Rejoice, people with sanity, Winter is slowly starting to dwindle.
The XFL has kicked off, the NBA All-Star break is this weekend, March Madness is right around the corner…and baseball season is nearly upon us.
The Oklahoma Sooners baseball team is ready to roll, opening their season this Friday against the Virginia Cavaliers in Pensacola, Florida.
“Extremely excited for the 2020 year, several returners coming back…we had a really good fall,” Sooners’ Head Coach Skip Johnson said at last Friday’s media day.
It’s been a long offseason after the disappointing way the 2019 campaign ended, with the Sooners going 0-2 in the Big 12 Tournament and failing to receive a bid into the NCAA Tournament.
Today, we examine what the 2020 team is going to look like, and just how likely a big bounce back year is for Oklahoma.
Before diving into specific areas of the team, it feels important to just say up front that this year’s Oklahoma Sooners are expected to be a legitimately quality baseball team.
D1 Baseball ranks OU #24 in their preseason poll, which is the third highest among Big 12 teams (Texas Tech #6, Oklahoma State #22).
So, it is safe to say that if the Sooners fail to make the NCAA Tournament again this year…it will have to be considered a pretty sizable failure.
One thing working against Oklahoma in 2020, is a pretty rough schedule – starting with Virginia right out of the gate.
“Schedule is going to probably be very challenging for us…should be in the top 10 of schedules in the country, it is going to be a trying time for us,” Johnson said.
They also take on Missouri, LSU, Arkansas twice, Dallas Baptist twice, and a San Diego State series in the non-conference. That is a pretty tough slate that doesn’t even include Big 12 play which includes road trips at Texas Tech, at TCU, and a couple of games in Stillwater for Bedlam.
The past few seasons for OU have featured a great start against a fairly light schedule to give them a gaudy record, and then they sort of fall off once conference play starts.
If they get off to a great start again, it definitely won’t be a fluke.
The starting rotation appears to be the strength of the team as it really does not have a noticeable weakness.
In college baseball, you really need to have four solid guys that you can trust throughout the season to rack up wins, and one of them needs to be a true ace.
Right now, Oklahoma looks to have those boxes checked.
“It (the rotation) should be the strength of the club.” said Johnson. “Last year those guys were sophomores, we always look at them as growing a year older with Cavalli starting and Levi (Prater) starting and Ben (Abram) having a year under his belt after his freshman year, they should be a year better and more experienced.”
Cade Cavalli is projected as a first-round talent, and it does not take much watching him to see why. The kid can throw gas and has great movement.
The scary part of Cavalli is that he has yet to play a season where he was committed to pitching full-time, which he will be doing this season. Reports are that he will sit high 90’s on his fastball with the ability to touch triple digits…my goodness.
Skip Johnson’s confidence in Cavalli is understandably high, even allowing Cavalli to call his own pitches this season – something Johnson said he has never done in 29 years of coaching.
Behind him is a sensational #2 in lefty Levi Prater, who is certainly good enough to be the Friday night man on a lot of teams around the country.
3/4 spots are made up of JUCO transfer Dane Acker and sophomore Ben Abram, with Acker likely being the Sunday man but that has not been officially announced yet at this point.
Only good things have been said about Acker, and Abram will be the better pitcher in a large number of his starts on Tuesday nights, as he certainly has the skills of a weekend starter.
All this together means that starting pitching shouldn’t be an issue this season for Oklahoma.
“We got the staff that I think is top one or two in the country, it’s truly ridiculous,” Cade Cavalli said.
The Oklahoma bullpen isn’t probably going to be as strong as the rotation, but it should be very solid as well.
Headlining the bullpen will be Senior closer Jason Ruffcorn, who said there was “unfinished business” when asked why he elected to return to the team this season rather than get into a professional career. Behind him is a plethora of arms that Johnson can call on when needed.
“I feel like if you put any one of us pitchers out there, we are going to be able to do whatever job is asked of us,” Jason Ruffcorn said.
Wyatt Olds is a guy in the bullpen who is expected to make big strides. His freshman season featured some good and some bad, but with a year under his belt under Skip Johnson’s guidance, it feels like Olds could be ready to make a big jump in year 2.
