Talkin' 2007 Bulldog Baseball With #1

The calendar doesn't turn over until the weekend and Opening Day is yet another 54 days beyond. So Coach Ron Polk still has a bit more time for further evaluation and consideration before filling in his first lineup for the Diamond Dog season. And to talk with Mississippi State's skipper is to soon realize this coaching staff might need every day to settle the best squad to start 2007 with.

Injuries to the pitching staff and uncertainties on the infield were the chief themes coming out of the fall semester and going into spring. Factor in all the multi-year starters graduated off the 2006 lineup and this stands to be the most interesting and even intense pre-season at Dudy Noble Field in years. "We've got a lot of competition position-player," says Polk.

"Normally in player/coach evaluations we have 13, 14 guys picked to start. I think this year we had 18 or 19, which means there's some confusion right now to who is the best."

Just don't take competition and confusion for concern. Not for #1. He wishes State could have invested two, even three more weeks in fall ball to possibly decide some issues—most of all those involving players who were less than 100% physically in camp. But Polk is confident three weeks of February team drills will take care of most questions, and everything else will shake out once the Bulldogs start playing ball.

"Things will change a lot when camp starts, and once the season starts the evaluation really picks up greatly," Polk says. "We lost some key players off last year's team. But we return some very key players also, in addition to some boys we redshirted last year that we think improved a lot. Plus, I feel good about the youngsters we brought in."

The coaches would feel even better if not for the loss of two pitchers projected to play big roles in '07. Matt Lea hasn't come back fast enough from the April labrum tear to throw this spring, and redshirted Jared Wesson also developed a tear in the same muscle. Both are definitely out for the season, though Polk sees an ironic silver lining in that both will practically be new ‘recruits' for 2008. That doesn't offset the loss in talented depth, of course, especially with some lingering concerns about other arms.

"Aaron Weatherford came down with some (shoulder) nerve problems at the end of fall and Chad Crosswhite had some tendonitis. We expect them to be 100%. A lot depends on Mike Valentine and Drew Hollinghead, how much use we can get out of them." Both are rehabilitating after surgeries and are questionable, Valentine in particular as he has gained too much weight.

"It makes our pitching depth, which at one time was going to be as strong as we've had in a while, become very average. Especially if we lose one or two more pitchers. Right now we're OK pitching-wise but we just can't have one or two more guys go down, then it becomes dangerous."

The only ‘positive' to these health issues if the word can be used is that the coaches can focus on a couple-fewer arms in camp as they narrow down the rotation choices. And there are plenty to watch, Polk said. "I like the guys we've got. Justin Pigott has proven himself to be legitimate, Weatherford has the ability to be really outstanding, Crosswhite, John Lalor has improved a lot, Josh Johnson." In fact, Polk said if Lean and Wesson were both pitching in the rotation Weatherford would likely become the every-game closer. As it is the soph is very much in the weekend starting mix (for more details, see the interview with pitching coach Russ McNickle printed in this month's Dawgs' Bite Magazine).

Otherwise Polk lists Mitch Moreland first as a finisher, though "he's got to get better command. And we've got some good youngsters. If Jared Holloway throws strikes he has great tools, Tyler Whitney is outstanding we think, Greg Houston is going to be good, Jesse Carver has a chance. Rickey Bowen we think has a chance, Jared Koon is a factor. So if Valentine and Hollinghead are healthy we've got more depth than normal."

Which raises the annual question of how to get this many arms enough live innings for a fair evaluation. Simple, Polk said. "For 13, 14 games we'll keep ten or eleven guys going. That's the thing about this club, whoever performs is going to play."

That seems obvious enough, yet as fans know it wasn't exactly the case in 2006 in the defensive lineup. Polk all but admits to sticking too long with some longtime veteran starters, mostly seniors, who didn't or couldn't produce for various reasons. This won't be an issue in '07, and not just because there aren't so many upperclassmen. Polk said the coaches will be more willing to pull the proverbial trigger on changes much more quickly because there is little or no talent gap between the classes. And that is a good reason, Polk adds. In fact, he gave a most fascinating comment.

