Especially because if nothing unexpected or unusual happens, the process of rebuilding Bulldog baseball has shifted up a whole gear or two with the recruiting class Cohen and staff have assembled. It's a group growing by three more this week with announcements of latest signees righthanded pitcher Jared Miller of Sumrall (Ms) High School, righthanded pitcher Corey Collins of Seward County (Ks) College, and pitcher/first baseman Michael Dixon of Blinn (Tx) Community College. They will join the other two previously-announced spring signees for Cohen, as well as the 14 players signed in fall. With numbers like that, just how different will Cohen's second Diamond Dog roster look compared to the 2009 team? "When you include invited walk-ons you're talking about really 20 roster spots out of the 35 are new," he said. "I don't know if there's ever in the history of this program been that kind of turnover. It's a big senior group and that is part of it this year, but there's going to be a lot of puppies as Coach Polk used to say."
This of course assumes all twenty-or-so new pups ultimately arrive on campus for fall practices. Cohen of course knows this is not a sure thing at all based on the results of last week's Major League draft. Three of his signees, all from the fall list, were called over the three days; outfielder Runey Davis in the 12th round by Chicago's Cubs, lefthanded pitcher C.C. Watson in the 29th by Texas, and outfielder Jaron Shepherd in the 44th round by Cincinnati. Also, a couple of varsity underclassmen were drafted. First baseman Connor Powers in the 11th round by the Dodgers and righthanded pitcher Ricky Bowen 43rd round. The only senior tabbed, centerfielder Grant Hogue, has already come to terms with Houston after being drafted in the 35th round.
"I think we came out really well," Cohen said over the overall draft results. This doesn't mean State's coaches can now take it easy for the summer though, because the whos and whens of this draft leave some uncertain situations all around. Take Powers' case; while most would automatically assume the junior is already making his pro plans Cohen said Wednesday this isn't a sure thing just yet.
"It really changes our deal if we can get Connor Powers back obviously, and I think that's possible. We've had great conversations. I think he's a little frustrated where he went, but that still doesn't mean he's not going to sign. Could he come back, absolutely. He had a solid year but I know he can do better." But can he do better than a 11th-round picking, or even if so is it worth giving away all negotiating position? Besides, Cohen said in May the junior's scholarship portion had already been booked for new players. "We might have to re-adjust!" the coach said, which he'd happily do to get a proven slugger back in the order. As for Bowen, the righty seems to be leaning towards taking the low-round choice or transferring schools after a struggling junior year…particularly considering all the incoming arms on the signee list.
Davis, maybe the most-touted recruit in the class, would step right into an outfield job if he opts to play college baseball. But a 12th-round picking out of juco—he was an 11th rounder out of high school—might be too much to turn down now. "We'll have to wait and see on Runey," Cohen said. He's much more confident about Watson, or at least he is now. Cohen became worried in May that the southpaw was opening too many eyes with his senior stints. A 29th-round tabbing is some reason for relief.
"C.C. and his family really knew what they wanted in terms of what it was going to take for him to forego his college education. But he's been drafted and crazier things have happened in the course of the summer." For that matter it took some senior-season twists to drop Shepherd so far down the draft list, as a few spring injuries hurt his stock with scouts. "I think he had a certain round and price tag and I don't think they got to where he wanted. If he doesn't get hurt he's probably a much more significant draft pick."
Shepherd's case points to something interesting about the draft, which Cohen calls a ‘double edged sword' in terms of public perception. It's one thing that Mississippi State had only three varsity players drafted in three days; fans understand how the program's overall level of talent has slipped in recent years. But when three signees were selected by MLB franchises it might raise different questions. Cohen understands.
"If they're not drafted everybody is like well they weren't good enough to be drafted," he said. The other edge on that blade is "if they are drafted you're scared to death you're going to lose them!" On the whole of course Cohen wants to sign talent of drafting quality and take his chances. And, he notes, the number of drafts from this group is not the entire story.
"Just because a kid is not drafted, does not mean he didn't have every opportunity to sign. I know for a fact you can count seven, eight guys out of this class that were potentially top-ten round picks that made the announcement they wanted to go to school." Watson is one case; scouts also liked catching prospect Wesley Thigpen who made it very clear he meant to attend college first and went undrafted. And on and on down the recruit-roster.
"But I think we really came out it well, especially with some young pitching that we were concerned about," Cohen said. Except there is still some reason for further summer concern. Because drafting is not the only way to lose a freshman or transfer now. The game has literally changed with the rise of free agent summer signings that will keep college coaches guessing—sweating, too—into August. Cohen does say he likes where State stands in this regard at the moment.
But, "There's still some things that could happen with some free-agent situations. I say that, because with the nature of the draft now and the ability of a scout to ‘send' a kid to junior college, I think there is going to be more free-agent stuff in the summer. The club can't say we're going to watch this (drafted) kid for a year because we have control; now they don't have control, now they have to make decisions.
