First pitch for Mississippi State baseball is tomorrow and it’s about as highly-anticipated a season as any MSU sports team has had in some time, with John Cohen’s club ranked as high as No. 5 in the preseason polls.
With that excitement in mind, I put together Diamond Dawgs for Dummies: A Guide to 2013 Mississippi State Baseball.
Let me be clear: I don’t think any of you are dummies, though it’s been said about me before. More than anything, that just seemed like a catchy title. But the point is the same: get MSU fans caught up and primed for the start of the season, whether you’re a casual fan, new to the team or just have a bad memory and need some catching up like any student after a summer vacation.
Hopefully, there will even be some tidbits for the most die-hard among us.
I’ll guide this, but I’ll be leaning on Cohen for insight and analysis throughout.
- Defeating the injury bug: Cohen would need both of his hands to count the number of starters or key players who missed significant time last season due to injury, and now nearly all of them are back and healthy. The depth is as good as Cohen has ever had it and should result in improvement in at least one key area…
- Can MSU get it going at the plate? The Bulldogs struggled last year to put bat on ball and foot on base, but the majority of their best hitters were among those out with injury. As they have returned and everyone is a year older, MSU is expecting a significantly improved season of performance at the plate and looks strong from the top to the bottom of the order. Said Cohen, “We feel like we might have some offensive components we might not have had a year ago.”
Who are the pitchers? More on this later, of course, but one thing Cohen must find is a Friday night starter to replace Chris Stratton, last year’s ace. The depth of the staff is strong, but questions remain how the starters will shake out.
- “I wanna go fast.” Cohen has remarked how impressed he is with the overall team speed, from home plate to first base, stealing bases and even across the outfield.
- World Series. Let’s talk Omaha, baby. Cohen admits it’s a cliché, but says his team genuinely is taking the season one day, one practice and one game at a time. But make no mistake: this is a team with World Series potential, and the players know it. It would be MSU’s first appearance in six years, last making it in 2007.
Names to Know:
Adam Frazier, All-American shortstop: Frazier led the team in batting last season and was ultimately picked for the national team who he played with over the summer.
Says Cohen, “He’s a guy at the top who knows how to get to first base. He brings a very high baseball I.Q., a savvy, a guy who never panics in any situation. He’s a guy who, if he makes a mistake, he goes right to what we call figure it out. He can figure things out on the fly in a hurry. In this game, you’re forced to do that. You can’t direct everything that’s gonna happen in a baseball game. You have to have some guys who have a great feel for the game, and he’s certainly one of those guys.”
Wes Rea, first baseman: The big man at first was also considered a big-time offensive line recruit in high school, and that massive frame helps him both at first and at the plate. His long arms can make up for plenty of mistakes on throws to first and his strength gives him a lot of power at the plate. Shoulder troubles prevented him from having the year he could in 2012, but he’s still one of the best first basemen in college baseball.
Says Cohen, “Wes is one of those guys who’s been hurt a lot. We’re looking for Wes to be healthy. He’s a really good defender and he’s really starting to figure out his swing in situations in the game. We’re very excited about Wes Rea. Wes Rea is a captain and just is a very good defender and somebody we really need to keep healthy over the course of this year. He’s dropped 20-plus pounds and gotten serious about his body.”
Hunter Renfroe, outfielder: The junior is one of the most naturally gifted and talented players on the roster, though it hasn’t all quite come together yet for him. This summer in the Cal Ripken League, Renfroe set the record for home runs and was the first player to have his jersey number retired. He can hit, throw, catch and run. Now MSU is ready to see it click for him at Dudy Noble.
Says Cohen, “Hunter had one of the great summers in the history of the Cal Ripken League, so certainly he’s very deserving. I know he really wants to have a great spring. He’s been somebody that we’ve talked about with his talent level and the things he can do. We just want it to happen and we know it’s gonna happen for him. Is it gonna happen when he’s 25 or at age 21? You don’t know.”
Brett Pirtle, second base: The junior college transfer is a newcomer who most don’t know about now, but likely will in the near future. A strong candidate to start at second base, Pirtle rounds out a talented and experienced infield with Rea, Frazier and likely Daryl Norris at third.
Says Cohen, “Brett certainly gives us a switch-hitter and that’s very beneficial. It gives you a lot of flexibility in your lineup. He’s a runner. He’s a guy who’s a really solid contact guy who can get you gap-to-gap power. He’s just a guy who plays hard all the time. He has some really good range at second base. He can throw and he can run. He’s an exciting young player. Even though you’re a junior college transfer, going through this league for the first time can be a challenge.”
