Putting together the puzzle of baseball

The college baseball landscape never changes. Some players arrive, some don't. Some stay for four years, others only three. If they are jucos, they might only stay one. There are a lot of factors involved, and the coaches have to work year 'round and often season-long to put together their team.

Last year eight baseball players departed via graduation or the draft. This year it looks like about that many again.

I think we all knew Chris Coghlan and Garrett White were gone. I think we all held out hope that Alex Presley and Mark Wright and Justin Brashear would return. They are veterans. They have experience. We knew they would help next season.

Welcome to the world of college baseball.

When I talked to Mike Bianco last midweek about the draft and how it doesn't seem to damage his program year in and year out as it may have Ole Miss baseball before he came, he said it's really hard to make a statement like that. He and his staff don't really think in those terms.

They work hard to help players do what's right for them, first and foremost trying to persuade them to come to Ole Miss and then working with them to have successful careers here. That a really good player stays more than three years is often a bonus.

It's all quite a puzzle to piece together, and in the non-head-count sports like baseball, it's quite a different jigsaw than football or basketball. In those sports one man (or woman) gets a scholly and comes to campus to play ball. In baseball there are 11.7 to split up somewhere between 25 or 30 players or more, and so you can see the challenge.

Throw in different levels of ability, any number of schools in the recruiting mix, academic status, socio-economic class of a player and his family and any number of other factors and there you go. And that's for every player the coaches are looking at and hoping to sign. And then hoping they arrive here to play. Then there's the player's career here.

A good example is Justin Brashear. He was a terrific signee, drafted out of high school in the 25th round. He had to basically sit for two years behind veteran catcher and team captain (last year) Barry Gunther. Brashear excelled his junior season as an everyday player, hit a lot of home runs, and was the Oxford Regional MVP. Finally breaking into the spotlight and becoming a truly solid performer, Brashear got drafted in the 44th round and is now gone.

I don't think the coaches really know what a kid or his family is going to decide in those type situations. I know they want players to stay, but they also want them to do what's best for them and their families.

Evan Button's another. Highly recruited out of high school, Button came to Ole Miss as in infielder, played some in the outfield, and when the outfield became more set with Logan Power in left, Alex Presley in center, and Mark Wright in right, Button mostly DH'd.

Button would rather be in the infield. He's admitted that. He also wants to be on the field anywhere.

"When I see my name in the lineup on gameday," Button said a few weeks ago, "I just get so excited."

When Chris Coghlan was drafted a few days ago and we knew he would be gone, I asked Button if he could play some third, since the other three infielders will return.

"I've thought about that," he smiled and said.

But who knows at this point who'll be the Rebels' third baseman in 2007. Devin Hicks redshirted this season and took a lot of ground balls in practice as Cogs' backup. Or maybe Dan Black, listed mostly as a third baseman. The Carmel, Ind., native is part of another top recruiting class for the Rebels.

Mark Wright wasn't staying for a fifth season if he could move on. I never really felt he would. He was ready to try his hand at pro baseball. He's an older player now, and he just wants a chance. The last month of his Ole Miss career helped give him that.

I felt last year that all those guys who were drafted would go. Mark Holliman held out the longest and finally signed with the Cubs in late summer. But he wasn't staying. His teammates - Head, Pettway, Fowler, Cupps, and Maloney - had all been drafted and were gone.

That group bascially came in together, built something special, and rode out together.

I'm seeing that more with players here. As they have success together, they leave together as a group. Presley, Coghlan, and Brashear came in at the same time. Wright came in a year before but redshirted. Garrett White was a Texas Longhorn before playing juco ball and then pitched here for a year. Like Wright he's an older player. He was leaving, and that he was drafted in the sixth made it a no-brainer on his part.

Many of our fans, including myself, understand more in this era about the draft, how it works, and how we should handle its effects. I remember pre-Bianco that the draft would often ruin Rebel hopes for a year or two. Normally that came in the form of players who signed and never showed up.

I remember a couple of years from the past when maybe four or five of the incoming guys were drafted and none would show up on campus. A few weeks ago I was listening to a Memphis-New Orleans AAA game on radio and heard the name Micah Bowie. Flashback.

Bowie was a Rebel baseball signee in 1993. He was drafted that June by the Braves in the eighth round. I've never met Bowie. He never threw a pitch at Ole Miss. But at almost 32 years of age now, he's still pitching in professional baseball with the New Orleans Zephyrs.

That type scenario still happens here and other places with either current players or incoming ones. Always has. Always will.

What has happened at Ole Miss as much as anything is that with so many quality players in the camp already or with as many stars as they sign each year, then the product on the field remains high caliber.

Of course this program doesn't just want to make an NCAA Regional each season. It wants to go to Omaha and win a national championship.

To be able to do that, good players have to be on the field making plays. Either veterans or newcomers or, as is usually the case, a mixture of both.

That's what we'll see again next season. It's what we're likely to see for seasons to come.

It's part of the puzzle that is college baseball. Watching it all come together between now and next season is just a part of it.

And, as we saw this past season, especially on the mound, putting it all together will continue right on through the season.

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