The Oklahoma Sooners baseball team will kick off their 2012 season Friday, February 17th, with a three game set on the road against Pepperdine. The Sooners are still led by tenured skipper Sunny Golloway, but aside from that and a handful of returning players Oklahoma has experienced a plethora of changes both on the field and on the coaching staff. The Sooners received preseason rankings ranging from #14 to #19 and continue to have the expectation of reaching Omaha as the number one goal.
As the season opener approaches, we decided to reach out to one of the best baseball sites on the interwebs, Baseball America, and pick the brain of their outstanding college baseball writer Aaron Fitt. He was kind enough to take some time out of his busy schedule and answer several of our questions regarding both Oklahoma and what we can expect to see from the Big 12 Conference this year.
CCM - It looks like OU is going to have to rely on a lot of JUCO transfers in the pitching rotation this year. Is there a recent model of success by another school you could point to for having success with that type of strategy or are the Sooners in uncharted waters so to speak?
Aaron - Certainly, Oklahoma has had its share of success by relying on junior-college transfers in recent years. We've seen several Omaha staffs rely on one or two impact JC transfers in the rotation over the last two years (Texas A&M with John Stilson, Arizona State with its Kyle Ottoson/Merrill Kelly types, etc), but usually the best teams have rotations built around high school recruits and supplemented by juco guys. So the Sooners are a little unusual in that they will lean more on juco guys (especially Gray and Okert) than high school guys (Overton).
CCM - Speaking of pitchers, are you aware of the buzz starting to build around Damien Magnifico (and we don't just mean his guaranteed spot on the All-Name Team)? If so, what can you tell OU fans who may not know about him yet?
Aaron - Yes, Magnifico has created quite a buzz this fall -- he even garnered significant support for our preseason All-America team from the major league scouting directors who cast ballots for it. Magnifico has always had arm strength -- he was a fifth-round pick out of high school back in 2009, so he's been on the map for a while. But he's never been able to stay healthy and harness his command, until now. He was bumping triple digits on the radar gun repeatedly this fall, reportedly up to 102-103, which is obviously pretty crazy. But the Sooners say he's also been able to throw it for strikes, which is critical. His secondary stuff still lags behind, but his fastball can be overpowering enough that he is capable of dominating mostly with that pitch alone.
CCM - Oklahoma is also replacing a lot of power at the plate with a bit of a youth movement. What are the key factors of Oklahoma's offensive game that are earning them a Top 25 ranking in the preseason?
Aaron - Lockwood and JC transfer Matt Oberste should give the offense a couple of much-needed physical presences in the middle of the lineup. But the key really is for guys like Max White, Cody Reine, Caleb Buhsyhead and Jack Mayfield to have bounce-back years. Those guys were really good players in OU's College World Series season, and they need to be again.
CCM - Are there any guys on this squad that you could see drawing some national attention?
Aaron - In addition to Magnifico, I think Jon Gray has big-time star potential. He reminds me of Stilson at A&M -- both guys transferred in from JCs as sophomores, and both have mid-90s fastballs and power secondary stuff. I think Gray can be an All-American in the next year or two. I'm also really excited about Hunter Lockwood, a freshman catcher with intriguing power potential and arm strength. He'll be a real impact guy for OU.
CCM - Sunny Golloway has earned a bit of a reputation around these parts for being a real "small ball" type of manager. With the losses of guys like Buechele, Seitzer, and Ogle and the believed strength in the pitching staff, should we prepare ourselves for even more sacrifice bunts this year?
Aaron - I don't know about that -- there is still plenty of power potential in this lineup with guys like Oberste, Lockwood, White, Reine and Drew Harrison. And I would describe Sunny's offensive philosophy as aggressive, not necessarily "small ball". The Sooners put a lot of pressure on their opponents by any means necessary -- pushing and dragging, hit-and-runs, stolen bases, home runs, whatever it takes.
CCM - As we've discussed, there has been a lot of turnover both on the field as well as off it. What are your thoughts on the changes to this Oklahoma coaching staff?
Aaron - The staff lost a pair of very highly respected coaches in Tim Tadlock and Mike Bell, there's no question about it. I don't know Aric Thomas and Jack Giese personally, but coach Golloway speaks very highly of them and expects the Sooners won't miss a beat with the new staff. I trust his judgment.
CCM - Expectations were really high heading into last year only to have them come crashing down with a pretty terrible finish to the season. What would you consider to be a realistic expectation for OU fans this season? Is Omaha unrealistic?
Aaron - I don't think it's unrealistic. It's an ambitious goal, but Golloway is convinced this team will get better as the season progresses, and I could see the Sooners gradually climbing up the rankings from their preseason spot at No. 19. It sounds like this group has great chemistry -- which wound up being a problem last year -- and we know it has plenty of talent. You never know how well junior-college transfers will adjust to Division I competition, and Oklahoma's season will probably be determined by how well those players settle in. If they are as good as Sunny thinks they are, OU could make a deep postseason run.
CCM - How do you see a new look Big 12 possibly playing out this year? Who are some other teams/players we should be on the look out for?
Aaron - Texas A&M looks like the favorite, with that dynamite one-two punch on the mound (Michael Wacha/Ross Stripling) and the best all-around player in the Big 12 leading the lineup (Tyler Naquin). Texas just lost its projected ace, Sam Stafford, for the season with a shoulder injury, but the Longhorns still have plenty of pitching. It will be another pitching-and-defense team for Texas, but the staff has a capable ace in lefty Hoby Milner and a dominant closer in Corey Knebel. Baylor looks like a solid regional team, led by an experienced, gritty lineup. I think Missouri will rebound and make another run at regionals this year, too. A&M and Missouri should make plenty of noise in their last year in the Big 12.
Obviously we'd like to thank Aaron for all his insight and if you like OU baseball or just college baseball in general, we can't recommend highly enough you check out Aaron on the Baseball America - College page all season long. In addition to the countless quality articles they put out all season, they also have a blog and podcast to help you get your college baseball fix.
Thanks again to Aaron and Baseball America and of course . . .
Boomer Sooner OU Baseball!!!