From The Dawghouse

It was in third inning when I accepted the fact that Mississippi State's season was ending Sunday. Here in the Central Time Zone, that is, as down in Miami clocks would roll over before the last out. So, in the spirit of the day, I settled into the porch chair and toasted the 2005 Diamond Dogs with a margarita. Non-alcoholic, if yer wondering; a quarter-century in Bulldog sports haven't driven me to hard drink yet, though staying a career bachelor probably also helps.

Besides, grain neutral spirits would've impaired the real goal of the evening hour's sipping and considering. Even as the Dogs tried, and ultimately failed, to rally and continue their campaign, my own thoughts—and I'm sure many of yours'—were very much on next season. And, just as likely, the general future of Bulldog Baseball. Because as this June plays out and we watch league cousins and regional competitors play while State stores the gear for another year, it's worth asking the once-unspeakable. Is this as good as it is going to be for the program from now on?

Let's start the off-season by projecting into '06. First, because with the Major League draft starting Tuesday we should shortly have some clear concept of what is in store next spring. And second, because I sincerely desire a few weeks of my mostest favorite month NOT talking football/basketball any more than absolutely necessary. You folk who don't live in this business might not understand that we who do need the downtime, sometime, and this is just about the only time.

The losses off '05 are actually easier than usual to list. Graduation will take Alan Johnson, Todd Doolittle, Saunders Ramsey, Eric Ebers, Daniel Tackett, and Jon Mungle, though the latter should have a year's eligibility left. And the draft? Brad Corley is going. After him, well, that's a little less clear. I have to think Thomas Berkery has shown enough all-around game in three years to merit selection as a multi-position athlete now.

The other draft-eligible juniors aren't quite as certain cases. Position players Joseph Hunter, Jeff Butts, and Brad Jones, and pitchers Brett Cleveland and Brooks Dunn have had their good stretches and if impressionable scouts were watching several could have their names called on the second draft day. Or not. And even if picked I'd guess most if not all learned from Manny Maniscalco's 2003 example, that a good senior season & team can vastly improve selection status if not necessarily signing bonuses.

Just for the sake of debate let's start with a best-MSU-case where Corley is the only departing underclassman. To an outsider it appears State loses two-thirds of the weekend rotation, the designated closer of sorts, and the most talented outfielder. But we who've watched all season know that is not the entire story. No, I'm not making light of any losses here. A.J. has been a safe series-opener for two years and Doolittle emerged by late May as the best starter of the staff. Corley didn't have anything like the anticipated junior season but was still a potent quantity in the batting order, especially the last few weeks.

That said…Ramsey was almost forgotten the last half of his senior season as starters and middle-men took care of all the innings. Ditto Ebers. Mungle never came back from injury, and Tackett was a 9th-inning defensive sub. So State isn't losing as much as anticipated back in February, and besides these departures were planned-for. The roster is far from gutted.

In fact, as far as pitching the inside-impression is that now there is room in the rotation for now-matured and perhaps stronger arms to grow into jobs. Jon Crosby definitely seems ready to challenge for a Friday role, Josh Johnson has two seasons of weekday work in the books and gets his weekend opportunity now, and John Lalor has shown serious potential if not all the variety yet. Those are the rightys; a senior Dunn is a very tempting proposition to open weekends with pitching from that side. And figure on Justin Pigott making a strong bid for southpaw starting duties. Should Cleveland return long-relief is loaded again with he and Mike Valentine. Still right-side dominated, though.

And those are just some guys we've seen. It wasn't an accident lefty Mitch Moreland got to toss the last inning of the season at Miami, he's being groomed for bigger things. Redshirt righty Chad Crosswhite can throw as well as play a corner (though please spare him comparisons to a former third baseman/reliever until the kid has established himself, OK?), while Jesse Carver and Trent Hill have a better chance to catch the coach's eye. If, that is, the list of inked arms don't push to the forefront immediately. All season State coaches talked as if they were penciling in redshirts and rookies for '06 assignments. The new kids are rightys Ricky Bowen, Drew Hollinghead, Matt Lea, Aaron Weatherford, as well as a couple more player/pitchers. My only worry there is that the lone lefty, juco Andy Rice, is tempting draft material if the pros are sure he's over a 2004 injury.

