Vanderbilt baseball opens its season at the College Baseball Showdown in Arlington, Texas, with questions still to answer after losing in the Corvallis Regional last season.
The Commodores face a tough slate including No. 17 TCU on Friday (3 p.m. CT), No. 8 Oklahoma State on Saturday (11 a.m.) and No. 24 Texas on Sunday (10:30 a.m.).
It will be the third straight year facing Oklahoma State. The Commodores won the series in Stillwater in 2021 and lost the series at home in 2022.
Vanderbilt is 4-2 against TCU all time, most recently winning a matchup in a tournament in 2020. The Commodores are 4-3 against Oklahoma State and 7-7 against Texas, but Vanderbilt hasn’t faced the Longhorns since 2014, when they played twice in Omaha in the Commodores’ national championship season.
Here are five questions Vanderbilt will look to answer in Arlington:
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MAILBAGUnpacking questions about Vanderbilt baseball before 2023 season starts
PROJECTED LINEUPProjecting Vanderbilt baseball lineup, pitching rotation for 2023
How does the pitching stack up?
Vanderbilt should have a better rotation than each of the three teams it’s playing. Although Oklahoma State may have the best individual pitcher of the group in Juaron Watts-Brown, the Commodores are likely to miss him in the rotation.
But Vanderbilt has a slightly different issue. There are so many solid rotation options that it’s hard to determine the best three outside Preseason All-American Carter Holton. Whichever three pitch in Arlington, how they do against the other three teams could help determine how much of the rotation is the same by the time SEC play starts.
Can Vanderbilt beat teams with deep lineups?
Although TCU, Texas and Oklahoma State don’t have the same pitching depth that Vanderbilt does, each of those teams have elite talent and depth in the lineup. The Commodores have an elite talent in two-time All-American Enrique Bradfield Jr., but he’s not the only projected first-round MLB Draft pick in the tournament. TCU third baseman Brayden Taylor is another preseason All-American, a left-handed hitter who should provide a prominent matchup against a left-handed heavy Vanderbilt pitching staff.
Meanwhile, the Pokes likely have the deepest lineup of the group. The Commodores struggled last year with teams that had much better hitting than pitching, including Oklahoma State.
Can Vanderbilt turn baserunning into a weapon?
It’s not just Bradfield. This team has the pieces to be an elite baserunning unit. Outfielders Calvin Hewett and TJ McKenzie, infielders Jonathan Vastine and RJ Austin and utilityman Matthew Polk all have good speed and have shown ability on the bases.
Due to the new MLB rules that call for larger bases, college baseball has added a rule allowing the bigger bases to be used in games played in MLB ballparks. It’s unclear if the bigger bases will be used in Arlington, but if they are that could provide an even bigger advantage to the Commodores.
Who locks down the end of games?
Like the rotation, Vanderbilt’s primary issue in the bullpen is that there are so many quality pieces that it may take some creativity to figure out how they all fit together. Thomas Schultz, as the incumbent closer, figures to get the first look there, but there could be multiple pitchers used in high leverage situations. Nick Maldonado, Grayson Moore and Patrick Reilly could also be options, as could lefty Ryan Ginther.
How many freshmen step up?
One freshman, infielder RJ Austin, is likely to see starts in Arlington. Right-handed pitcher Andrew Dutkanych could too, though he could also begin on midweeks. Other position players like infielders Chris Maldonado and Ivan Arias could see time, as could pitchers JD Thompson and David Horn.
These players, particularly Austin and Dutkanych, will prove vital to Vanderbilt’s season. But it won’t be easy for them as the non-conference schedule is loaded with difficult opponents. One or two freshmen who can show out right away could be key to banking wins early.