Diamond Dog Staff Pushes Recruiting Pace

The trick to sports success is turning setbacks into opportunities. So since their season ended too early, Diamond Dog players and coaches now are working ways of turning 2014 frustrations into 2015 advantages.

Or as John Cohen says, "At this time of year if you're not playing, your focus goes in another direction."

Mississippi State does have some extra time to re-focus this June. Time everyone would much rather be investing with preparation for another College World Series experience. The Bulldogs fell short of that ultimate ambition, or for that matter making the super regionals round. Their campaign ended on the first post-season weekend, at the Lafayette Regional.

Since then a few fortunate Dogs have been drafted and either are headed to pro ball or negotiating in that direction. Most of the varsity and redshirts are already playing summer league baseball; others recovering from or having surgical fixes for injuries. So they have their focus for now.

Cohen and staff? "It goes immediately to recruiting, first," the head coach said. "Recruiting, and camps." Which are also underway. In fact, camping would be going on even if the team was in Omaha since there are only so many summer weeks to get pre-college kids on Dudy Noble Field. As Cohen noted today, during two of the previous three seasons campus campers were also watching the big Dogs play games elsewhere. Not so this post-season.

"But we're focused on recruiting, we're focused on camps, and you really don't have a lot of time." Cohen has naturally done his share of CWS build-up interviews with national media, since State played ¼ of this year's field and has seen two other entrants either first-hand or in Omaha last season too. Even while talking about other clubs, though, "Really my focus is on the group of 30 or 40 guys for 2015, '16, and '17 that we're focused on in the recruiting process."

Cohen's usual end-of-season review was held to this week so Mississippi State could judge results of the Major League Draft on the varsity and rookie rosters. No surprises came. All-American lefty Jacob Lindgren has already signed with New York after his second round selection; closer cohort Jonathan Holder is expected to join him in the Yankees farm system soon. Brandon Woodruff has also inked, with Detroit.

Of the recruits, only catcher Chase Vallot was drafted…and since it was a first-round call the elite prospect won't be coming to college, something State never really expected. Otherwise Cohen's seventh signing class should be unscathed.

The ‘scathed' are Bulldogs with summer health situations, a list that just grew by one. "(3B/DH) Reid Humphreys is having a minor surgery to displace a nerve, a lot like Nick Routt's surgery a couple of years ago. He's going to be fine, it's going to be four or five weeks before he's back. (OF) Jacob Robson had a similar type of nerve displacement, they're moving the nerve to make it more comfortable throwing. Jacob is going to be playing in the next week or two."

A trio of pitchers were sidelined for or during 2014, beginning with RHP Paul Young's lengthy return from ligament surgery a year ago. The touted soph tried throwing some preseason scrimmages before everyone agreed to play things safe for another year. Now, "Young is progressing nicely, I'm told he is ahead of schedule," Cohen said.

"(RHP) Will Cox's surgery, he had a little bit more repair to do, it's a ligament. And John Marc Shelly is way ahead of schedule, he's already throwing a baseball. So we're excited about all those guys."

Fans still frustrated about some 2014 aspects, especially offense, are finding some summer reasons for excitement or at least optimism. A lot of this season's order and lineup have graduated, most obviously leading batter 2B Brett Pirtle and OF C.T. Bradford as well as other regulars who had disappointing senior seasons. No underclassmen hitters and fielders were drafted—itself a clue to scoring struggles in 2014—but Cohen is counting on those returning as seniors to be better. More than that, for rising juniors and sophomores and the redshirted freshmen to put some punch back in Bulldog bats.

The first step for them is how they can hit in summer games against unfamiliar pitching. So far, Cohen said, so good. "Gavin Collins gets to the Cape (Cod League), as a freshman he has an immediate impact. Seth Heck has done well. Daniel Garner has had three home runs in three games. So our kids are doing well, and they all know there's a mission; that's to go get better and to make our team better."

"We have guys scattered all the way from California to the east coast, I think we have 22 guys playing summer baseball right now." That count grew this week as 1B Wes Rea heads to Maryland where former roommate Hunter Renfroe spent his final college summer. It could be the fresh start an old Dog needs before a senior season.

"There's no doubt Wes needs to go out and have a great summer," Cohen said. "I think he's excited about it, he kind of wants to re-invent himself a little bit. He's disappointed in the year he had but I'm really proud down the stretch he played some of his best baseball. He's going to work on some things in his game and he's going to come back and hopefully be able to help our ball club."

Cohen and staff try to catch games by their varsity personnel whenever possible in summer leagues, to see for themselves what is happening. Pitching coach Butch Thompson might be the busiest of the bunch because with the aforementioned draft losses to the bullpen he has to find another set of middle relievers and closers. Or make that, the next set? That's how the head coach sees it, even allowing that nobody has to replace the sort of one/two and right/left punch Holder and Lindgren gave State.

"We have some holes in our bullpen for sure," Cohen said. "We're going to have to have some guys step forward. We have really good candidates for that but until they step forward you don't know. Our bullpen has been our strength for a while and I think it can continue to be. Guys like Vance Tatum have stepped forward, we have a kid we redshirted, Jacob Billingsley, who has a wipeout breaking ball. We had him velcro'd to Jonathan Holder the entire year!"

Woodruff did try starting stints too. On the whole though all pitchers who opened games are back…and that guarantees nobody nothing for 2015. Mississippi State has not had a true ‘rotation' for several years now, preceding Cohen's tenure too. The seventh year might be right time for one to develop.

