pitchability and feel for sinking the ball and mixing speeds.

Who fills the third rotation spot? We’ll see. Houston could dip into its talented bullpen for a starting option because it has talented arms like Cherry, who can pump the fastball into the zone in the high 90’s. Perhaps Robert Gasser or Carter Henry could crack the weekend rotation. 

Fortunately for Whitting, he doesn’t lack options. It’ll come down to filling the holes caused by injury and maximizing a talented pitching staff.

Defensively, pitchers should enjoy throwing to junior catcher Kyle Lovelace, who embodies what college coaches want a catcher to be. Burckel and shortstop Koby Hyland could be one of the top defensive middle infields in the conference, and veteran Tyler Bielamowicz plays a solid center field. 

While the Cougars might experience some bumps on the corners, they should be stout up the middle.  

Who The Scouts Are Following

With so many junior college additions, like Hernandez, Papantonis, Gasser, and more, the Cougars are going to be an interesting team for scouts to follow to see if a jump in competition affects production. 

Aguilar probably will get the most attention. He’ll be another year removed from Tommy John surgery, and scouts like his feel for pitching on the mound. If his velocity jumps, he could garner more attention.

Looking ahead, Cherry could be one of the top 2021 draft prospects in the league, and Houston should have more draft-eligible prospect presence in 2021.

Season Outlook

Following a 20-4 conference finish last season, East Carolina is again the favorite to win the AAC. D1Baseball.com picked Houston to finish second behind the Pirates, and the AAC coaches agreed. ECU received six first-place votes from the league’s coaches while Houston snagged the other three.

Don’t bet against Houston making the NCAA Tournament after barely missing out last season. If the junior college additions can make an impact and Houston can maximize its pitching staff, it should finish in the top two of the league with a strong enough resume to comfortably make the tournament.


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