"We have a couple of true freshmen who have a chance to play a lot and they're being pushed by veterans." Usually it's the other way around. This gets back to the overall competition/confusion in evaluations turned in by the players themselves of who ranked on top where. Besides, "Position-player depth is as good as we've had it," Polk said.

Only one position is reasonably certain going into the semester: Edward Easley is going to catch and if the junior has his way do it every day. That obviously won't happen, though as long as Easley is swinging well he'll be in the lineup every game as a backup third baseman. "We think we've got enough DHs," Polk said. Easley has improved his mechanics and shaved some time off his throws to second. Wyn Diggs is strong defensively and the top backup ahead of Ryan Duffy, Joseph McCaskill, and Brooks Lewis. Youngsters Scott DeLoach, Donny Stephens, and Brent Tanner will likely redshirt.

Moreland ended fall ball with an edge on Brian LaNinfa to start at first base, though LaNinfa will certainly get plenty use as a DH and be able to move into the field when Moreland pitches. And yes, the coaches say Moreland must be used on the mound this season. Duffy can both catch and play first, making him a potential member of the 25-man weekend roster. Polk is confident this corner is covered so that true freshman Conner Powers can be used only at third base. "Because he has a chance to start this year."

A very good chance in fact, after a strong fall showing. "He swings the bat good, he's a heady kid and it doesn't look like things bother him much. In the evaluations he beat out Michael Rutledge. And we have Easley and Russ Sneed, Jet Butler is a good athlete."

The real infield questions though are in the middle, and the answers will ripple on to the outfield. After three years starting at second base Jeffrey Rea is being evaluated to take over the opening in leftfield. "He's an infielder in professional baseball, at second base, but he volunteered to do this," Polk said. He didn't get a full fall test there though after pulling a quadriceps on Scout Day, and there is always the specter of wrist problems.

The bottom line isn't so much what Rea can do as where Brandon Turner moves into the lineup. "He's a pure hitter, like Jeffrey," said Polk, so the redshirt must play…where? Ideally, at shortstop, because that would topple the position-dominos at second and in left. But Turner's more natural position at the moment still seems to be second.

"A lot depends on what we do with Brandon," Polk summarizes. "Because if we make him a shortstop then we're going to move Jeffrey back to the infield. We're really clogged-up in the outfield with some talented kids and if you put Rea out there it makes it tougher. We've got to get both their bats in the lineup, that's the only reason Rea is thinking about going to the outfield. And Brandon could play shortstop but I didn't want the other kids working there to think we're desperate. We're not desperate, but at the same time if he can play shortstop it does push back a few of the youngsters in regard to playing time. But, it helps the outfielders."

Complicating the situation is that State does have plenty of shortstop potential in true freshman Ryan Powers. "He has a chance to be really special," Polk said. But Powers hurt himself the first week of fall camp and hasn't had a true evaluation in a team setting. Sneed and Rutledge are third basemen/shortstops, in fact Rutledge was solid in the six-hole in May 2005. Switch-hitting Butler is another option. Polk plans on redshirting Jason Nappi who can already hit the ball but is stuck behind too many gloves for now, and juco Will Coggin. While not official as of yet, Polk also expects veteran Bunky Kateon to transfer for the spring after a rough fall.

"I just want a guy to make the routine play," Polk said. "Brandon is the key. If he for-sure could play shortstop to get both him and Rea in the lineups then we have at least one experienced infielder."

There is some outfield experience to work with but most of it is in the same rightfield spot with Andy Rice and Matt Richardson. Polk said Rice's labrum tear, the result of an ill-advised March dive, is healed and the real Rice—fielding, throwing, and most of all hitting—will show up this season. "We haven't really seen all Andy can do." Richardson had a strong fall at the plate and needs to be in the order in a RBI-position also. "And he could be a leftfielder, too, or even center." As of now, though, others lead in the two other starting spots.