If all these arms report for fall ball, two things are clear: there are again too many pitchers to get work in any season, and thus Russ McNickle has a wealth of possibilities to pick from. Also, after a couple of seasons with no classic staff ‘ace' there's an obvious opportunity for somebody to step to the forefront. Another way to look at it is save for long-relief really no job is locked down.

Now, before filling out a lineup we'll need to know Berkery's '06 address. The bizarre fact about baseball is that should he turn pro it would actually make picking positions simpler. Not better, no; this guy should hit double-digit dingers as a senior and keep alternating at catcher/third while providing emergency backup insurance at second. We WANT Berkery back, if he's willing. The twist here is that Ed Easley is ready to be an every-day catcher and Michael Rutledge's tools better fit third base than shortstop. So while we fans would love such depth and versatility, maturing players have personal concerns about splitting up innings and at-bats. It's another reason why on-field coaching is absolutely nothing like on-paper theorizing.

Regardless of who goes or stays, there's an unanticipated issue with shortstop where suddenly State has to be on the lookout for insurance-help. Bunky Kateon was supposed to lock up the job for years, and the tools are still there. But something went wrong at the end of April and while, yes, a first fulltime year takes a toll he was a redshirt, not a raw rookie. He could come back in fall camp as the expected real deal, or never recover his confidence. Nobody can say either way right now, and in any event the offense will remain a major concern.

Oh, and while it's entirely selfish of us, let's hope Jones stays in school. I once regarded Matthew Brinson as the best gloveman at first of the last 15 years, but his successor has proven himself at least as good…and without the benefit of superb fielders on the other end of those throws he snares consistently. Jones is a solid part of any order, too, even if underappreciated outside DNF.

But just in case, Jeff Flagg was redshirted and both Cade Hoggard and Ryan Duffy (also a backstop) signed. So that corner is set for the future, and I've no doubt one could move to third if needed while each is a legit DH possibility.

As the farthest thing from a pro scout imaginable, I won't try to guess where or if Hunter and/or Butts stand in draft-regard. Let's split the difference and say one signs and one returns. Either way centerfield is in good shape and both wings are open. Brian LaNinfa is a passable fielder but better footwork seems advisable and Moreland also hits left. Enter team-touted Matt Richardson, who missed his juco-transfer year with an injury but who Polk says would have played if healthy. Hoggard played outfield at Oxford High and is surely going to play. Rice did too in juco besides his pitching and the outfield actually looks like his primary job. Nick Hardy is another inked juco outfielder in the mix.

I'd look for Polk to announce a couple more pitcher and fielder signees in the coming weeks, but things will be interesting on this front for reasons fans rarely acknowledge. For one thing please temper expectations of spring recruits with the wisdom that, save for the rare true late-bloomer, the best talent was inked already in fall. Secondly, it's a safe bet that last November the State skipper allotted to recruits many scholarship dollars of '05 juniors who he thought, at the time, were definitely leaving with the draft. Now? Well…not only might there not be anything left to offer, but MSU might be over-committed. Hmmm, wonder if this fear had anything to do with the volume of Polk's NCAA diatribes this spring.

Let's say the pros really blows through campus this week and Jones, Hunter, Butts, and Berkery are all gone with the draft. While these ARE serious losses of proven ability and experience, not to mention good guys all around, I'd only be immediately worried about filling first base defensively. There are guys a-waiting the other jobs, a few maybe not so patiently. Still I would much prefer having these known quantities in the '06 lineup, and anticipate a few career-years in the process. Put these back together with Easley and Jeffrey Rea, promote a rightfielder who can hit it deep, and settle shortstop satisfactorily and Mississippi State has almost assuredly the most veteran ball club in the SEC in 2006. And this year we saw what that means over a long haul.

An at-last matured MSU team was able to win this year's SEC Tournament; with almost all the hitting/fielding parts back and a (we expect) better-balanced pitching staff State can win the 2006 SEC Championship. Can. Which brings us the long-way-around to what it will take to keep the program at that level of competitiveness annually. Yeah, I know, once upon a happier time that wasn't even an issue.

It is now after finishing ninth and seventh these last two SEC seasons, a game either side of missing and making the league tourney. Well of course, the ultimate goal is in the national tournament. But one must admit that even if a SEC team can get in the field-of-64 without going to Hoover their likely NCAA siting will be a prohibitive home favorite's Regional. And to even think about hosting one must finish in the top four, maybe five, slots of the regular season standings.

