May 26, 2010 12:42:00 PM
STARKVILLE -- Mississippi State baseball coach John Cohen resembled a relaxed man Tuesday, displaying a relieved yet jovial demeanor that''s usually noticeable when the Bulldogs are winning games.
Cohen is officially working toward next season and hopes trainers can heal the injured players he bewailed not having at his disposal while in the midst of his second-straight losing season since taking over as head coach.
Mississippi State''s 23-33 overall record didn''t sting as bad as the 6-24 league mark as the Bulldogs limped to one win in their last 15 Southeastern Conference games.
Sure Cohen talked about the effects of losing projected pitching ace Nick Routt just two innings into SEC play and outfielder Brent Brownlee. Third baseman Jarrod Parks and infielder Frank Rawdow never took the field as both were expected to contribute heavily.
Cohen''s missing pieces made for a team that grew to expect any and everything playing with little depth in the field and seven freshman pitchers who logged a combined 245 innings this season.
Overcoming injuries, which also severely limited freshman hurler Ben Bracewell, is a goal Cohen wants to meet in 2011.
"I want to have the type of program in future where you can loose some key components, because that''s natural for any team in any sport, for us to be recoverable," Cohen said.
Now two years into re-building his alma mater, Cohen is confident he can have the same kind of success his third year that he had at that point of his career in Kentucky. Coming off a season in which the Wildcats finished two games above .500, Cohen steered the team to a 44-17 record and an SEC championship.
The correlation may have flaws based on personnel and injuries, but having three signing classes with players recruited by the current coaching staff has a growing effect.
"No matter how hard you try with returning players, when you bring in recruits, there''s a little bit of a situation where older guys can say, ''Well those are his recruits, those are his guys,''" Cohen said. "You''re fighting battles over a two-year period that nobody you''re competing against really is unless they''re going through the same thing.
"In an eight-year period, I''ve been through the same thing three times."
That changing of the guard usually is followed by some form of attrition, either by a player''s own doing or by the coaching staff. Cohen said he expects there to be some alterations to the roster over the summer, but as of Tuesday he was unsure of who would leave and when it would happen.
There are seven players, however, leaving for a different reason after exhausting eligibility. Most notably is heavy-handed first baseman Connor Powers, who capped his career with 16 home runs and 68 RBIs -- second best in the SEC.
Powers was expected to be a force after hitting 18 home runs in 2009, but the emergence of players like Ryan Duffy, who batted .358 with 10 homers, and Luke Adkins gave the Bulldogs a solid core of upperclassmen. The Bulldogs lose Russ Sneed, who battled through hip surgeries to finish with nine home runs and 44 RBIs, and Jet Butler, who had the team''s third-highest batting average (.329).
The loss of half the batting order evokes questions of how the Bulldogs will compensate in 2011 after relying heavily on freshmen to lead the way on the mound. Cohen believes the transition at the plate comes much quicker than on the mound for a new player, but he points to the training table and dugout for the answers to next year''s lineup questions.
"The thing that we underestimate, this is true of coaches and fans, you underestimate how much better kids can get in the course of the year," Cohen said. "You have a tendency to think the answer is always from the outside. No question in my mind that Nick Vickerson, Johnathan Ogden, (Chris) Stratton and Cody Freeman are going to be better.
"It can be appealing at the same time, just having a nice melting pot of different skill levels."
Cohen admits the offensive philosophy may change, switching from power guys in succession to power-speed combos through the lineup, but he points to Parks'' and Brownlee''s improvement during last offseason as an indicator that replacing talent in the field won''t be a mountain to overcome.
Powers, who was selected by the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 11th round of the 2009 MLB draft, opted to return to MSU to refine his skills. He''s hoping the move pays off and said he will return home to Illinois this weekend to continue hitting and working out. He said some teams may bring him in to take some swings in their ballpark.
"I have huge admiration for Connor Powers because he took a bird in the hand last year and said hey, ''I''m coming back to school and I know I can strike out less, I know I can walk more, I know I can help Mississippi State more and I know I can make myself a better player,''" Cohen said. "Those are the types of kids I can really connect with, who are that serious about the game. I have to be surrounded by those types of kids."
Freshman pitcher Ben Bracewell, whom Cohen said came to MSU with and existing biceps issue after a stressful senior season in high school, is scheduled to have arm surgery today by noted surgeon Dr. James Andrews.
Bracewell was limited to one inning per week throughout the season.
"There''s a chance he could be pitching for us next year," Cohen said. "It''s not a traditional Tommy John thing and it''s not a traditional (rotator) cuff thing. I really don''t know if I could explain it without looking like an idiot to the medical world."
Routt''s lingering elbow ligament injury will see him remain in Starkville throughout the summer to rehab with the team instead of pitching in the Cape Cod summer league.
"Like every other player in America, he''s got some adjustments he needs to make to climb the ladder and be the pitcher we think he can be," Cohen said. "Staying here, working camps, going through rehab with our training staff and being around our coaching staff, especially in a camp setting, I think he will be full speed and ready to go. We''re definitely not going to push him."
Cohen said there''s a possibility Routt could qualify for a medical redshirt, but any judgement on the extra year of eligibility would come during his final year.
"Just looking at Nick''s situation, if he does all the things we think he can do, I don''t think that''s a factor for him because I think he ends up being a professional baseball player," Cohen said.
Parks (back surgery), pitchers Paxton Pace (arm) and Michael Dixon (torn elbow ligament) are on pace to participate in fall camp.
Signing class concerns
Cohen and his staff brought in a Top 10 recruiting class last season and hope to do the same this year, though the MLB Draft could alter the star quality.
Of the 15 players already signed, Cohen said he anticipates the possibility of losing three or four to the draft.
"This is why it''s a 365-day job," Cohen said. "It''s nothing against any other sports on campus, but having been a part of five different athletic departments, there aren''t many other coaches worrying about the draft."
Cohen didn''t comment specifically on which signees could opt for a pro contract, but said the Bulldogs aren''t leveraging the recruiting class with more players who could turn pro over those who are surer bets to land in Starkville.
"I have made six trips to see one of our signees, just constantly communicating the values about going to Mississippi State," Cohen said. "In order to be successful, you have to have a guy show up that you think might not show up. You don''t want to take risks with an entire recruiting class, but you have to do it with a certain number of kids. You need that break."
1. Sykes' faith leads him to coach at Starkville Academy HIGH SCHOOL SPORTS
2. Lessons learned helped Coggin earn promotion COLLEGE SPORTS
3. Mangum wins SEC batting title COLLEGE SPORTS