"Last year, I think we improved the batting average of the ball club by about 30 points but we were still non-productive in regard to what I consider the power department, especially off left-handed pitchers. We just didn't have a productive right-handed lineup, especially late in the year when we started facing a lot of the better left-handed pitchers in the Southeastern Conference. I think our hitting, because we have another year under the system, will have a little bit more production this year. Really, the only guys that we lost that were productive at times were Chad Henry and Jason Burkley. After that, we are basically a veteran-hitting ball club with a mixture of some very talented young hitters that we feel good about. I felt like last year that we needed to improve the athleticism of our outfielders and I think we brought in five blue chip freshmen outfielders. Two of them may have the opportunity to play everyday, Joseph Hunter and Brad Corley. We feel, going into the season, that we are capable of being a better hitting ball club than last year."
What do you feel will be the strengths of this year's ball club? "I think the strength of this year's ball club is team speed and depth of the pitching staff."
The other coaches talked about the positions they coach. How about talking about the infield. Start off with first baseman Matthew Brinson and who you expect will back him up.
"Matt Brinson has attracted some interest from professional baseball scouts more than he has in the past. He has always been a tremendous defensive first baseman. He is now running a 6.7 sixty. Those type guys are hard to come by. Matt has a chance to hit some home runs again for us this year. I also think he is a better contact hitter now than he was last year when I first saw him. He gives us a very stable corner guy.
"Behind him we have first basemen who haven't played a game yet. We have Brad Jones from Sarasota, Florida. Brad is also an outfielder. He has made a lot of progress offensively. I think he could be one of our future first basemen. Brent Lewis is also a first baseman/third basemen. He has another year. Another boy we have is Brett Cleveland. He also plays in the outfield and can DH for us from the right side. Brett is also a pitcher. We also really like Brian LaNinfa, one of our outfielder signees. He is also a first baseman. Ryan Harbuck is a signee of ours from near Birmingham, Alabama. He needs some work on his footwork at first base. I think we are in pretty good shape with Matt Brinson (as the starter) and right behind him Brent Lewis and Brad Jones. Brent is more suited this year, if (Steve) Gendron stays healthy, as being a DH for us."
Second base is the one open infield position this year.
"Chad Henry graduated and that is the one infield position that is open. We've experimented with a lot of guys there. The sleeper of them all is Casey Hamilton, one of our very, very outstanding signees. He was handicapped this fall with a herniated disc that he had an operation on. We didn't really see Casey perform that well because of the back problem. Just watching him in our off-season drills offensively, there is a long-term possibility that Casey could be a third baseman in this program. He is a mystery guy right now. We have Tyler Scarbrough, a junior college transfer from Meridian CC who has also played mostly third base and shortstop. We are asking him to learn this position also. He was ranked pretty high by the coaches and players from the fall evaluation. We think he has a chance to really help us. The other guy is Thomas Berkery, one of our catchers. Thomas has great catching skills, but he is also the best athlete on the team. He has played third base in high school. We are taking a look at him at second base. Josh Thoms was here last year and played sporadically. He is also a second baseman/shortstop and could be in the mix. Then we have Daniel Tackett, a boy we really like defensively. He was a shortstop all the time while in junior college and high school."
Steve Gendron looks to be your third baseman this season.
"Last year, we asked Steve Gendron to go to the outfield, a position that he had never played before. We needed him out there because we didn't have an offensive outfield. He did a great job for us, but we are not going to ask him to do that this year. He is going to be pretty solid at third base. Steve, who is a professional prospect, has gotten bigger and stronger and we hope he will hit more home runs for us this year. (Brent) Lewis will back him up. We are going to make (true freshman) Ben Grisham a third baseman. I really like this kid; this is a very talented boy. He is a great student and great boy and is working hard. He has some work to do at third base, but at the same time, his athleticism excites us. He runs well and has a major league arm."
Matthew Maniscalco had shoulder surgery and didn't participate in fall workouts.
"Matthew is the key but I think he will be healthy. Jo Jo Haney had the same operation that Matthew had. Matthew didn't perform at all this fall and Jo Jo performed late at the end of the fall. Jo Jo is also a second baseman. Right now, we are banking on Matthew being healthy."
Overall, do you think this team is a very good defensive team?
"It is a veteran infield but we are really young behind the plate and in the outfield in innings played. We feel good about the youngsters. It is a veteran ball club with a mixture of some really talented new players."
You mentioned earlier that this team is a good running team. Do you expect that to show up on the base paths?
"Yeah, I like to run and hit a lot and I think we have some guys who can be better than we have had before. Running is definitely a big plus for us this year."
Switching over to recruiting, you really keyed on pitching during the fall signing period.
"We turned down a couple of catchers that were interested in Mississippi State but we don't need a catcher for a couple of years. We certainly don't need an outfielder for a couple of years and we don't need a first baseman for a couple of years. Our big concern was losing (senior) Matthew Maniscalco and possibly losing Steve Gendron (to the draft). We brought in three high school infielders, all of whom I feel good about. The biggest concern was pitching because not only do we lose four senior pitchers in Blakeney, Owens, Dowe and Collums, but there is a potential loss of Maholm, Papelbon, Nicholas and maybe even Goodson. We needed to bring in some pitchers and develop them."
Thank you, Coach Polk.
Gene Swindoll is the publisher and owner of Gene's Page, the unofficial site for Mississippi State sports since October, 1996. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org