I do dare say the 2006 Bulldogs, if not shredded by this week's selections, will have the firepower to make a run at the upper-third of the league ladder. A championship? Hmmm. A heckuva lot will have to go right for State to get to the top. I think a reasonable objective is turning 13-16 SEC into 16-13 (one rainout assumed). That and a couple of wins at Hoover will bring not just a bid but a host.

The real question in my mind is can Mississippi State do as well again in '07. We can't even guess until seeing how the redshirts and rookies play. And dang it, PLAY THEM; redshirting is not only overrated but now looks counterproductive, tying up scholarship $$$ that might be applied to instant needs. And thinking even farther ahead, can this program consistently do better than battle just to hit .500 SEC no matter how stout our league is? I've a real worry that, assuming no changes to the NCAA's scholarship rules or new state-provided aid (please, no cynical laughter), Mississippi State could be doomed to a cycle of rebuilding, maturing, winning, and starting over; and every few cycles ‘catching lightning' and making a run at real glory.

Or, maybe not. While I don't see any imminent relief from the scholarship situation, we do have proof that a club capable of competing for the CWS can still be assembled under these restrictions. Try to set aside rivalry-tinted glasses and give the dev…umm, the Rebels their due. If they can do it, surely to heck a MSU program that once set the state's pace can, correct? OK, put the glasses back on, I know that was a strain.

I entirely agree, it won't be easy. While we do wish Ronald G. Polk would ‘mute' his futile P.R. crusade against the NCAA and let other, more politically savvy folk work behind the scenes, he is correct in most respects about how much more difficult the job is here, now. He's also right that the state talent pool isn't deep enough and lottery-aid states are almost walled-away from MSU recruiters. So…what to do about it? Easy enough for me to say, but--guess righter on the recruits. Carry a smaller roster, around 32-35, and change philosophy to meet modern necessities by cutting players after fall ball.

Or if that's too drastically against-the-grain, try this: invest all 11.7 grants in three starting-type pitchers, three or four hitters, and let everybody else on the roster be a walk-on. Heck, considering how little aid many Dogs get, they might as well be anyway. Most motivated walk-ons have access to academic grants or aid of some sort, too. No, this won't offset the advantages most of our competition has. But at the risk of seeming rude, I notice that three of the four non-lottery state schools made the SEC Tournament and two of ‘em played for the championship.

Let's be clear that I have no sure-fire fix that will produce the SEC championship we haven't won since 1-9-8-9. In that regard you may call me a pessimist. And I have no idea what the NCAA's plans to cut the schedule might do, other than likely encourage more quality kids (position players particularly) to pass on college ball entirely. Heck, it might level the playing field nation-wide, or result in a smaller list of have's beating up on have-not's. I just don't know. I do know, or at least still fervently believe, that Mississippi State can do better than spend a season scrambling just to make the conference tournament.

Oh, and to forestall an inevitable response of the frustrated fan…it ain't coaching. You saw what #1 did in just two years at Hope-helped Georgia; and what Pat Mac is doing with extra aid at Florida. Each earned SEC titles in 2001 and '05 respectively. Reading that—not that the computer-less coach will—Polk would immediately use it as a reinforcing point to his case. True enough. And I also agree that there's no margin for error or even errors for non-extra aid programs. Hurt one Rebel and that team isn't hosting a Regional; hurt one Bulldog and State doesn't make the NCAAs period. Why those roles have reversed in the past five years is a subject of another day.

But the fact that the rivals played for the SEC Tourney crown and got into the NCAAs shows being Hope-less doesn't mean being hopeless, either. The Bulldogs had their shot at beating host Miami on the crucial second day of the Regional, and it took maybe the best arm in the college game to forestall them. Yes, the regular season was frustrating, and we still want conference championships. But the national baseball tourney is more wide-open than ever, as long as a team can either host or be a strong #2 seed at the home of a shaky #1 seed.

And that means finishing among the top three, maybe four, of the nation's most competitive conference. The 2006 Bulldogs have the makings of that sort of team. Staying at that sort of status is iffier and demands making just about every correct call in every point of the recruiting/developing/playing process. But it can be done. At least I think so, and as noted above, this is all said while entirely sober. Unless FoodMax mis-packaged that margarita mix, that is.

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