As the mercury rises and the days grow longer, baseball season is quickly drawing closer. Mississippi State enters the spring with high hopes, as well as rankings, with the Diamond Dawgs as high as No. 5 in the Baseball America preseason Top 25.
John Cohen’s club has its eyes set on the World Series in the long term, but short term, MSU was on the field Friday, Saturday and Sunday for intra-squad scrimmages as it makes final preparations for the 2013 campaign.
I wasn’t able to make all three outings, but I did get a pleasant afternoon in a Dudy Noble chairback on Sunday, as well as an opportunity to watch MSU in action and chat with Cohen about his team.
I’ll mostly lean on the head coach for his observations and interpretations, but what stood out to me the most was the health and depth MSU had on the field, something it lacked last year with injuries throughout the starting lineup.
Not only are there more bodies on the field, they’re in good shape, as well, with several players having lost a good bit of weight, and a couple more adding some pounds if needed.
“I think, physically,” Cohen said, “we’re in the best condition since we’ve been here and that really helps.”
Notably, MSU has a healthy first baseman in Wes Rea, outfielders in C.T. Bradford and Hunter Renfroe and third baseman with Daryl Norris, all of whom were starters at some point last year.
More importantly, those players bring a lot of experience at the plate, where MSU struggled at times in 2012. Renfroe appears poised for a big year after setting the Cal Ripken League record for home runs this summer, as well as having his jersey retired. Renfroe regularly crushed balls deep in batting practice.
Rea, of course, is a big part of MSU’s power in the lineup. Listed at 6’5”, 272 pounds, he’s actually a good bit slimmer than last year, and appears to have a healthy shoulder, as he, too, looked strong in BP, sending the first one I saw over the moved-in left field fence at The Dude.
Rea and his big frame make a big difference at first base, but his potential at the plate is big, it’s just a matter of it being realized. For the most part, Cohen observed during the scrimmage, saving coaching notes for afterwards. I didn’t watch him the whole time, so I could be wrong, but Rea was one of the few who I noticed Cohen yelling encouragement to when he was at the plate.
“I think he’s got a really nice approach,” Cohen said of Rea. “He’s just gotta relax and let the game come to him a little bit and be a guy in the order who can do some damage for us.”
Elsewhere, MSU appears relatively set with most starting positions, though the final battles sound like they will be for second and third base.
Norris at third and Matthew Britton at second have started for MSU in the past, but newcomer Brett Pirtle is providing some competition for both. A junior college transfer out of Texas, Pirtle and Britton exchanged outings at second, both with mixed results. Britton had three errors in the Sunday scrimmage, while Pirtle had one of his own, though both had plenty of positive moments, as well.
“Pirtle is really versatile,” Cohen said. “He’s put together some nice at-bats and he’s a very good defender, as well. Junior college baseball in Texas is a very high level and I think he’s somebody that’s gonna contribute to this club.”
Speaking of new contributors, freshman Jacob Robson is another one who could crack the lineup. The Canadian outfielder – who I’m referring to as the Maple Hammer until further notice – arrives highly-touted and very talented, with more poise than one might expect from a true freshman.
Batting against Jonathan Holder late Sunday, Robson managed to do what few others have done against MSU’s stud on the mound.
“I think that was a big at-bat for Robson late in that game,” Cohen said. “He’s somebody that can just fly. He’s facing one of the best closers in our league and finds a way. He doesn’t score a run, but finds a way to get the barrel on the baseball. Certainly, I think he’s gonna be a factor for us.”
One of the recurring messages here: MSU should be strong at the plate.
“I think we’re gonna have a better offensive club,” Cohen said. “I think we’re gonna have some more options and I think we’re gonna be able to play a little bit more left-right in some situations, especially late in the game.”
MSU’s pitching, of course, remains important, the part of the game which got it through last season.
Friday night ace Chris Stratton is gone to the MLB, leaving a gap in State’s rotation, though the overall depth of the group seems just as good if not better.
Luis Pollorena (one strikeout, no runs allowed), Will Cox (a groundout machine), Ross Mitchell, Holder and Ben Bracewell all saw action in the four-inning scrimmage, keeping it a low-scoring afternoon.
Bracewell, if you recall, was actually MSU’s opening day starter last year. Not Stratton. Nagging injuries prevented him having a big role in 2012, but his three up, three-down inning Sunday was certainly a positive sign.
“Ben Bracewell has put together two really good outings in a row,” Cohen said. “He was 92-93 [MPH] on Friday in really bad weather conditions. Then today he came out and threw the ball really well. If we can get two outings out of Ben Bracewell in a weekend with his very best stuff, that’s gonna be something we didn’t have a year ago.”
It’s just practice, but to my untrained eyes, there was lots to like and very little not to about Cohen’s club. The Diamond Dawgs look every bit the World Series contender they expect themselves to be.