Pretty cool indeed. Or pretty hot for Bulldog baseball. Cannizaro was hired away from Louisiana State only hours after John Cohen’s formal promotion to athletic director. Meaning, one SEC championship skipper saw the makings of the next well-before the changeover.
It has been a fast and often furious transition for Cannizaro. After all, he arrived with fall camp already in progress and November signing week barely days away.
A challenge? Yes. Daunting? Not at all. “Nothing that has been too much or overwhelming.”
Well, that’s not entirely accurate. What has overwhelmed Cannizaro is how fast Bulldog baseball has accepted the new coach.
“The day-to-day people around town, in restaurants, anywhere. Everybody has been so welcoming in terms of just asking to lend a helping hand, asking about the program, about where my kids are going to go to school. And all the really cool parts and pieces that make up this incredible community.”
So consider Cannizaro welcomed to Diamond Dog life. Now. What about his Diamond Dogs?
“We had ten practice dates, and they were great days on the field. It gave us a really good snapshot of what our team could be this spring.”
Then again Cannizaro had four chances last season to look at the 2016 league champs from the other dugout. “That was a really good team, they had a great mix of power arms and veteran position players. That was evident by the number of draftees they had.”
A dozen to be exact, with eleven of them moving on to professional baseball. What would seem a negative really isn’t to Cannizaro, who helped rebuild LSU annually after their own draft-days damages the past two years. It also gave him an idea what Cohen’s staff already had on the roster.
“Mississippi State has done a good job recruiting the last couple of years. Yes, there was a big hit through the draft. But at the same time there are a lot of new names and faces that fans do not necessarily know about. These kids are equally talented, they just haven’t had that time on the field to show how good they are.”
Of course a few have. Most notably, All-SEC and league-leading hitter as a true freshman Jake Mangum; and Brent Rooker. They make the outfield Mississippi State’s obvious strong point, though Mangum missed the last week of fall ball after blow to his head.
What impressed Cannizaro more than Mangum’s stats and impact? “His makeup, his character, his willingness to learn. He is a worker, he wants to be great.” Which for one of the finest freshmen to wear a Bulldog uniform in decades is saying something.
“Brent was another guy, tremendous makeup from him. He’s the type of leader you want on your team. He turned the draft down and I think he’s primed to have a gigantic season.” The coach won’t nail down any order slots just yet but Rooker will be “somewhere in the middle, being one of those home run, run-producer type guys.” Mangum should stay first so as to get all at-bats available.
Scrimmage games offered some clues to lineup combinations but only that as turns were taken all over the place. Such as career outfielder Cody Brown working at second base, and working well. A healthy Luke Alexander challenges Ryan Gridley for shortstop, though either can shift to the other side just as easily for third or second bases. Cole Gordon will try to take over first base but has plenty of competition there, while Elih Marrero works to hold on to catcher.
And on and on it can go in the infield and backstop jobs, while an outfield job beckons to others. These battles arising from draft- and graduation-made openings was just what Cannizaro wanted.
“I thought our energy was outstanding every day. Guys were excited to get to the park, ready to be coached, ready to get out there and show a brand-new coach what they could do.” Cannizaro also told all fall Dogs that the months of practicing were well and good but his ten days of direct evaluation mattered more. “Of how you can contribute to our team,” he said. “Our guys were extremely coachable and played hard every day. They showed baseball is important to them.”
The larger challenge whoever was coaching was re-staffing the pitching. Health helped this fall. “Guys being able to answer the bell, able to take the ball and go get their innings,” Cannizaro said. What he won’t say is who will be the 2017 rotation. Not yet.
“That’s going to be an ongoing battle up until our first game in February. We have several really good options that could fit the weekends.”
The one option he did discuss was sophomore Konnor Pilkington, who threw in game-three at LSU last April. The game State lost in the series. It did nothing to hurt Pilkington’s image with the assistant soon to become head coach.
“He’s certainly a strong, physical kid who will run his fastball into the low 90s with really good secondary stuff. He has a chance to be one of the top arms in the SEC.”
Other arms will be found by February, to start and support and close as needed. Just as with the lineup and order, almost everything is up for off-season grabs. What pleases Cannizaro on this short exposure is the practice attitude.
It isn’t just having a new coach, either. “With the youth I think there is a lot of new energy and excitement from these guys to go out and win a job, rather than some older kids who are just looking forward to the season.”
In the shorter term the Bulldogs have final fall exams to look forward to next week. Cannizaro said upon January return the team and individual meetings begin, then sessions of three- and four-on-one coach to acclimate everyone anew. He isn’t exactly set yet on how many preseason weeks of team work are schedule, but Cannizaro does intend to play plenty intrasquads.
“The most important thing is make sure you can get all of your pitchers back on the mound again, letting those guys build up their pitch counts and innings so when the season gets here our guys are ready to go.”
Those being the guys who make the final 35-man roster, that is. A total 42 took part in fall scrimmaging so one round of cuts, or grayshirts or whatever, is certain. Then only 28 can be on athletic scholarship aid. This is where Cannizaro has to make many more fast winter decisions and leans on assistants Garry Henderson, Will Coggin, and staff for input.
“Those are things our staff is meeting about on a daily basis, to decide who are the very best 35 guys that can help us win another SEC Championship.”
Catch that? It took 26 seasons for Bulldog baseball to do what had last been done in 1989 and bring the title back to Dudy Noble Field. Now the new coach is set on doing it again, and immediately. No wonder the Bulldog public already accepts Cannizaro, and he in return.
“It excites me I’m fortunate enough to be at a program where baseball really matters.”