January 27, 2014 10:31:31 AM
STARKVILLE -- The Mississippi State baseball team likely won't settle its positional battles until Opening Day.
That doesn't seem to both MSU coach John Cohen, who plans to use the first month of the season will determine playing time at shortstop, catcher, right and left field and at pitcher.
"I think it makes it easier as a coach to be able to confidently know how to fill out all nine spots of the lineup every single day," Cohen said Sunday after Team Black beat Team Gray 5-3 in a scrimmage at Dudy Noble Field.
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.
However, Cohen and his coaches aren't worried about having established starters at positions entering a season in which the team likely will be ranked in the top 10 of several preseason polls.
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."
Last season, Pirtle was embroiled in a battle at second base and had to prove he was a worthy defensive partner for Frazier. The duo combined for 44 of the club's 80 double plays last season.
Britton likely will get the first shot to replace Frazier at shortstop as he battles junior college transfer Seth Heck, but he will have to improve his career batting average of .190 (142 at-bats). Britton was 0-for-6 in two scrimmages this weekend.
"You should already know what kind of defensive skills Matthew Britton has, but now he's somebody that has learned a lot from Adam Frazier in how to improve himself as an overall player," Cohen said. "This is true when I played here, and it still works now, but seeing a veteran perform every day is a better teacher than any coach could be."
MSU has four catchers to replace the senior combination of Ammirati and Mitch Slauter. Three likely will play in MSU's season-opening four-game weekend set against Hofstra that starts Feb. 14. Normally, MSU has had only two catchers on in its NCAA-mandated 27-man roster, but it may have to dress three this season because of the hitting prowess of Daniel Garner and Zach Randolph. Freshman sensation Gavin Collins was a top draft prospect until a late injury made him likely to attend MSU, and junior college transfer Cody Walker has developed a chemistry with the pitchers and has excellent defensive skills.
"I think a lot of people wonder why we play four-game sets in the early season, and the reason is to see some of these battles shake out," Cohen said. "All four guys at catcher have excellent qualities we value, and it's going to be a difficult decision there."
The two corner outfield spots likely will be divided between seniors Demarcus Henderson and Derrick Armstrong, junior college transfer Jake Vickerson, and Canadian Jacob Robson.
On the mound, MSU pitching coach Butch Thompson isn't ready to define his starting rotation, and likely will use a duck-tailed combination for two starters to get through 50-60 pitches against Hofstra. Thompson acknowledged junior right-hander Brandon Woodruff is the only likely starter.
Woodruff is a projected top draft pick for the 2014 MLB First-Year Player draft, but he has struggled with inconsistency and injuries since arriving to the MSU campus two years ago. Woodruff struggled with shoulder problems last season and had to have season-ending surgery performed by Dr. Rusty Linton, the team surgeon in Columbus, after he felt tenderness in the elbow joint following a start against Ole Miss in Pearl.
"I think I have to be careful with Brandon early, obviously, even though he looks absolutely fantastic," Thompson said. "Likely what I'm leaning toward is going with experience, but I wouldn't be surprised if some of the youngsters pass them as the season goes on. I'd like to have everything pegged by Opening Day, but that's not normally how it works anymore. That's OK because last year we figured it out somehow."
Follow Matt Stevens on Twitter @matthewcstevens.