Because the season opener at Stanford is 53 hours away, and the excitement is killing you!1. Will So. LHP Taylor Wall develop into the premiere southpaw ace in program history?
What do Matt Anderson, Kenny Baugh, Philip Humber, Jeff Niemann and Wade Townsend have in common? Yes, they are considered among the best pitchers in Rice annals, were first-round selections in their respective amateur drafts, and are righthanded. Aside from Norm Charlton, Joe Savery and Mario Ramos, Rice pitching has been largely defined by sensational righthanded starters. Wall enters his second season with the program as the staff ace, and that fact plus his lefthanded leanings put him in rare company. The talent and tenacity are there - ask Marshall
and Kansas State
- so perhaps opportunity is all Wall needs to thrive.2. How long will Fr. 2B Michael Ratterree bat leadoff, especially if he flashes power potential?
The OG is committed to Ratterree atop the order because the gifted freshman has shown plate discipline. And just because he will open the season leading off doesn't mean Ratterree is expected to sacrifice opportunities to bash early in counts. Brock Holt smacked a dozen homers batting first in 2009, and given his ample strength and sturdy build, Ratterree possess similar slugging potential. If he goes on a power surge will Ratterree drop in the order as to maximize his run-producing potential, or will The OG stick with getting Ratterree more at-bats?3. Can Sr. C Diego Seastrunk rediscover the batting stroke that made him lethal in 2008, improve his defensive skills behind the dish, or do both in his final season in a Rice uniform?
GDG hit .353/.393/.504 with 6 homers and 61 RBIs as a sophomore but slumped to .288/.397/.456 with 7 homers and 45 RBIs while making the transition from third base to catcher in 2009. He got a mulligan while tackling such a huge undertaking, but now that he is entering his second season as the starting backstop, the Owls need GDG to revisit his gap-peppering form. Will he be able to reclaim his offensive prowess while improving his technique as a defensive catcher, especially considering the exacting standards of The OG?4. Which role best suits Jr. RHP Boogie Anagnostou - starter or stopper?
The Alvin College (by way of TCU) transfer certainly has the arsenal to excel as a starter - solid change, sharp breaking ball and a developing two-seam fastball, but he has plenty of experience out of the bullpen. As a potential closer Anagnostou could focus on utilizing two pitches, and his demeanor on the mound is ideal for a pitcher expected to finish tight games. So much of what happens with Anagnostou depends on what unfolds around him. If Sr. RHP Jared Rogers, RS Fr. RHP Anthony Fazio and Fr. RHP Tyler Duffey manage as starters, Anagnostou can stay in the bullpen and inflict damage. If not, he might move into the rotation.5. Can Sr. RHP Mike Ojala pull a Bobby Bell two years later - triumphantly return from Tommy John surgery after the season starts, stabilize the bullpen, and help lead the way to Omaha?
Ojala is The Big Unknown. His rehab from midsummer surgery has gone as well as anyone could have anticipated, and no matter how hard The OG tries not to think about Ojala, it remains on the forefront of his mind when he considers the second half of this season. A healthy Ojala operating out of the bullpen would be a boon to the Owls' title hopes. If his breaking ball returns to form - Ojala features the best curve on the staff - Ojala could thrive as a closer, and if his arm strength builds as the season progresses, Ojala might return to the rotation in time for the postseason. A healthy Ojala for the Houston Regional? Dream big.6. How many errors will the wizardry of Sr. 1B Jimmy Comerota save the left side of the Rice infield, and when will his defensive contributions garner the admiration they so justly deserve?
It's too easy to get caught up in his nicknames and his hustle and his selflessness and his versatility. Comerota is an exceptional defensive first baseman, a fact validated by his return to the position in the final days of intrasquads and the Owls' sudden defensive improvement. Comerota scoops balls out of the dirt with aplomb - just ask So. 3B Anthony Rendon and Jr. SS Rick Hague - and smothers sharply-hit grounders with a deft touch. Instead of lauding how hastily Comerota dashes down the line after taking Ball 4, tip your cap to his stellar defense.7. Will RS So. LF Michael Fuda parlay his considerable upside into a breakout season?
He is strong, fast, and has caught the eye of the scouting community
as he prepares to enter his first draft-eligible season as a collegian. But Fuda is also prone to vicious cycles of self-flagellation, so it's difficult to determine how he will handle those inevitable slumps that ensnarl every player. His speed is blinding, particularly when he is darting around the bases or attempting to beat out a bunt, and those flashes of power are tantalizing. But Fuda is his own worst critic, so his collection of tools won't be fully revealed until he can shake off lost at-bats.8. Which unproven pitcher will drastically exceed expectations and become a valuable asset?
There are plenty to pick from. Will it be Jr. LHP Tony Cingrani, a transfer who will open the season as the Sunday starter, or will Sr. RHP Jared Rogers rebound from the 6.15 ERA he posted while pitching through elbow discomfort last season? So. RHP Matthew Reckling will shoulder a heavier load as will Jr. LHP Doug Simmons, who might share closing duties with Anagnostou. RS Fr. RHP Anthony Fazio is back from Tommy John surgery, and a gaggle of freshmen RHPs - Tyler Duffey, Chase McDowell, Tyler Spurlin and J.T. Chargois - might be called upon to help Rice make its annual push to Omaha. Who will embrace the challenge?9. Will So. 3B Anthony Rendon see enough pitches to stay on pace to become the Owls' most decorated position player since Lance Berkman helped establish the program in the late '90s?
It's easy to take pitches (a remarkable .461 on-base% in 2009) when only your coaches, teammates and immediate observers know how supremely talented you truly are. When national media pronounce you as the best position player eligible for the 2012 draft
, expectations change. Pitchers will be far more delicate in handling El Martillo
, who subsequently will need the patience of Job to deal with all the base on balls sure to come his way. Rendon plays the game with such infectious enthusiasm that he appears above outward frustration, but if he doesn't get the opportunity to match or best the fabulous numbers he produced as a freshman (.388 with 20 homers and 72 RBIs), how will Rendon handle the questions that will surely follow pondering whether or not he was just a one-season wonder?10. A self-described leader by example, is Jr. SS Rick Hague prepared for the responsibility of leading this veteran team while managing the pressure of being in a draft-eligible season?
Hague is everything a coach could desire from someone serving as the face of a program. He has a profile fit for stardom, humility, and an exceptional set of skills (Hague is a first-round prospect). For two years Hague deferred to upperclassmen, but now the season he craved internally has finally arrived. He is the Owls' linchpin, and his ability to lead will be on display from the opening game throughout the season. Hague is expected to thrive on and off the field, and that's an awful lot to ask of anyone, even someone seemingly so perfect for the job.