In our first baseball preview, we discussed the Tigers starting pitching in 2023. Now it’s time to discuss their late game counterpart, the bullpen.
The Tigers will have a nearly brand-new bullpen this season. Guys like Nathan Landry, Christian Wall, Austin Cheeley and others are no longer with the team, but fresh faces have arrived in Columbia and optimism has come with them, too.
When talking about a bullpen, the first thing that always comes to mind is who’s going to shut the door in the later innings? The answer for the 2023 Tigers seems to be two names— Rorik Maltrud and Zach Franklin.
Maltrud has taken a long and winding path on his way to Missouri. Initially he enrolled at Oklahoma before transferring to a JuCo followed by New Mexico State. Now in his final year of eligibility, Maltrud will likely play a large role in the bullpen for the Tigers.
Upon arriving in Columbia by way of the transfer portal, many didn’t know what to make of Maltrud (myself included). He started a majority of his games at New Mexico State last season, but it was unclear if he had the makings of an SEC pitcher. I pegged him to slide into the swing guy role (start on weekdays and maybe be a long reliever on weekends), but D1Baseball reported that his fall was so exceptional, it now looks like he’s going to be an anchor in the 8th and 9th innings for the Tigers.
Maltrud should fit into this role well with his combination of velocity and control. According to D1Baseball, Maltrud sat at 93-94 with his heater and mixed in a slider and curveball when they scouted Missouri in the fall. Beyond his stuff being above average, Maltrud excels in the control department. In 2022, he posted a 1.04 WHIP and 3.73 K-BB ratio.
A guy in the mid 90s who’s not going to walk batters in the backend of my bullpen? Sign me up.
Maltrud also posted a 4.11 ERA, 30 Ks, a 4.68 FIP, and 3.39 xFIP in 2022, but maybe the most exciting thing he is bringing to Columbia is his K-strut.
Joining Maltrud as a back-end anchor for the Tigers this season should be Zach Franklin. 2023 will be Franklin’s sixth year in college baseball, and he spent the first five at Western Carolina.
After showing consistent improvement throughout his career at WCU, Franklin had by far his best season in 2022. In 16 appearances, he made six starts and had three saves. He also posted a 2.06 ERA, 1.06 WHIP and 70 Ks in 56.2 innings. Well, what about the FIP and xFIP, you ask? Franklin was also very good in those departments with a 3.85 FIP and 3.39 xFIP, respectively.
Franklin has a good fastball that’ll sit in the low 90s with the potential to reach the mid 90s, but his moneymaker is his splitter. Many pitchers in college don’t throw splitters, and that’s probably one of the major factors that contributed to his ability to strike out 70 batters in only 56.2 innings last year. Likewise, his splitter allows him to keep balls on the ground and in the ballpark. In 2022 he had an exceptional 60.6% ground ball rate – the highest of his career.
If Franklin can even bring 80% of his WCU output to Columbia, he will be a huge part of this bullpen.
While not near as sexy as the backend bullpen role, for college baseball teams, the role of the swing guy who can both start midweek games and be a reliever on weekends is always essential. Nathan Landry was quite good in this role last season for Missouri before being taken by the Red Sox in the MLB draft.
The logical in-house solution to Landry’s departure would have been San Diego transfer Carter Rustad, who settled into a bullpen role for the Tigers after struggling the weekend rotation initially. However, Rustad has battled injury for most of the offseason, and it’s unclear when or if he will pitch for Missouri in 2023.
In his absence, Arizona transfer Javyn Pimental is the favorite to assume this role. Pimental, who joined Chandler Murphy in transferring from Arizona to Missouri, has three years of eligibility remaining and posted a 3.90 ERA in 30 innings last season. Most people, including our friends at D1Baseball, believe the lefty has the stuff to start, but he needs to reel in his control.
Last year Pimetnal had a 1.53 WHIP and a 1.29 K-BB rate in 22 appearances. If he can gain a better feel for the zone, Pimental could be a major asset to the Tigers bullpen in 2023.
The rest of the bullpen will find its shape as Bieser experiments with different arms in non-conference play, but a pair of freshmen will be worth keeping an eye out for as the season matures.
Logan Lunceford of Edmond Santa Fe High School (shoutout 6A Oklahoma baseball and my COVID-shortened senior season) and the ever-popular Sam Horn are two freshmen who could find some innings with the Tigers this year.
Horn might have the best stuff on the entire pitching staff. He was MLB.com’s No. 76 draft prospect for good reason with his fastball that can get into the mid 90s and his above average slider. However, how he balances spring football and baseball will be a developing story throughout this semester and will no doubt have a major impact on his ability to get innings. I plan on breaking Horn’s situation down in a separate piece sometime in the next week.
Lunceford, on the other hand, should get ample opportunities to earn some innings early in the season. The young righthander doesn’t have Horn’s electric velocity and will sit around 90 mph with his fastball but has received good reviews about his feel for pitching at the collegiate level. Only time will tell if that will translate to game action.
In each of the last three years, one freshman pitcher has found an important role with the Tigers on the mound. In 2020 it was Spencer Miles, 2021 was the year of Ian Lohse and in 2022, Tony Neubeck excelled. Could Lunceford or Horn be next?