"We feel like this club is a lot better in a lot of ways. We feel like we have made some great improvements. Obviously, we had a really nice recruiting class. It was ranked the 8th best in the nation by Baseball America and I think 15th by Collegiate Baseball. It is a pitching rich class. And that was one of the things that we felt like we had to address immediately. The collection of arms that we have I think is pretty good. The issue is it is very young. We are going to have some guys take the mound who have great stuff, great velocity, great second pitches. They are going to make some mistakes but we are going to have to live with those mistakes. And we are going to have to get better as the year goes on. Our goals for the freshmen is we want them to be sophomores by the end this year from a maturity standpoint, from a skill level standpoint.
"(Senior first baseman) Connor Powers has, to me, has become a different player. Through the fall and early part of the spring he has been able to eliminate a lot of swing and miss, evaluate the breaking ball much better than he has in the past. I think he made a great decision by coming back (to college). As good of a defender as he was at first base last year, I think he's even better this year.
"I think (senior third baseman) Russ Sneed is very similar (to Powers) in (the defensive) area. His biggest obstacle is his second hip surgery that he had. I think Russ is (now) ready to compete in a way that he hasn't been able to in a long time because I think he is finally healthy. And he has worked very, very hard through rehab to get there.
"We have a host of new guys who are pretty skilled guys. This club is going to have to come together very quickly but there are a lot of pieces of the puzzle that are new. And anytime you have players you hope that it all comes together quickly. I'm thrilled with this group. I love the way they compete. I love the fact that we can do a lot of different things to our opponents. If we need to get them out with a (pitcher who has a good) breaking ball, we can do that. We are going to have that available at the front end of the game and at the end of the game. We need some (pitchers with) velocity, we have that. If we need some (some pitchers with) movement, we have that. If we really need a double play and need to defend and have range in the middle of the field, we have that. To control the running game with guys who have arm strength behind home plate, we have that.
"I think our pitching staff is going to do nothing but improve over the course of the year. I'm very confident that we are going to have six freshmen come out and pitch on a regular basis. Add that to (sophomore lefthander) Nick Routt, who had an outstanding freshman year last year and the development of (sophomore righthander) Devin Jones, which has been incredible. I don't think I have ever seen at this point in time a player who has made the improvements that Devin has made over the last 365 days. (His fastball) has touch 94 or 95 (miles per hour) each one of his outings this spring. And his slider has been anywhere from 82 to 85 miles per hour. He has been dominant. Our plan with him is to put him at the end of the game. We really struggled at the end of the game last year, to have the right personnel to get outs in the 7th, 8th and 9th inning. And we are purposely putting some of our better guys at the back end of the game to address that issue. I don't know when this is going to happen, but I think this pitching staff is going to be one of the best pitching staffs in college baseball as we move forward. Will that happen this year, will it happen next year? I don't know.
"We have some experience in the outfield. That is probably where our toughest competition is. It is very difficult to say who is going to play in our outfield because I feel very comfortable with six different guys who could play at any point and time in our outfield.
"I think, offensively, this club will be better. Defensively, it will be significantly better for a lot of different reasons."
Questons From The Media:
Have you set a first day lineup?
"We haven't set a lineup yet because we don't know whether we are going to face left or right. But obviously, Connor Powers will play first and hit in the middle of the lineup. Will he be 3rd or 4th (in the lineup), we don't know yet. The top end of the lineup will depend on whether it's left or right. But (sophomore centerfielder) Brent Brownlee is someone that has really come into his own. He had the knee scoped about two weeks ago, but I think he will be ready. Is he ready for opening day? I don't know. And that will alter what we will do in the outfield."
Will there be pitching matchups for right-handed and left-handed hitters or will Devin close no matter which one is at bat?
"Yeah, I think Devin, for right now, will be the closer. But what could happen is, in the first series of the year, he doesn't pitch because we don't get into a closing type situation. So, now, do you start him on day 3? That is a possibility also. But the way he is being groomed is he is pitching frequently in very short stints. With his stuff, the power of his slider and his fastball (velocity), and his two-seamer, which has tremendous movement, (closing) is where our thoughts are (with him) right now."
Could he close Friday night and come back as a starter Sunday?
"That's possible, but we are going to be very careful with him early because we want him to be full speed when we get into league play. I don't think that it is any secret that the best Mississippi State teams and the best teams in the Southeastern Conference of all time have had that guy at the back end (of the bullpen). And I think we have several candidates for that area along with Devin."
Who will be your weekend rotation guys?
"Nick Routt will obviously be one of those guys. Does he go Friday or Saturday? I don't know yet. (Senior lefthander) Tyler Whitney is a guy who has really come on. Trey Johnson, a junior college outfielder/pitcher, could fight for a spot, possibly as a Sunday guy for us. He is a lefthander pitcher with a great changeup and really commands the baseball well. Chris Stratton, a (righthanded) freshman from Tupelo, could pitch on Friday or on Sunday for us as a pure freshman. He has pitched very, very well for us. Kendall Graveman is a freshman from Alabama who could pitch either at the end of the game or he could start for us. As an example, if Devin closes it out on a Friday night, then Kendall or (true freshmen righthander) Ben Bracewell could close out a Saturday or they could start. They are two kids with great, great arms with power breaking balls who could pitch at the end of the game or, possibly, at the front end. We really won't know the answer until we get through one weekend."
What have been the toughest thing for the freshmen pitchers to adjust to?
