February 17, 2011 8:34:00 AM
STARKVILLE -- Ask anyone on Mississippi State''s baseball team which component of the squad has the most athleticism and players will tell you the outfield.
That position has been a hot topic of discussion in the preseason, and that''s a good thing offensively and defensively.
MSU outfielders Brent Brownlee, Jaron Shepherd, and C.T. Bradford are hailed as the team''s quickest players. That speed is expected to help them track a number of flyballs due to new bat regulations that lowered exit velocity. The new bats must meet a standard called the Ball-Bat Coefficient of Restitution, or BBCOR. They are designed to decrease the exit speed of the ball off the bat in an attempt to make the game safer.
MSU''s small-ball tactics on offense also should serve the team well when all three are in the lineup.
The Bulldogs also have outfield options in senior Ryan Collins, who is expected to start at first base, and junior college transfer Luis Pollorena, the 2010 Alabama Community College Conference Player of the Year.
"We had some really good speed in the outfield (last season), and I think our outfield is gonna be faster," Collins said. "If I''m playing first base and we''ve got C.T., Jaron, and Brent, those three guys are faster than I am. We''ll have one of the fastest and most athletic outfields in the country. I don''t see many balls that will be falling in our outfield."
Brownlee''s health could be the only factor that keeps the outfield from materializing the way the Bulldogs hope. The junior played in six games last season before diving for a flyball and injuring his shoulder. He was lost for the season after having his third shoulder surgery since high school.
If healthy, he provides coach John Cohen experience at all three outfield positions.
Shepherd became the team''s full-time starter in center field shortly after Brownlee was lost for the year. The two-time Major League Baseball draft pick had a .989 fielding percentage and one error last season. He hit just .250 and had 49 total bases from the bottom of the lineup.
"Coming from junior college, you know the game and have played against quality guys before," Shepherd said in the fall. "What you don''t realize is how good the pitching is in this league. It''s very difficult to come in and have an immediate impact when you haven''t had a run through it. I''ll be a much better hitter this season because of it."
The Bulldogs'' outfield lost Luke Adkins, who hit .327 and was second on the team with 109 total bases last season. Right fielder Ryan Duffy, who hit .358 last season, also graduated.
Bradford, the Florida Class 5A Player of the Year, was chosen by the Cleveland Indians in the 48th round of the MLB First-Year Player draft. Cohen said Bradford, an "on-base" guy, will be used as an outfielder, a pitcher and hitter.
Bradford was part of a 2011 recruiting class ranked No. 22 in the country by Baseball America.
"This is the best recruiting class I''ve been a part of, and I''ve been a part of several that have been top five," Cohen said.
With that in mind, Cohen isn''t shying away from plugging Bradford into the outfield and running him out on the mound for mid-week games. As one of the major coups of the class, he''s anxious to get him on the field.
Cohen said Bradford was voted by his teammates as one of the top five players on the team following fall practice.
However, Bradford has zero experience in the Southeastern Conference, which after Shepherd, Brownlee, and Collins is what MSU is looking at in terms of outfield depth.
"The only thing that keeps me up at night is you''re really concerned about possible injury situations," Cohen said. "I think that keeps any coach in the SEC awake. I think we''re really good as is, but if you take away a couple of pieces to the puzzle, I think we''re back into some freshmen having to do some things that they might not be ready for."
The Bulldogs open the season at 4 p.m. Friday against Akron. They play their first 14 games at home.
NOTE: Fox Sports Net South will televise MSU''s game April 23 against South Carolina game. The time has been moved to 6 p.m.
The Bulldogs will play half of their television games at Dudy Noble
Field, Polk-DeMent Stadium, including the first game of the series against defending national champion South Carolina on April 22 on
Associated Press reports were included in this story.