Setting Rea's situation aside, Nick Hardy came out of fall first in leftfield. "He redshirted because of Jeff Butts and Joseph Hunter and it was a good move. He can play in left and center." Transfer Mark Goforth was expected to claim center, the spot he was an all-American at playing for Birmingham Southern, but his first fall didn't go well and the arm is average. But Polk likes Goforth's speed in the field and consistent bat-contact, and the transfer could end up swapping sides with Hardy. "And we have Jeff Flagg and Cade Hoggard, McCaskill is an outfielder-catcher, two years ago he led us in hitting and he's athletic enough to play outfield. But if LaNinfa is a DH it hurts Joseph's chances. Leon Farmer is a juco kid, and Grant Hogue is a transfer."

State's defense fell off in pure fielding average last year, but Polk says that was a deceptive stat. Only third base was a real problem, and as a whole the infield set the school record for season double-plays. "It depends on Rea and Brandon, if Brandon is ready to play shortstop I think we're in good shape defensively. And we just ask them to make the routine plays."

The best news for now is that batting should not be routine in '07. "I think offensively this will be one of our better ball clubs." In fact most fall reviews were positive, even glowing at times, about how the ball was being hit. Polk cautions that the batters weren't facing Lea, Crosswhite, Weatherford, and Wesson regularly, so maybe it wasn't a full test. "But I think it could be one of our better clubs offensively if we stay healthy. We've got some guys who can put the ball out of the park, we've got some gap-guys. The key is putting the ball in play. Last year we could have won four or five more games if our bases-loaded batting average were better.

"I really like our offensive potential. Moreland has improved a lot, LaNinfa has another year of playing, Easley, Rea, Turner, Rice… But it's a predominantly lefthanded lineup. Righthanded, Richardson is a key, he had a tremendous fall. The confusing thing about LaNinfa, Rice, and Moreland is they're lefthanders who statistically hit lefthanders better than righthanders. They stay through the ball better than most lefthanders. So it's not going to be the type of club that just because righthanders are throwing we have a left-handed lineup, or vice-versa."

Rea should be batting first for a fourth-straight year, though Goforth has the earmarks of a leadoff man. Turner or Easley top the second-slot choices for now with LaNinfa, Moreland, Rice, and Richardson in the middle of the order. If he had a position, big stick Flagg could get more swings; Polk likes the power but notes Flagg isn't the type to come off the bench and hit well, so will take losing some more outfielders for him to get a real chance. Team speed with Goforth, Rea, and Hardy is good, though asked if he intends to take advantage of such velocity to run and/or bunt in '07 Polk demurs. "I'll just have to feel my way through the first 10, 11 games and see what the offense looks like."

2007 marks the 20th anniversary of building the current stadium, which has been expanded further and renovated often over two decades. There will be more chances for this year, some only for players with a new flat-screen TV and carpet in their lounge and new turf in the Grisham batting tunnel. Fans will see differences around the outfield, with a new full-length green banner replacing the fading maroon one. But instead of marking the championships and post-season years on the playing drape, Polk said the plan now is to hang different banners around the outer stadium concourse. And by Opening Day the new exterior fence, of brick and wrought iron similar to that going up at other MSU venues, will be completed.

"We're 20 years old but we've added a lot. You have to because everybody else has. I could sell as many sky-suites as we could build but where are you going to put them? On stilts? If it weren't for the light poles we could probably get a few more suites. But we'd like to dress up the bullpen a little bit, put red brick around it, but we ran short of money. But after that, maybe some extra paint."

Which leads to the inevitable question: how much longer does Ron Polk intend to be coaching in the stadium that has born his name for over a decade already? The answer is classic R.P. "Well, twenty more years!" he quips. Pressed for a somewhat more serious response…

"We'll see. We'll just keep plugging away. I haven't made any other career plans, we'll see what happens."

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