A wildcard in the bullpen is big left-hander Brad Demco, a senior transfer. His role isn’t quite clear but he definitely will have one, as the lefty is going to be useful for Skip Johnson this season if he is able to have success.
Someone with a lot of upside will be right-hander Jaret Godman, who is expected to have a key role this season both out of the bullpen and potentially starting when the situation calls for it. In a similar category is Zack Matthews, who likely will be thrust into many high-leverage situations throughout the season.
An underrated storyline this year to the success of Oklahoma could be the type of seasons that Ledgend Smith and Aaron Brooks have. They both showed noticeable improvement last year, and if they make another jump to being truly quality options that would make the Sooner bullpen significantly deeper.
Now, the pitching can shut people down every night but if the lineup isn’t producing consistently it isn’t going to matter in the long run.
The lineup will have some names people will recognize from last season with Tyler Hardman being the guy who OU is going to need to drive their offense.
Brandon Zaragoza, one of the leaders of the team, will be back at Shortstop and joined by Conor McKenna at Second Base up the middle.
Tanner Tredaway will be back in Centerfield, with the corners somewhat of a question mark with Johnson having a few options. Brady Harlan, Diego Muniz, Jordan Vujovich, Vincenzo Bologna, and freshman Kendall Pettis all are potential choices.
It is expected that Harlan and Pettis will likely fill the corners, but best believe Muniz will find a way into the lineup somewhere and Jordan Vujovich did some really nice things in his playing time last year. It will probably take a few weeks to really lock down what the outfield will be throughout the season.
Joining Pettis as freshmen who will likely make an impact will be Peyton Graham who is expected to fill in at Third Base for the graduated Brylie Ware. Graham will have big shoes to fill, but the tall and slender youngster will be ready for it.
“The kid has got talent, he’s special, he has a remarkable feel for the game,” Brandon Zaragoza said on Graham.
An interesting spot to see how it’s handled will be the catcher position where Skip Johnson has two very quality options in Brady Lindsly and Justin Mitchell. Obviously with the fact of one being left-handed and the other right-handed make it an easier game-to-game decision based on the handedness of the opposing starting pitcher.
Personally, I fully expect to see both of these guys in the lineup often, with one being the designated hitter. We shall see though on that front.
Overall, this lineup has the potential to be pretty solid, but to have questions about it are certainly fair. There really isn’t any apparent power on the squad outside of possibly Hardman and Lindsly. You don’t have to be able to go deep to go score runs consistently…but it sure doesn’t hurt.
Brylie Ware made the offense go at times last year, so without him who steps into his role as the guy you want up in a key moment? Time will tell.
Skip Johnson was asked at Media Day what his expectations of the offense were for this season and his answer was very Skip Johnson: “If I had expectations, I would probably go to Riverwind tonight and put some money down.”
That about sums it up.
The Oklahoma Sooners in 2020 are an interesting group, because they are a team that looks to be capable of making a serious run in the NCAA Tournament – but at the same time their contender status is going to be met with some understood skepticism.
My personal thoughts, having watched the team a great deal for the past few seasons, is that this team has the best rotation it has had in a while but the concerns about the lineup are valid.
I could see them putting up 5-6 runs regularly and I could also see them going through some serious offensive dry spells that causes them issues. But that’s baseball, it can be extremely hard to predict.
My expectations of the team overall are fairly high, though. This is definitely a tournament team, there is no reason for them not to be.
The lineup has question marks but it is definitely good enough in my eyes to win a lot of games this year when paired with the rotation and the bullpen.
What they do beyond that is anybody’s guess, that will come down to where they are playing their regional, who else is there, etc.
One thing I am sure of, though, is that it should be an entertaining season of baseball at L Dale Mitchell Park.
The 2020 Oklahoma Sooners baseball season will get rolling this Friday as they travel to Pensacola, Florida to take on the Virginia Cavaliers in the first of a 3-game set.
The Sooners’ home opener will be Tuesday February 18th, at L Dale Mitchell Park against Texas Southern.