Polk Says State In Good Shape For '06 After Draft

Well, another June draft has blown through Dudy Noble Field. So what sort of impact does Diamond Dog #1 see from the 2005 Major League Baseball talent search?

"We just don't know yet," said the ever-objective Coach Ron Polk, who could not resist adding the obvious quip, "Some of our guys have been drafted!"

Accurate enough. But if the Mississippi State staff had to hang storm-warning flags from the stadium pole, this '05 draft appears to rate more like a moderate breeze than full-force gale. When the 50th and final round was done, five Bulldog underclassmen had heard their names called by various Major League clubs. Maybe more importantly, only one of this year's 11 announced (to date) signees was tabbed.

"We're surviving so far," said Polk.

And, if the expectations of most observers hold true, just one of those six drafted Dogs (or Dogs-to-be) will be playing professional baseball this summer. Outfielder Brad Corley, a second-round pick of Pittsburgh, said Tuesday he will meet with a club representative next week and plans on being in uniform somewhere in the Pirate farm system before the month is out.

"He helped himself at Miami," Polk said, as Corley slugged a couple of home runs and played errorless defense in State's four games at the Coral Gables Regional. "There were some national cross-checkers there and he made himself some money."

Of course Mississippi State had planned on Corley turning pro after his junior season from the day he arrived on campus. The real attention in the baseball office this June is on the other varsity Bulldogs who now have the option of leaving college early or returning for the 2006 campaign. All were drafted on the second day and in the later rounds…the very later rounds in most cases.

In fact the next State player named after Corley came in the 29th round as righthanded pitcher Jamie Gant was selected by Houston. Gant left at the end of the regular season, after not making the SEC and NCAA tournament rosters, and was widely expected to go pro after his third year in the program.

Other underclassman situations are less predictable. Lefthanded pitcher Brooks Dunn was a 43rd round choice of the Chicago White Sox; catcher/third baseman Thomas Berkery a 46th round pick by Texas; and outfielder Joseph Hunter a 48th round draft by Cleveland. A day later the ball, so to speak, is in their gloves.

"We don't know," said Polk, when asked what he expects of these three. "I feel pretty good about Thomas, he's meeting the guy in Birmingham the next couple of days. Dunn, Hunter, I don't know." Nor with the head coach press his veterans for instant indications, either. "I just give them a couple of days before I call them. Hunter talked to me before he was drafted, Berkery called me after he was."

Berkery would seem to be the best bet of any Bulldog to jump to the next level as an underclassman. He played two positions quite capably as a junior, and proved himself at second base as a redshirt freshman. Berkery also led the team in home runs and RBI and batted third in the order. His athleticism and versatility makes him an interesting prospect.

But Berkery also has an advantage. "Thomas could be a draft-and-follow guy," said Polk. "He could be a fifth-year guy, and the club can sign him before next year's draft." So Berkery has more options than the usual junior player, and a whole year to be courted by the Rangers. He also has the 2003 example of Matthew Maniscalco, who came back for a senior season and ended up a second-round draftee.

Dunn has given no indications of what he'd like to do. The southpaw couldn't quite crack State's rotation as a junior but was the fourth-game starter in both tournaments, and would likely be promoted to regular weekend roles in '06. Hunter has stated publicly he hoped to be drafted this year; now he and the family must judge whether a 48th-round selection is enough encouragement.

Polk said it's nothing unusual to have veteran collegians selected in the last few turns of the draft. "They're not going to waste a pick in the 8-9-10 rounds. They sometimes might take a chance in the later rounds, think they might gets some guy cheap."

The New York Yankees apparently tried to play that game with the one drafted State signee, Andy Rice. The Itawamba Comm. College standout was tabbed in the 48th round also, belying what pro scouts really think of the outfielder/lefthanded pitcher. Had Rice not told scouts he meant to play at MSU at least one year he would have been drafted much higher. "They just took a crack at him," said Polk. "He took himself out, he and Aaron Weatherford." He is a righthanded pitcher from Fairhope, Ala., and perhaps the most touted arm inked by State this year. Weatherford made it clear he was not going pro out of high school.

Polk said he has not spoken with Rice since the draft, as he has been busy in the annual ‘exit meetings' with Diamond Dogs headed out for summer ball or vacation. On the whole the State skipper is pleased with how draft week played out, though disappointed that some departing senior pitchers went unpicked. "I'd just like to get Todd Doolittle and Alan Johnson a place to play." Polk has his fingers crossed on Berkery, Hunter, and Dunn, but the recruiting class should survive unscathed.

No matter what acknowledge ‘experts' project, the coach reminds, there is always the possibility of a high school or juco star catching the right eye at the right time. "You don't have to please 30 teams, just work out for them and have one that loves you and offers you a lot of money," he noted.

"I don't know if they (pro clubs) called anybody but I'm happy the kids didn't get drafted. Kids like to get drafted, that gives them the feeling that somebody cares about them but they over-price themselves. And some kids tell the local area scout it'll take a lot of money."

Speaking of money…there will likely be a fiscal down-side if Corley and Gant are the only non-senior Dogs departing. When Polk was inking ten prospects back in the fall it was under the annual assumption that several juniors would leave early and free up their portions of the 11.7 total combined scholarships allotted a Division I baseball roster. How close is Mississippi State to that scholarship cap?

"I'm over right now," Polk said. "That's the biggest problem we have in college baseball. But throughout the summer we'll get down to 11.7. I've done it many times." The coach also insists on balancing the scholarship accounts without cutting players on the roster or telling some signees not to bother showing up. That's not the case with most of his peers, especially in the SEC.

"Other schools can call a kid up and say ‘hit the road,' I try not to do that." The philosophy is noble but increasingly dangerous to career-health, as the case of former Polk aide and longtime Texas A&M Coach Mark Johnson proved last month. Aggie rivals cut freely while Johnson wouldn't and ultimately paid a price. "I tell the NCAA that's what they're doing to coaches," Polk said.

Polk has announced one spring-semester signee, rigthhanded pitcher Jared Koon also of I.C.C. Will there be more. "Yeah, right," responded the coach, "under what money?" Speculation that State might be looking for another shortstop recruit has been settled as Polk said Bunky Kateon will stay with the team even after losing his starting job in May. And fall recruit Russ Sneed of Magnolia Heights High School can play short as well as pitch righthanded.

With the draft having barely budged the Bulldog roster, and the likeliehood of Hunter and Berkery sticking around for senior seasons, the 2006 lineup will be deeper and more experienced than any in years. "It will be an experience ball club," agreed Polk. "And I can't use any excuses!" The coach added that outfielder Jon Mungle, who missed almost all the past two seasons, has applied for a sixth year's eligibility.

Also, along the lines of the currently-unknown, Polk reported that the deadline for completion of the Rafael Palmeiro Center has again been pushed back. "It looks like it might be ready for the start of school in August," he said, adding that there is now not as much of a rush since the indoor practice field won't be available for summer camp use. But he does hope the Center is open for business in time for fall baseball practices, as well as emergency use for the football team on in-season work days.

Add that to his to-do list this week. "I've got a meeting with the architect about the netting and inside stuff."

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