Besides the returning starters like RHP Trevor Fitts and LHP Ross Mitchell, "We have several candidates for that. We need Dakota Hudson to have a great summer and step forward, I mention him because he's the ‘stuff' guy who can throw 95 with a plus-breaking ball. We need a guy like that to log 90-to-100 innings and he wants to be. We have other candidates as well, and some new guys we like."

Officially those ‘new guys' are not known; Mississippi State has not announced the fall signees and will not, per program policy. Informal listings, most obviously the one kept and updated by Gene Swindoll on the baseball message board, are available along with anticipated spring signings and transfers. And there will be more pups signed. Or committed. Or offered. When Cohen says the focus is on recruiting right now, he's saying nothing new.

This coaching staff is obsessed with recruiting year-round. Even at Omaha last June, Bulldog coaches were staying in touch with signed players and tracking prospects. When Cohen returned to campus in 2008 he found a program which had not developed any advance recruiting plans for the future; a practice that worked OK enough in the 1980s but is a recipe for modern disaster. This staff has caught up, even made-up most of the old lost ground…but memory of what it was like at the start drives State coaches on even harder today than ever.

"Our staff is pretty scattered around the country trying to find the right guys for the right fit for our program," Cohen said today. "You talk about changing and altering our program. That's what we're doing right now, we're getting commitments from kids who we think can change our program. We have a saying in the recruiting process: we will add to the top of your talent pool and program."

"I think it's important to note our sport is so different. We're literally getting commitments form kids right now who will not step on this campus for three years. And when you're recruiting at the highest level that's how it has to be. I feel like we're at a point we're making really good decisions."

Decisions are further complicated for the latest change-of-game coming to college baseball. The NCAA makes equipment rules for a sevearl-years stretch to accommodate the companies who have to invest in new or alter old production equipment. The ‘dead' bats which arrived in 2011 will remain the rule for a while longer. But in 2015 college pitchers will begin throwing the minor league baseball, with seams a reputed 50% lower.

Implications for pitchers, especially those who throw big curves and break sharp sliders, is pretty obvious. At least many of them can throw a similar ball this summer in league play, albeit against wood bats. The hitters? That is the great question for summer 2015, and nobody really knows the answers.

Yes, Cohen said, he's been told the new ball will fly 10-to-20 feet farther on average when struck the same as the current ball. "Which still remains to be seen, that's what everybody as saying. As soon as we get those 200,000 baseballs (at schools) and start hitting them every day we'll see what difference it makes." By the way, Cohen wonders if the low-seam ball might produce more blistering on pitching fingers gripping harder.

Fall scrimmaging will be enough time to evaluate and adjust, Cohen figures. It's a safe bet Bulldog fans who come to watch will show up hoping to see something else different. Something better. 2014 was an agonizing offensive season in almost every respect. Not so much the average itself, which was smack-middle of the SEC standings; or even the on-base rate which was also competitive.

But all this produced were a whole lot of stranded Bulldogs, most notably on second and third bases. Statistically the ‘RISP' numbers were not so bad; the eye-test was a whole ‘nother matter. And Renfroe took just about all the realistic home run potential the team had, which in this dead bat era wasn't much.

Cohen heard the critiques, definitely. He does offer fresh hope in this area too. "I think we do have a lot of young kids who do have power that don't fit into the runner/defender type of mold. (Dylan) Ingram is off to a good start this summer, he's a redshirt guy who can fit into that (power) mold. Certainly Garner fits into that mold a little, Humphreys fits into that mold." Then there are other redshirts like Joey Swinarski and Brent Rooker who showed last fall they could sting a baseball. In 2015 there are positions and order spots to compete for.

Rea will still stand out, literally, but Cohen does agree that in general the squad will be somewhat bigger than before. "We'll have more physical pieces to it for sure. I think we're going to be a better offensive club but again I want to defend at the highest level."

And there is the fine line a Bulldog coach has to walk at Dudy Noble Field. Changes to the venue are in store; Cohen has seen proposals for a rebuilt Polk-Dement Stadium but is leaving such decisions to the administrators who have to sign-off on plans and fund the process. As of June, indications are a new stadium can be in place—the same place, too—in less than a year after starting the tear-down. 2017 seems a practical target date though with a great big individual donation or naming-rights deal 2016 would not be impossible.

That is something that Cohen can't afford to focus on. Recruiting for the immediate future is his priority today, and until or unless the venue changes radically the roster will continue to tile towards pitching and defense…just not quite as much as this year, it appears.

"In our ballpark we still put a premium on being able to defend and cover. Do we need to be a more successful offensive team, no doubt about it. But I don't want to trade what we're doing defensively and on the mound to be able to hit 20 more home runs, that's not going to help us in wins and losses. Do I want more doubles, do I want more home runs, do I want more runs, yes. If you ask every coach in the SEC, maybe with the exception of Kentucky, they're probably going to tell you the same thing. And how we're all going to adapt to this new ball…?"

See why whether his team is still playing in maroon-and-white, or scattered across summer leagues, Cohen has to keep focused on recruiting? Credit this coaching staff for making it clear, that for all they can and will do to develop players the best way to play is with the best ball players.

"You have to do that," Cohen said. "I felt in the beginning we were a little behind but I feel at this point we're in a very good position from a recruiting standpoint. And I think people know and trust where we're going from here."

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