Mississippi State coach John Cohen has positional battle decisions at catcher, shortstop and outfield going into 2014 season. Photo by: Photo provided by MSU athletics
February 1, 2014 5:38:52 PM
STARKVILLE - "So Coach Cohen, whose going to be your (fill in the blank) this season?"
This is the sixth-year Mississippi State coach has already fielded questions similar to this during the month leading up to Opening Day at Dudy Noble Field on Feb. 14 vs. Hofstra (4 p.m. first pitch). The fill in the blank positions for those questions to the MSU staff could include starting pitchers, catcher, shortstop, third base, right field and left field.
Here's the truly honest answer: I don't know yet.
Cohen conceded positional battles will likely stretch into the first month of the regular season as this program historically used non-conference games to figure out roles for newcomers or veterans that haven't experienced significant playing time in previous seasons.
With losses of Major League Baseball draft picks Hunter Renfroe (right field), Adam Frazier (shortstop), and Nick Ammirati (catcher), MSU will have to replace at least three starters from the 2013 squad that advanced to the College World Series championship final for the first time in program history.
The Dispatch MSU Sports Blog will now go through the everyday positional battles heading into the 2014 season:
Shortstop: Junior Matthew Britton, Junior college transfer Seth Heck or sophomore Kyle Hann
- Senior second baseman Brett Pirtle, who hit .310 in 68 games last season, knew one of the jobs in the fall and early spring was to establish chemistry up the middle. Pirtle said Sunday he already sees "the it factor" from junior shortstop Matthew Britton. The Cullman, Ala., native had 20 at-bats last season and saw action mostly as a defensive replacement because of his athleticism.
"When you look at Matthew Britton, you see a guy that just believes he can accomplish anything he sets his mind to," Pirtle said. "He's one of the most impressive athletes I've ever seen, and our hope is he can put it all together for a full season. I believe we have the best infield in the nation in terms of potential talent."
Heck is a classic Cohen-type recruit with the athletic ability that scouts miss because of lack of physical size. A 168-pound infielder, Heck was a first team All West Region selection at Tacoma (Wash.) Community College where he hit .355 and a .990 fielding percentage at shortstop.
Third Base: Senior Alex Detz or Freshman Reid Humphreys
- This is where the lineup dilemma will begin for the MSU staff. After completing a 2013 season where he had a team-high .449 on-base percentage, Alex Detz must be in the Bulldogs lineup. The issue will be if MSU can rely on his defensive skills to be third base for 60+ games or will he have to slotted into last year's designated hitter role. Humphreys, the 2013 Mr. Baseball selection in Mississippi, was drafted in the 36th round of the 2013 MLB Draft by the Washington Nationals but elected to honor his scholarship to MSU.
Humphreys' older half brother is Washington Nationals outfielder and former MSU outfielder Tyler Moore.
He batted .389 with 11 home runs, 32 RBI, 43 runs scored, 11 stolen bases and an .874 slugging percentage, leading Northwest Rankin to the Class 6A quarterfinals this past season. Humphreys was the top-ranked player in the state as rated by Perfect Game USA but is slowly trying to learn a new position at the hot corner.
"Reid comes from a great family and we feel like he is going to be a great player," Cohen said. "Reid enters our program with a very good skill set."
Catcher: Junior Zach Randolph, Redshirt freshman Daniel Garner, Junior college transfer Cody Walker and freshman Gavin Collins
- After speaking with MSU coaches, this position battle has them the most concerned heading into the 2014 season. None of the four candidates have separated themselves in terms of the combination of hitting, handling the pitching staff and more importantly, defensive skills. Throughout the fall and early spring scrimmages, all four candidates behind the plate have been allowed to call their own games without looking into the dugout for MSU pitching coach Butch Thompson.
Randolph and Garner were around the program for the team's run to Omaha last season and have the chemistry with the pitching staff but the defensive skill levels of Brown and Garner make the decision extra difficult for MSU. Cohen and Thompson have hinted MSU may run out as many as three different catchers for the 4-game season-opening series vs. Hofstra but will likely not be able to travel with more than two by Southeastern Conference play.
Left and Right Field: Senior Demarcus Henderson, Senior Derrick Armstrong, Junior college transfer Jake Vickerson, Redshirt freshman Cody Brown and Freshman Joey Swinarski
- With the loss of 2013 MLB Draft first round pick Hunter Renfroe in right field, the open corner outfield spots create giant holes defensively and in the middle of the MSU lineup. Henderson and Robson, a sophomore from Ontario, Canada, combined for 66 returning starts in left field in 2013 but Henderson also had nine starts in right field last season so the senior from Wayne County is likely to earn a chance at 60-plus starts.
The major question is likely in right field where junior college transfer Jake Vickerson's arm strength is a pleasant replacement for Renfroe's eight outfield assists last season. However, freshman sensation Joey Swinarski, who was a second-team All-America prep selection and ranked No. 232 overall nationally among high school talent by Perfect Game scouting services, is seen as a talent that can help the Bulldogs program immediately in the outfield depth and producing offense in the lineup. The debate is how long will that player development take as Swinarski gave up his ability to be drafted in 2014 out of high school by enrolling at MSU a year early.
"We absolutely know Joey's ceiling and its high," MSU coach John Cohen said. "He's an immediate impact guy with all the tools to be a successful middle of the order hitter in the Southeastern Conference one day."
All of the Dispatch MSU Sports Blog readers: feel free to follow me on Twitter at http://twitter.com/matthewcstevens for up-to-date Mississippi State coverage.
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