In a surprisingly-spring-like setting, Mississippi State baseball began preseason scrimmages over the weekend, just a couple weeks away from the consensus top-20 Bulldogs beginning the 2016 season. Several notes and observations will follow, along with more in-depth stories as the preseason moves along.
Head coach John Cohen spoke Friday after the first of the three scrimmages and we expect to talk to him again this week, though several of his thoughts are included below. As for my big picture take-in: this looks like an almost brand new club. Or if not new, like someone doused the locker room with fertilizer every day through the offseason.
There is more size than we’ve seen in some time and a lot of talent to go with it. With so many open roster spots following the 2015 season, the influx of freshman and junior college talent, combined with the development of the players from the previous two signing classes, has made for a very different feel.
The rocks of the team will be the core of talented juniors, led by the three team captains, and makes for a comfortable dynamic of leadership and talent, as Cohen will discuss a bit further.
One final thought before going into some positional battles and scrimmage standouts: with the depth of talent on this roster, almost no position won’t be challenged for by multiple people. If I tried to predict the starters now, I would surely be more wrong than right. But early on, at least, there are a few standouts.
For individual scrimmage recaps and box scores, check out the baseball page on HailState.com
MSU’s pitching staff hasn’t been lacking for talent the last five or so years, but the combination of juniors Dakota Hudson and Austin Sexton has potential to be the best 1-2 punch they’ve had in a while. The two went head-to-head Friday, with Sexton getting the better of his teammate this time around. In a five-inning scrimmage, Sexton threw a shutout in his three innings of work, only allowing one hit.
Sexton has worked with new pitching coach Wes Johnson to add another pitch to his repertoire, something Cohen believes will be a big asset.
Hudson, a preseason All-American, struck out four in two innings, but got into a bit of a jam after some location issues, ultimately allowing two runs on three hits.
“Dakota’s really matured so much,” Cohen said, later adding, “He deserves to be confident after what he did this summer and this fall.”
One more note on pitching came as Cohen was talking about Sexton when he shared that just about every pitcher on the roster has added velocity under Johnson. The new pitching coach seems to have been a natural fit, as Cohen said they work comfortably and naturally together already.
“We spent so much time together over the last two months,” Cohen said. “Yesterday, as an example, we’re at the office at 6:30 a.m. and he left for the house last night at 8:30 p.m. It’s almost like our entire staff has known Wes for the last 30 years. So, it really hasn’t been that much of a transition.”
And all of that is without even mentioning junior Vance Tatum, who was his usual impressive self, throwing three scoreless innings on Saturday, notching three strikeouts and only giving up one hit.
One of the most noticeable differences on this team will be at first base, where Wes Rea was a stalwart and tremendous defensive presence for so many years. There are a handful of candidates to replace him, even including transfer catcher Jack Kruger and junior standout Reid Humphreys (who could also see some time on the mound).
Two likely candidates are Cole Gordon and Nathaniel Lowe, and it was Lowe who had perhaps the most impressive first weekend of scrimmages. Amassing three hits on Sunday, Lowe finished the scrimmage 3 for 4 with three RBIs and a pair of doubles, completing the weekend of three scrimmages 5 for 7 with four RBIs, three doubles, two walks and a run scored, checking in with an impressive .714 batting average.
“Really impressed with Lowe today,” Cohen said after Friday’s opener. “I thought he had a great plan, the ball came off his bat really well.”
Another position with a great deal of competition, catcher will be fun to watch as the dust settles. Junior Gavin Collins has moved to third base, where his big arm and strong fielding ability seem like a natural fit, leaving the competition to several others to work out. There’s a long way to go here, but freshman Elih Marrero, the son of a former big-leaguer, showed off impressive athleticism and natural ability in the weekend of scrimmages.
“He’s just a fast-twitch athlete,” Cohen said. “He’s really competitive. Arm strength. He’s been in a big league clubhouse and has a parent who played in the big leagues. He understands the game. I think he’s got a bright future at Mississippi State.”
This is another place where development will likely shine in 2016. Not that others won’t be respected or have moments of leadership, too, but Cohen has a really strong core of juniors who naturally take on leadership roles, guys like Collins, Hudson, Brent Rooker and Jacob Robson among the forefront.
What Cohen likes the most about the leadership is the combination of mental approach and on-field success.
“I think we have much more leadership,” Cohen said. “I think when guys are healthy, it adds to their leadership. Because it’s not just what you say and how you act, it’s also your production level on the field, and those guys are pretty productive for us.”