TCU barely favored to repeat as Big 12 baseball champs

After consecutive College World Series appearances, TCU is the preseason pick to win the Big 12 Conference again. Barely.

When the nine Big 12 baseball coaches did their preseason picks, their first-place votes were split evenly among TCU, Oklahoma State and Texas.

That tight preseason vote for the Horned Frogs, only two points ahead of Oklahoma State and four ahead of Texas, seems appropriate after the way they advanced to Omaha last season. TCU overcame a seven-run deficit after two outs in the eighth inning against North Carolina State to win its regional, then clinched the Super Regional for the College World Series berth with a 16-inning victory over Texas A&M.

Along with eight players who were seniors last season, TCU coach Jim Schlossnagle lost three pitchers who were picked in last summer’s amateur baseball draft — starters Tyler Alexander and Alex Young and closer Riley Ferrell.

Mitchell Traver, a 6-foot-7 right-hander who was also drafted but opted to return for his junior season at TCU, was 9-2 with a 1.89 ERA and 77 strikeouts in 16 games last season. The Frogs’ rotation could also include a junior college transfer and a true freshman right-hander.

The Frogs could also start the season without two of their senior outfielders. Nolan Brown, their expected leadoff hitter after batting .302 last season, is recovering from hand surgery last month, and Evan Williams suffered a broken collarbone in a car accident.

Here are a few things to watch in the Big 12’s 20th baseball season, which gets started Friday:

EXPERIENCED COWBOYS: Oklahoma State, which finished second in the Big 12 last season, goes into coach Josh Holliday’s fourth season at his alma mater with seven returning everyday players, including All-Big 12 infielder Donnie Walton (.326 last season) and second-team outfielders Corey Hassel and Ryan Sluder. There are also nine pitchers back from a staff that had a combined 2.84 ERA, the lowest for the Cowboys since 1973.

TWO DECADES IN AUSTIN: Augie Garrido, the winningest NCAA baseball coach, begins his 20th season at Texas, which came after 21 seasons with Cal-State Fullerton and three at Illinois. Garrido has 1,950 wins overall, including 799 wins and two national championships with the Longhorns (2002 and 2005).

ROTATING THE TROPHY: Six different teams have won Big 12 regular-season titles the past five years — that includes 2011 when Texas finished tied for first place with Texas A&M before the Aggies left for the SEC. Baylor won in 2012, followed by Kansas State, Oklahoma State and TCU. A different team has also won the Big 12 tournament the past five years, with Texas A&M in 2011 the last to win the regular season and tournament in the same season.

COACHING CHANGE: Baylor is the only Big 12 team with a new coach after Steve Smith was replaced by Steve Rodriguez. Smith, the Bears coach for 21 seasons, was fired after they went 23-32 last season for their fewest wins since 1981. Baylor has had three consecutive losing seasons since winning its 2012 Big 12 title. Rodriguez spent the past 12 seasons at Pepperdine, where he led the team to eight NCAA Tournament appearances. He played for Pepperdine’s 1992 national championship team.

TALL ON PITCHING: Oklahoma has two 6-foot-7 right-handers who both started 15 games last season: Jake Elliott Jr. (4-6, 3.06 ERA with 80 strikeouts in 88 1-3 innings) and Alec Hansen (5-6, 3.95 with 94 strikeouts in 82 innings).

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