"And if they don't sign enough (drafted) guys I think there might be more free-agent stuff going on. Especially with kids that are playing in summer leagues and can still be identified." Which is why when fans cheer reports of how well a State signee is hitting or throwing in summer ball, the coaches will also cringe just a little bit.
As for his latest signees, Cohen's emphasis on restocking the pitching rotation and bullpen is all the more evident. Never mind that most of the pitchers on the usual 25-man SEC roster are back, or at least could be; some are already known to be transferring or taking the year off. State intends to bring in up to eleven new moundsmen and with walk-ons maybe more. If this sounds like ‘too many pitchers' on a roster to be used effectively, Cohen says look no farther than the TV and this week's College World Series games. Even all the high-scoring games only emphasize the need for lots of available arms.
"It's the game of chess. If you watch Omaha right now it's not necessarily the velocity. It's coaches managing their pitching staff, going ‘this guy can get me a ground ball because he's got a heavy sink, this guy can get me a fly ball when the wind is blowing in because he throws a little flatter, this guy has arm-side, this guy cuts'. It really takes a special pitching staff to have all those bullets you can use to win a series or win a tournament."
As State only won two SEC series and no tourneys this season Cohen has been obtaining all the ammo available for 2010. One caliber in particular is a drop-down reliever. "We might have been one of the few teams at this level that didn't have a down-under guy on our staff," he said. He thinks Collins will fill that void.
"Collins is a guy with a different arm action, it's a down-under guy and we think he makes a difference immediately in terms of getting three to six outs at the end of a game. He's 6-6 and has real sink."
Dixon is a more typical pitcher, though he actually began his college career at an infielder at San Diego State before returning home to Texas and powerhouse Blinn where he was coached by one of Cohen's own former players at Northwestern Louisiana. Collins became a pitcher in juco ball and a good one. "He like Collins was forced into a starting role but we feel they have the personality and delivery and stuff that dictates a two-inning-type guy at the end of the game."
Prep product Miller, the 3A Player of the Year in Mississippi, is coming off "a brilliant year" with undefeated Sumrall. "And the crazy thing is when we saw him the first time we didn't really see enough movement. We went a second time and saw some real two-seam movement and bought-in. The numbers speak for themselves, to have that many strikeouts at that high a level of baseball is pretty amazing. Gosh, the kid hit 14 home runs! I don't think he's that far away from being able to contribute immediately as a freshman."
Most quickly, in a relief role. Cohen already likes the outlines of a rotation with returning lefty starters Nick Routt and Tyler Whitney, as well as the chance for other young throwers to step on up into weekend work. That includes a few of the earlier signees, which is why some '09 veterans are antsy about their place in the post-fall picture. But these latest recruits are aimed at solving a huge State weakness this past season, when lax late relief directly contributed to a losing record and no post-season appearance. Just one good closer would have had the Dogs in the SEC Tournament at minimum. So Cohen is signing up a bunch, intentionally.
"If you look at every team in the country that's good, or at Mississippi State's run in 2007. We got lefthanded at the end of the game and then got righthanded. When you have those two luxuries at the end of the game you've got a chance to win a lot, and that's something we really had to repair in this program."
Yet adding a score or so of new faces means there won't be room for all '09 underclassmen under the 35-limit. State won't comment directly on which players will not or might not return, but queries by the Gene's Page and Dawgs' Bite staff offer some clues. One, pitcher Forrest Moore, is essentially taking the coming year off from baseball and having his throwing forearm worked on as well. Freshman pitcher David Hayes has said he is transferring, as is redshirt pitcher Tyler Johnson. Outfielder Jason Nappi and pitcher Michael Busby are also expected to look for other opportunities, and it appears starting shortstop Ryan Powers will transfer.
Cohen reported Wednesday that third baseman Russ Sneed's second surgery—this time on the other hip—had gone well. Infielder/pitcher Justin Bussey also had a follow-up procedure on his shoulder that won't sideline him long.
As for the tentative '10 roster, "I really think we're in good shape with that," Cohen said. "When everything goes like you think it's going to (draft wise) and the numbers add up, it's really set up the way we want it to. But I don't think our roster is complete just yet." And won't be until January, realistically. What is obvious is that Cohen is putting great faith in his first real recruiting class.
"We have seven junior college players coming in and 12 or 13 high school players, so I really like that mix. Because a lot of these kids are playing junior college baseball at a very, very high level so it's not a huge adjustment to college baseball." For that matter the prep signees all come from quality programs and good summer leagues, so they are as prepared as kids can be. Cohen says he would rather not say "we're young" about the coming year, since college baseball is increasingly a game led by youth. Still not until they do show up and start practicing will Mississippi State know exactly what it has to work with.
"And those puppies need to turn into Bulldogs in a short time," said Cohen. "We're confident some of these kids can make that adjustment."