"They have made amazing progress and adjusted really, really well. But when you have marginal misses at this level hitters in intersquad games and hitters in the SEC are going to take marginal pitches. What happens is you give up advantage counts. And it's really hard for a freshmen to put two pitches in the strikezone immediately as a freshman. And it's going to be the kids who give us the best command who will pitch the most innings. I think there are six freshmen (pitchers) who could pitch close to 200 (combined) innings for us (this season). That is very exciting to me but it's also a little daunting also. But the thing I know about these kids is they are all going to get better."
In addition to Russ Sneed, who are others who can play third base?
"We moved Jet Butler from second base to third base because he sees the ball from the left side of the infield a little bit better. What keeps Jet in that mix is he is a right-left (hitter) who has good at-bats and can hit.
"The thing about the third base position is how many days can Russ play nine innings or can he play twenty-seven consecutive innings in three days? Can he play a double header if we are forced to do that due to what he has been through with his hips? He didn't play full-speed in the fall until we were deep into the fall. So, we have to treat him a little bit like a pitcher just from the standpoint of him wearing down."
Will this season be handled the same as you did it last year where it seemed like there were open tryouts during the year?
"I don't think it will be as much. I would be shocked if Connor Powers isn't playing first base. I will be shocked if Jonathan Ogden is not playing shortstop for us every day. He is a young man who I haven't talked about. He's a junior college transfer from Blinn Community College who I think is one of the best defensive shortstops in this league right now. We have some other candidates at second base. Nick Vickerson from Shelton State Community College has done a really solid job at second base. He has tremendous arm strength and is a very, very good defender. We have a pure freshmen from Birmingham, Sam Frost, who has really come on strong. He is a lefthanded bat who gives you some quickness and range in the middle infield."
You have two guys behind the plate, (Junior) Cody Freeman and (junior college transfer) Wes Thigpen.
"Freeman is a little bit like Russ, he is now healthy, he feels good. I think his knee is healthy, his shoulder is healthy, his elbow is healthy. There is a whole list with him. He is different. The way he is receiving and throwing the ball is different. He has always been a dynamite offensive player. And this year I think he has a chance to really log some innings behind home plate this year because he healthy. I also think he has grown as a leader. He is much more vocal and he sees things he might not have seen a year ago. That is a real credit to him.
"Thigpen is a great, great throwing catcher. I think he is a better hitter than I thought he was coming out of junior college, even though his numbers were very , very good. I think he is going to be a very, very good college catcher."
Has Nick Routt improved significantly from his freshman to sophomore year?
"There is no question. I can't remember where he was evaluated in the fall (of 2008), but it wasn't phenomenal, probably the top half. Then he becomes number 1 as we get into the spring. If our freshmen (pitchers) can made the same adjustments that Nick Routt made during the course of his freshman year from the fall to the spring, then they are going to be special."
What is the biggest challenge with young arms?
"(MSU pitching) Coach (Butch) Thompson does a remarkable job with these guys. But I think the biggest challenge is having enough (innings) to keep them on schedule (in the fall). That is a big difference between this year and last year. Last year, we were asking guys to pitch twice a week. We couldn't really keep on schedule with them because we had to play intersquad games. That is one of the necessary evils of college baseball, playing intersquad games so your kids can get enough (at-bats) to be ready for the spring when it rolls around. We have enough arms this year so that we are getting to play the intersquads and kids are only having to throw once a week.
"I'm talking about all these young guys but I would be remiss if I didn't talk about Greg Houston. Greg is a senior pitcher for us, as is Tyler Whitney. Those guys have made great, great improvements. I don't think I have seen Houston throw the ball as well as he did in his last outing. He was 88 to 91 with a very nice slider and great command. Whitney's changeup has made great improvement. I think all of our guys have made great improvement."
If Brownlee is healthy, will the outfield positions be mix and match based on whether a righty or lefty is pitching?
"Yeah, I think so. Our outfield is lefthand dominant. Brownlee gives us a righthanded bat in the outfield. Brownlee, when healthy, is as good of a defender in center field as there is in college baseball. Trey Johnson played center field last year. He's got to get used to playing a corner spot. (Junior college transfer) Jaron Shepherd played center field last year and also has to get used to playing a corner spot. That is a little bit more difficult done than said. (Junior) Ryan Collins is finally healthy. He has been extremely consistent and I would be shocked if he's a guy who is not in the middle of what we are trying to do in the outfield, defensively. He is a very, very solid defender in right field or left field. And he could play center field if Brent is not ready. He has also become a very good hitter. I think his shoulder surgery is finally behind him and I think he is ready to make a jump."
"I am Russ Sneed, a fifth-year senior. I am really excited about getting my last campaign going. I've been through a battle. And it's great to be healthy. I'm excited to see the new arms in the upcoming week. We have a different club this year with a lot of good young arms. We (also) have some good defensive catchers this year."
"I am Connor Powers, a senior. I'm excited to be back. I really like the makeup of our team, just from the younger guys who are not acting like freshmen. Every time you come to the field they try to get better and they don't act like they are clueless. The coaches have done a good job (with them) from Coach Cohen and Coach Thompson and everybody else. They are trying to make sure they can't be freshmen this year, just like Routt did last year starting in the second half."
"I'm really excited to start the season off and see how everybody plays when we are on the same team and not fighting against each other. It gets a little old playing intersquad games day in, day out. I know we are going to have a great hitting team this year, like always, because Coach Cohen does such a good job with the hitters. It will be interesting to see how our pitching staff comes around this year."
For more Mississippi State baseball information CLICK HERE to go to my members-only baseball forum.
Gene Swindoll is the publisher of the GenesPage.com website, the source for Mississippi State sports on the Scout.com sports network. You can contact him by emailing email@example.com.