The first baseball game is only a few days away (Feb. 20). Let's think warm and get ourselves prepared for spring with a preview of this year's squad.
After an NCAA Tournament appearance in 2014, Kansas took a step backward last season, going 23-32, 8-15, finishing last in the Big 12, a half-game behind Baylor and 1.5 games behind West Virginia.
Despite the disappointing results on the field, the Jayhawks boasted the Big 12 Newcomer of the Year in SP Ben Krauth, All-Big 12 First Teamer OF Connor McKay, All-Big 12 Second Teamers C Michael Tinsley and Ben Krauth, plus four All-Big 12 Honorable Mentions (1B Blair Beck, 3B Matt McLaughlin, SS Justin Protacio, CL Stephen Vilines). Of those, only McKay and Beck were seniors who won't be back for Kansas in 2016.
Historically, Kansas holds an overall record of 1835-1749-17 across 125 seasons of play. KU has won four conference titles, most recently in 2006, and has appeared in five NCAA regionals, making the College World Series once (1993).
Rich Price is entering his 22nd season coaching and his 14th season at Kansas. While in Lawrence, Price has compiled a record of 415-367-2. Since the formation of the Big 12, Price is 135-198-1.
KU's most notable returners are right up the middle. C Michael Tinsley (Jr), INF Matt McLaughlin (So), and CF Joven Afenir (Jr) all played in 50+ games last year, and all hit over .290 including Tinsley's .337 BA. The Jayhawks lost their top three home run hitters from last year to graduation, with Tinsley's three round-trippers the highest returning total. So, Kansas will be looking for some power production from somewhere, with Tinsley and McLaughlin the primary candidates. Two more returners to keep an eye on are 2B Colby Wright (Sr) and DH Owen Taylor (So).
Four of these five returners that I've mentioned are underclassmen, which hopefully means an improvement in numbers for these guys in 2016 while also boding well for the future.
Kansas is only losing one major contributor from last year's pitching staff, which depending on your point of view is either a good thing or a bad thing.
SP Ben Krauth (Sr) led the league in strikeouts last year (conference games only) and finished in the top 10 in ERA. Krauth will be KU's Friday night starter, and should give Kansas an excellent chance to win every time out.
CL Stephen Villines (Jr) returns to the Jayhawks after finishing second in the Big 12 in saves.
Sean Rackoski and Blake Weiman are the only other returning Jayhawks to post 40+ IP in 2015. However, both struggled last year with ERAs over 6.50. In addition, Rackoski is out with a broken thumb suffered just a few days ago. Price has named Jon Hander (So) and Jackson Goddard (Fr) as the Saturday and Sunday starters to open the season.
Outside of Krauth and Villines, Kansas pitchers were not very good last year, but did show improvement over the course of the season despite the increase in competition during conference play. The pitching staff was very young last year, as it is again this year; there are only three seniors on the pitching staff. KU will need the pitching staff to improve significantly from last year's production if they have any ideas of playing past the conference tournament.
The Big 12 has three teams in Baseball America's Top 25: #9 Oklahoma State, #18 TCU, and #21 Oklahoma. Those same three teams are ranked in the USA Today Coaches poll as well, with Texas and Texas Tech also receiving votes.
With what the Jayhawks are returning, they definitely have a chance to improve on 2015's last-place finish. They were picked to finish next to last in this year's preseason coaches poll, ahead of Baylor. Judging solely by preseason rankings, the Big 12 appears to be down this year as opposed to last year when there were four teams ranked in the Top 10, so there definitely seems to be opportunity there.
Coach Price has made an effort this year to play more home games:
"We are rolling the dice, there is no doubt about it," Price said of the early March home games. "Hopefully we will get an early and nice spring weather-wise and we can get those games in. We feel like we have traveled so much in the past that we are hurting ourselves by not playing a lot of home games. If those early games are unplayable we may have to get creative and move those series south."
Kansas has played tough schedules in recent years, and 2016 is no different as KU will face perennial college baseball powers Oregon State and Stanford in the non-conference. The Jayhawks will have plenty of opportunities for big wins this year as they play 13 games against teams that played in the 2015 NCAA Tournament.
I'm not bold enough to make a prediction as I don't follow the rest of the conference well enough to know what to expect from the other teams. If they Jayhawks can find some HR/RBI power and if the pitching can improve, KU could easily finish in the top half of the league and contend for an NCAA berth. However, those are two pretty big "If's."
Follow the Jayhawks
Once again, every home game will be available on ESPN3 and the Jayhawk Television Network. For more information on the Jayhawk Television Network, visit KUAthletics.com/TV. You can also listen to every game for free live online at KUAthletics.com/Radio or on the Kansas Jayhawks official mobile app for iPhone and Android devices.
The season kicks off on Saturday, Feb 20, at 3 PM in Little Rock, AR versus UALR. KU will only play one game down there, returning home for a two-game set against Northern Colorado on Feb 22-23 before heading to Surprise, AZ for the Big 12 / Pac 12 Challenge the following weekend.