"I hate to be vague," Polk said. "But it's a vague ball club."
Which is not to be taken as an indictment of the 2008 Diamond Dogs. Maybe just the opposite. Six weeks of fall ball, a couple months of individual work, and ten days of pre-season practicing have confirmed two Polk suspicions of this squad. There are a lot of promising candidates to choose from, and not too many differences dividing them in terms of talent or experience.
"Normally I can nail most positions and DH," Polk said. "But it's going to be a tough year for the old coach. There's not much separation position-player wise, especially in the outfield and behind the plate." Which meant instead of running through a likely opening lineup, or at some spots even giving a current front-runner, the coach could only speculate like any fan and offer overviews. Or, "Flip a coin."
Or more seriously, just keep practicing, scrimmaging, and evaluating. State held three scrimmage games last week and, weather permitting, was to have three more over the weekend. Saturday night tri-captains and pitchers Crosswhite, Lalor, and Justin Pigott were to meet (in a burger-filled room?) to finalize their own gradings to turn in to the staff. One interesting aspect is senior lefty Pigott and junior righty Crosswhite will surely start the first two games in Jacksonville, with only the order to decide. Not that either is overly concerned at this pre-season point.
The same applies to the team as a whole, said Pigott. "We don't really know who is playing where, but I think that's a good thing." Because, again, it indicates not just close choices but good options all-around in the minds of captains and coach alike.
"It's too close still right now at some positions in regard to starters," Polk said. "We have 19 position players/hitters who could be factors. The co-captains will be raking all the pitchers 1-through-17, pick their starting lineup for right-hander/left-hander. The coaches will do the same thing, then I'll look over that and start meeting with some players in regard to potential redshirt status."
In fact, Polk speculated, "We're going to have a lot of traffic in my office once we start the season because some can't say they're a lot better than someone else. I'll do the best I can with the coaches advice. We have more depth than we've had, but sometimes you'd rather have nine guys here and the next nine here. Two years ago it was like that with 9-10-11 guys, then a big drop-off. It's not a big drop-off this year in regard to positions."
If the coach doesn't yet know who will start, neither do most observers know what to expect of Mississippi State. The SEC Coaches poll did tab the Dogs second in the Western Division, though with no first-place votes. National rankings are modest at best for a team that played it's last game of 2007 in the College World Series.
"But we're going to have fun," said Pigott. "We're just a bunch of guys, according to Baseball America, and that's fine with us. We're going to be a bunch of guys that try to have a lot of fun and it's going to transfer over to the field."
Crosswhite agrees. "I think we're just a bunch of good old boys. We've got people from everywhere, I personally had to get to know a lot of new guys because a lot of my old friends left. And I got chosen captain." Which caught State's '07 Friday SEC starter by surprise to say the least. In fact, "I was sitting in a meeting with Jeff Flagg watching Youtube videos on my phone." Upon hearing which Polk interjected "The meeting that I was holding?!"
Continuing, Crosswhite said "He named the captains and I was first, I looked up and around and said did I hear my name? I probably shouldn't have said that about the Youtube videos." Not unless somebody interprets that for the legendarily low-tech head coach. What Polk does know is old-school yardball and what sort of ball club the Bulldogs could become.
"It's going to be a team without too many blue-chip stars. But we have some players that could turn into stars, I firmly believe."
Many of the '07 stars are moved on for graduation and professional baseball, at least on offense. Or especially on offense. "29 of our 51 home runs are gone, 213 of our 384 RBI are gone, 233 of our 49 runs scored are gone," recited Polk. Most went with 2B/CF Jeffrey Rea, RF/1B/RP Mitch Moreland, and national catcher of the year Edward Easley. For a while Polk thought Moreland would be back, before the junior opted to ink in late summer. "I never tell a kid not to sign but I hated it to happen so late," he said, then quipping "But even if he was back it would clog things up more for me…"
The armed forces are in much better shape with third starter Josh Johnson the only real staff loss. "Of the 539 innings pitched last year 451 inning are back; 402 strikeouts return from 496; 32 of our 38 wins return. So pitching is what we're laying our hat on this year. I'm not saying we're not going to score runs and swing the bat and play defense, I think we will."
Pigott thinks his offensive teammates will hit, run, and score after facing them in scrimmages. "The offense is pretty aggressive, scrappy. A lot of tough outs in our lineup, I really believe that. And there is so much speed. You have to have a different approach for just about every guy, we have a good variety of power, some doubles guys, some really fast guys that will bunt on you. There are 15, 16 guys you could throw out there."