On the surface, the losses of Chris Stratton, who was drafted in the first round of last summer’s MLB Draft, and Caleb Reed, a long-time closer for the Bulldogs, may provide concern. However, while MSU doesn’t yet have a Friday night star like Stratton, the depth is just as good, if not better, on the mound. And keep in mind, Stratton wasn’t even the opening night pitcher last season. That duty went to Ben Bracewell, who battled through injuries but is back this year. And by the end of the season, freshman Jonathan Holder had become the best closer not only on the team but perhaps in the SEC.
Add in experienced arms like Evan Mitchell, Ross Mitchell, Chad Girodo, Luis Pollorena, Trevor Fitts, Will Cox, Brandon Woodruff, Jacob Lindgren and Kendall Graveman, as well as three or four positional players who can take the mound with ease, and MSU has more than enough arms for any weekend. The key will be finding the starters. Guys like Evan Mitchell, Lindgren, Woodruff and Graveman seem to have the upper hand.
Says Cohen, “It really forces our hand early in the year because in a five day period you’re playing five games [to start the season]. So we’ve gotta come up with five guys who can start. Chris Stratton this time last year, we didn’t know what Chris’s role was gonna be either.
“Certainly Evan Mitchell is one of the best athletes on our club. There were times this fall he hit 94-97. The stuff is there, the athleticism is there. He’s the guy that really reminds you the most of Chris Stratton at this point. Jacob Lindgren is somebody who was the pitcher of the year in the fall. His stuff has just been tremendous his last two or three times. He’s got a good breaking ball and a lot of life to his fastball, so we feel really good about Jacob being a factor on the weekend for us. Brandon Woodruff is somebody that we start a little bit slowly, he’s had some soreness and tenderness, but we feel like he’s gonna be a factor for us. He’ll go on Tuesday against Grambling to give him some extra time.
“There’s a whole lot of candidates. We’ve got one of the best closers in college baseball in Jonathan Holder. We feel like Ben Bracewell’s really clung to a 1-2 inning type role for us in the middle or the end of a game for us. He’s been able to bounce back on Friday and Sundays for us, thrown the ball 92-94 miles per hour. Certainly, we feel like there’s several candidates for those three starting spots, but we don’t feel like we’re in a hurry because this month that you get to spend before conference play is really valuable to learn as much as you can about the pitching staff.”
Second base: We’ve mentioned Pirtle, who is in competition with returning starter Matthew Britton to anchor the area between Frazier and Rea.
Outfield: Junior C.T. Bradford is back from injury and he pairs with Renfroe as a concrete duo in the grass, while junior Demarcus Henderson and freshman Jacob Robson will battle it out for the third spot. Those two also happen to be the fastest players on the team, and while Robson arrives from Canada with serious hype, Henderson has had one of the best preseasons of anyone on the team.
Third base: Norris seems the probable starter now that he’s healthy, particularly given his prowess at the plate, but Cohen repeatedly referred to this position as a competition and has mentioned freshman Kyle Haan, another Canadian, as a contender.
Catcher: This one is less of a battle as Mitch Slauter is the entrenched starter, but after taking a king’s serving of playing time last year, he may finally have a chance to rest with the emergence of Nick Ammirati.
Says Cohen, “Behind the plate, we’re very, very fortunate to have two guys who bring a lot of experience. You can’t mention how much Nick Ammirati has improved as a leader behind the plate and somebody who’s just really giving us everything that we want. He and Mitch Slauter really share the catching duties. Mitch was such a warrior for us a year ago. Both those guys worked together to help our pitching staff. They add so much to what we’re doing.”
Cohen: “Well, I think we’re really strong up the middle. I feel like Frazier at shortstop is a really solid component. Our catching is experienced and very good and I feel like we have a really solid pitching staff.”
Cohen: “I think our biggest weakness is our schedule. We play the most difficult schedule, arguably, in the Southeastern Conference. Our schedule is incredibly difficult. I’d put it up against any 10 weekends in the country. I think that’s gonna be a challenge. With the new setup of our league, 14 weekends, I think that’s gonna be a bigger factor than people know. I think the best way to equate that is the football scenario. There are those who have really gained from the schedule that they play. I think the biggest weakness of our club is really gonna be our schedule and proven offensive identity.”