An Early Look At The Inaugural Round Rock Classic

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Before the Round Rock Express takes the field at Dell Diamond, the ballpark will host one of college baseball’s premier early-season tournaments in the inaugural Round Rock Classic — with Texas Tech, Stanford, Houston and Tennessee lined up to take the field from Feb. 21-23.

Here's a quick overview of each team.

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Texas Tech

After another Omaha trip last season, Tim Tadlock’s club is again predicted to win the Big 12 and is a popular pick to return to the College World Series. 

Most Texas Tech teams under Tadlock have been known for hitting, and understandably so. He has a deep background as a hitting coach, and it’s how he made a name for himself. While Texas Tech will always, until proven otherwise, receive the benefit of the doubt offensively, this year’s team could be stronger defensively and on the mound than offensively.

Sophomore righthander Micah Dallas, who emerged as a freshman All-American last season as Tech’s Friday starter, is back to lead the weekend rotation. A lot of eyes, including those of many scouts, will be on hard-throwing senior righty John McMillon, who is projected to move into the rotation after being a reliever.

Clayton Beeter and his absurd 17.4 strikeouts per nine innings in 2019 returns to solidify the backend of games, and everyone the Red Raiders put on the mound will probably have power stuff. Vanderbilt transfer Austin Becker, sophomore Mason Montgomery, and junior Bryce Bonnin are arms expected to make an impact this season as well.

Texas Tech will miss 2019 first-round pick Josh Jung and power hitter Cam Warren. Fortunately for Tadlock, he doesn’t lack hitting options, but piecing together his everyday lineup could take a while because of all the competition, depth, and versatility on the roster.

For example, Dylan Neuse, Jr. (.298/.408/.494 in 2019) profiles at multiple positions, and represents an athletic, power-speed combo that could embody the Tech offense more than its slugging teams of the past. 

Braxton Fulford (.298/.388/.419) and senior second baseball Brian Klein (.315/.406/.440) will be mainstays in the lineup as well, and the Red Raiders have so many options, including some intriguing, glove-first players, it’s difficult to project where they use sophomore Dru Baker (.321/.395/.445). 

Will Tech opt for a more defensive-minded presence at shortstop like Miami transfer Cal Conley? It’s not a bad problem for Tadlock to have.

Stanford

After losing half of its lineup production from last season, Stanford needs its pitching and defense to lead the way. That’s exactly what should happen.

Led by junior righthander Brendan Beck (3.63 ERA in 2019 with just 25 walks in 91.2 innings) and his excellent command, the Cardinal should have one of the best starting rotations in the Pac-12.

Jacob Palisch, a lefty, didn’t have a strong 2019 statistically but is capable of producing a much better 2020 season, and sophomore righthander Alex Williams, listed at 6-3, 205 pounds, finished 2019 with a 2.56 ERA in 63.1 innings with just eight walks. In the backend of the bullpen, sophomore Cody Jensen will again make batters uncomfortable with his unique arm angle from the right side, and the bullpen should be a team strength.

Regardless of where junior Tim Tawa, one of the team’s best draft prospects, plays, Stanford should be very strong defensively. Tawa could play shortstop or center field. Stanford should be strong behind the plate with veteran catcher Christian Molfetta, and while the outfield will be young, it won’t lack athleticism and has some speed.

What will determine how far Stanford gets in the postseason, because it’s very likely it makes the NCAA Tournament, is its hitting. Can Tawa (.253/.284/.410) take a step forward to provide a big RBI and slugging presence with Nick Bellafronto (.258/.383/.492)?

Like usual, Stanford recruited well, and you should see some of that youth, like outfielders Brock Jones and Henry Gargus, in the lineup.

Houston

The Cougars are going to miss masher Joe Davis (18 homers in 2019) and top hitter Jared Triolo (No. 72 overall pick in 2019 MLB Draft). And they were dealt crushing injury news in late January when it was announced projected starter Sean Bretz and impact reliever Layne Looney would both miss the season and needed Tommy John surgery. 

But don’t count out a very motivated Houston team that was on the wrong end of the NCAA Tournament bubble despite a very respectable resume.

On the mound, veteran Lael Lockhart, one of college baseball’s better two-way talents, is back to pitch in the Friday role, and lefty Clay Aguilar will have the attention of scouts after a quality season. Aguilar, who finished with a 3.06 ERA and 73 strikeouts in 67.2 innings last season, is going to be another year removed from Tommy John surgery and has a good feel for pitching.

How Houston finishes its rotation on Sunday and who it tabs in the backend of the bullpen are questions. But even with the injuries head coach Todd Whitting has some talent to choose from.

On offense, Brad Burckel returns following a 2019 campaign that produced 16 steals and a .397 on base percentage. Derrick Cherry is expected to help replace some of the slugging Houston lost in Triolo and Davis. Plus, Houston aggressively recruited junior college rosters, and landed a lot of players capable of immediately providing an impact, like slugging corner infielder Ryan Hernandez and his San Jacinto teammate, Andrew Papantonis.

Houston received three first-place votes in the 2020 American Athletic Conference preseason poll, and is picked to finish second in the league behind East Carolina. The Cougars should return to the postseason in 2020 and can compete for a league title.

Tennessee

How difficult is the SEC? Tennessee could have a first-round pick leading its rotation, lefty Garrett Crochet, and is led offensively by preseason All-American outfielder Alerick Soularie (.357/.466/.602 in 2019). The Vols finished 40-21 last season after making the final of the Chapel Hill regional in Tony Vittelo’s first year as head coach and are still predicted to finish fifth in the East by D1Baseball. 

So, don’t be fooled by the preseason conference projection for Tennessee because it’s more about the insanely good depth of the league than the team itself.

Crochet is going to light up radar guns all season, and if he can display more strike-throwing and secondary stuff, he could be one of the premier pitchers in the league. He’ll likely be joined in the rotation by junior righthander Chase Wallace, who relies on a sinker-slider combo, and the third spot probably goes to either Camden Sewell or Elijah Pleasants. 

Both sophomores and righthanders, Sewell is a strike-thrower while Pleasants is just beginning to tap into his upside.

If the rotation’s talent shows in results, pitching could be a strength of the team because of Redmond Walsh and Jackson Leath in the bullpen. Plus, the infield defense possesses impressive athleticism and should provide nice support for pitchers.

On offense, Tennessee will probably be known more for power than flying around the bases. First baseman Luc Lipcius will help provide some of the slugging and keep an eye on freshman Jordan Beck in the outfield. 

Tennessee’s offense likely depends on the ability of its junior college and freshmen newcomers making enough of an impact to support Soularie, Lipcius and sophomore Max Ferguson.

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