What the '08 roster lacks is cumulative experience. Only three of the main May position starters are back, and even they weren't all-year starters. There is just one position-player senior, RF Andy Rice, and four upperclassmen arms. "We have five seniors on a 42-man roster," said Polk. "When I say ‘veterans I don't mean ‘veteran veterans', I mean they were here." Which is why the first three weeks of the 2008 season will be quite a crunch-time for everyone who is here.
"We're going to have to find out quick the ‘gamers'," Polk said. "And thankfully we have 14 non-conference games that will help us determine the gamers. Those non-conference games are very important to win but we need answers in SEC starters and pitchers."
For various reasons Mississippi State didn't find a lot of its '07 answers until May and June, which turned into a thrilling post-season run through two NCAA tournament rounds and into the College World Series. Crosswhite sees potential for a better-rounded season as things fall into place and players gain experience before SEC play.
"But I think this year is going to be great," said the pitcher. "We went to Omaha last year, some of the guys we tried to explain that it's a great experience, and I think we have a lot of guys that are going to contribute and I think we can get back there this year."
"We know we can do it now," said Pigott. "I guess that helps. But last year is last year, you can ask any of us. When I get my ring I'm not going to wear it until my career is over. It's a huge challenge for us again and we've got to prove a lot more people wrong."
And the first step is picking the right people, at least for the opening weekend ahead. Politicking is almost over; it's time to play Bulldog baseball.
ADDITIONAL POLK STATEMENTS:
"I don't think I've ever had a team in a while that we could not pull the trigger on starters at this point. That's somewhat good because it does indicate we have adequate depth on the ball club."
"We only have three starters back and they didn't play the whole year; Connor Powers, Brandon Turner, Mark Goforth didn't play the whole year. We only have one senior position player, Andy Rice. Four of our 17 pitchers are seniors. So it's a young team. We have five seniors on a 42-man roster, and of course draft eligible players we could use."
"I love this group. We haven't had any problems, they practice hard, they're always on time—they'd better be! I like this club."
"We're second in the poll of the SEC West. Last year we were picked low and we were the only SEC team to go to Omaha. And the national polls, it's just a guessing game. Our first SEC opponent believe it or not is Ole Miss and it happens during the basketball tournament. That's how the computer supposedly kicks out the old schedule. You have to play them eventually and them play us, so why not do it at the first!"
"If we had a young pitching staff I'd be a little nervous, but after 40 years in coaching I don't get nervous any more. I get nervous for the players. The only time I got really nervous was when I was in Havana in front of 60,000 screaming fans with armed guards in your dugout. I don't get nervous any more."
"We only have two-and-a-half weeks before the first game, but that's because we have that six-week fall. Everybody in the country has a common starting date and some are concerned, they'll have a tough time putting a schedule together. We don't have that problem because we have a lot of schools in our geographic area."
"North Florida just went Division II. Dusty Rhodes is their coach, I competed with him when he was the Australian national coach. He's a veteran coach and they have a good program, they struggled a little last year. We haven't done much research on them yet, but it's not going to be an easier opener for us."
"The players are the ones that keep me going after 40 years in coaching college baseball, 31 in the SEC…and the next-closest to me in service in the SEC is Jim Wells at Alabama, 13 years, and we almost lost him. I guess I'm what you call a survivor."
ON THE DEFENSE:
"One strength of this team is the speed we have in the outfield. If we were to put, like, Nick Hardy, Mark Goforth, and Grant Hogue out there at one time there wouldn't be a college in America with a quicker outfield. But that's no guarantee those three will ever be in the outfield together."
"We have veterans in Andy Rice, Mark Goforth, Nick Hardy, Jeff Flagg, Cade Hoggard. And Jason Nappi a redshirt freshman. And we really like freshman Ryan Collins."
"You think Mark Goforth runs, you should see Grant Hogue. Nick Hardy runs well. We can run balls down."
"Our outfield, defensively, we're good. Arms are important but how many times are there plays at the plate, third base. What arms do is control the third base coach to hold and not bring ‘em on."
"Infield depth is solid with five players going to see the bulk of the action in Brandon Turner at second; Connor Powers at third, then Jet Butler and Russ Sneed and Ryan Powers, who redshirted last year."
"Brandon played a lot last year at shortstop, we want to keep him at second base if we can. We lost Mitch Moreland at first, and Brian LaNinfa. We have veteran players Jeff Flagg and Cade Hoggard available, Connor is the secondary first baseman, then Tyler Moore a junior college transfer; Forrest Moore a freshman."
"Second base, Brandon has good hands. He's had a little tweak of his hamstring again which is a concern, but they've done some things to it. In fact he was taped-up like a mummy yesterday. He's tight. We really like Ryan Powers, defensively he's our backup second baseman and has done well in scrimmage games. If Brandon goes down we've got someone to plug in. If Connor Powers goes down we've got Russ Sneed. But up the middle we're athletic."
"Michael Busby is a talented pitcher who can also play shortstop, along with Paxton Pace who also plays second base."
"We've got 13, 14 guys who are primary and secondary position players. And that's going to happen more now, kids are going to be forced to play more than one position because of the numbers. Especially if you get hurt in the draft and didn't protect your ball club by over-signing. Dual position players will become a more important factor."
"We're going to rely on a few returning starters with a few kids we redshirted and a possible freshman or junior college player to step-in."
"At catcher we've been fortunate the last few years with Thomas Berkery and Ed Easley, experience catchers. I'm not saying our catchers are going to be on first-name basis with everybody at the backstop. Hopefully they'll block some balls and throw people out. They're alright, we have catchers but we're talking about experience. So we'll have to feel our way through. And we knew Easley was going to go."
"Edward had 243 at-bats. The total of all other catchers returning is 10. We have five competing for the first spot. Veteran Ryan Duffy, Brooks Lewis, Scott DeLoach, and newcomers Johnny Allen and a talented freshman in Cody Freeman."
"We have 11 listed outfielders, primary and secondary. Those are where decisions have to be made."
"We've got so many veteran outfielders, so many guys. If you don't redshirt them it clogs it up more."
(Would he trade gloves for bats in making lineup?) "You don't really have a philosophy, you just do what your guts tells you."
"Our pitching depth is solid, we can sustain some arm-woes without missing too much unless we were to lose some top starters or closers."
"We do have a veteran pitching staff. Much is still to be determined in the rotation and we will know more after the 14 non-conference games."
"The returning starting pitching is headed up by Justin Pigott and Chad Crosswhite, they could be joined in the SEC rotation by Ricky Bowen. But again nobody has anything guaranteed right now, just so you have something to write."
"After those pitchers there are a lot of others in the mix to help us in midweek games or SEC weekends, too many to list. With 17 pitchers you'd like to redshirt three or four of them and three or four position players. (But) redshirting baseball players will come to a big, screeching halt next year when the roster caps are in place. We can't change it, the vote was against us. It might just be one or two a year from now on."
"We have a veteran bullpen, headed up by Aaron Weatherford. And Jared Wesson pitched fantastic yesterday, he redshirted last year because of arm injury. He should be able to help us along with Greg Houston and John Lalor."
"We had a practice two days ago and 18 scouts, never seen it in my life. They knew Weatherford was going to pitch one inning because we'd designated it. Scouts don't know when they'll pitch in a game, they burn a plane ticket and we're ahead 8-1 and don't use a closer. This was a chance for Aaron to showcase himself. It's nice to have a pitcher like that, it helps other pitchers who are marginal pro-drafts to expose themselves in front of a lot of people.",P (This weekend's rotation) "I really haven't talked with Russ McNickle, we haven't got to that point. We have so many other things going on. I'm anxious to see when I get the evaluations. Say Justin is number-one, he'll have to pitch. To come up with any others would be a disservice to six or seven guys."
"Ricky Bowen has done well. He's a power-pitcher type, his body has finally developed, he's got some weight on him now. We've got guys that have grown a lot physically and mentally."
"I like our bullpen. I really do. Moreland was a loss but if Jared Wesson stays healthy he'll be really good. He was throwing yesterday and Brandon Turner told me he was better than David Price. I said, Brandon… Jared is effectively wild which is good. They don't like to dig-in on Jared, he's a string-bean guy that slings it pretty good in the low 90s. But he's had elbow surgery and shoulder surgery, so…"
"I like the offense, if we can make the right decisions. The key is we've got 19 guys and you could almost throw a blanket over them. We can go left-on-right, right-on-left. I think we'll be alright. I think we've got enough pop in the lineup, I think we can hit some home runs. But home runs are just over-emphasized, sometimes you get them when it's 10-0 and nobody on base. I'd rather hit 20 home runs that are game-winners than 51, 55 that don't mean anything."
"We've got two, three, four guys who can run. But we'll do what we have to do to win ball games. If we have 185 stolen bases, so be it."