STARKVILLE, Miss. — Mississippi State’s most recent senior class, led by Jake Mangum and Elijah MacNamee, was one of the most accomplished in the proud history of the program, going to four straight super regionals capped by back-to-back trips to Omaha. Now that those seniors and key juniors like first-round ace Ethan Small are gone, you might think Mississippi State is due to take a step back. But if that’s your expectation, you might want to take a closer look.
Even despite its departures from last year, MSU brings back one of the best cores in college baseball. For starters, Mississippi State still has a first-rounder to anchor the rotation on Friday nights in sophomore righty JT Ginn, who was already drafted in the first round out of high school. And there might not be a team in the country with a better quartet anchoring the lineup than the top four hitters in MSU’s order in a Saturday, Oct. 12, exhibition against Louisiana: center fielder Rowdey Jordan, shortstop Jordan Westburg, right fielder Tanner Allen and second baseman Justin Foscue. Foscue was a second-team All-American last year, and the three others all have legitimate All-America potential as juniors in 2020.
“We feel like we’ve got four of the best hitters in the country,” said second-year Mississippi State coach Chris Lemonis. “They’re elite defenders in the middle with Westburg and Foscue. Rowdey’s had a good fall, been really pleased with his transition to center field. And then Tanner Allen has been good making the move to right. He is just such a pure hitter — just make sure he knows what time BP is and he’s as good a hitter as there is out there.”
The physical, athletic Westburg is widely regarded by scouts as a potential first-round talent for the 2020 draft; he and Foscue give the Bulldogs the best middle infield tandem in the nation. Jordan will be counted upon to replace Mangum as the center fielder and catalyst atop the order, and he looks well suited for the task, with a skill set very similar to Mangum’s — he’s a fellow switch-hitter with good speed and bat-to-ball instincts, but with more home run pop than Mangum. Lemonis said Jordan has come back with a renewed sense of purpose this fall and looks “ready to make another jump.”
Completing the up-the-middle group, sophomores Luke Hancock and Hayden Jones are competing for playing time behind the plate, and rifled-armed freshman two-way talent Logan Tanner could also factor into the mix. Tanner showed off his incredible arm strength off the mound against Louisiana, pumping 91-95 mph gas, and Lemonis said he has been up to 97 this fall, so it stands to reason he might have more of a key role in the bullpen as a freshman than as a catcher. But Tanner also has some of the best raw power on the team, and he’s loose and flexible behind the dish, where he clearly has a bright future. For now, though, Hancock and Jones appear to be ahead in the catcher pecking order.
“I thought our catchers both played well,” Lemonis said. “Luke Hancock has probably got a little more polish in his game and has a really good offensive approach — just never swings outside the zone, competes and has a little bit of power. And there’s tools all over the board with Hayden Jones, just working to receive a little better and show a little more poise, but he can be as high a draft pick as he wants to be.”
Two junior college transfers stole the show in the second seven-inning scrimmage against the Cajuns, and Lemonis thinks both will be key pieces in his lineup: versatile infielder Noah Fondren and slugging first baseman Brandon Pimentel. The 6-foot-3, 220-pound Pimentel was the higher-profile recruit after hitting .458 with 14 homers and 70 RBIs at Howard (Md.) CC last spring, and he showed off his exciting left-handed bat speed and ability to drive the ball to all fields with a double to the track in right field, a two-run double down the left-field line and a deep flyout to right that would have been a home run if not for a great defensive play. Pimentel could see action at first base, DH or a corner outfield spot, and Lemonis hopes he can be a 5- or 6-hole run producer.
Fondren is the sleeper of this recruiting class, but he’s been so dynamic all fall that he might be impossible to deny a starting job. He started at second base in the second game but likely fits best at third this spring in deference to Foscue. A high-energy scrapper, Fondren worked one quality at-bat after another, showing good plate discipline and the ability to slash the ball to all parts of the field. He ripped a double to the track in center field, pulled another double down the left-field line, laced an opposite-field line drive single to right and fought off a tough pitch to flare another single to right.
“Noah Fondren has played like that all fall,” Lemonis said. “We knew hew was a tough, gritty kid. His dad was the coach of one of the best high school programs in Alabama, and he plays like a coach’s son. He’s probably overplaying a little bit, because he’s hitting about .600, but he just gets after it and has no fear. So that’s what I like about him.”
Sophomore Landon Jordan is also in the mix at third base; he’s another good bat-handler who showed the ability to grind out at-bats. And he’s an athletic defender who can handle himself all around the infield. Junior college transfer Tanner Leggett is another standout defender who doesn’t bring as much offensive upside but adds valuable infield depth. And freshman Mason Land could battle for the third base job as he continues to recover from Tommy John surgery, which is currently limiting him to DH duties. He’s a more offense-oriented player with some pull-side power, a nice left-handed stroke, good speed and smooth infield actions. As his career develops, Land could blossom into a 2- or 3-hole type hitter capable of playing the middle infield or third base.
Perhaps the biggest key for Mississippi State’s lineup is Josh Hatcher, who played some first base and some left field in the exhibition game. He looked out of sorts at the plate and did not turn in quality at-bats, but his offensive upside is obvious if he can become a little more consistent because he has serious left-handed bat speed. Lemonis said there have been times this fall when he’s been the best player on the field.
“We’ve got to find two to three hitters in there to give that lineup some length to it, and then we’ve got a chance to have a special lineup. Hatcher should obviously be one of those guys,” Lemonis said. “At South Carolina last year he hit one halfway up the eye drop. Against Southern Miss, he hit one out oppo, second deck. I mean, he has real pop. He has as much pop as anybody besides Westburg.”
Another X-factor is freshman two-way talent Kamren James, the younger brother of former Bulldog Keegan James. The coaches think Kamren has five-tool potential as a position player, and he has run his fastball up to 92 off the mound. It’s unclear what kind of role to expect from James as a freshman — he could factor into the infield mix or the bullpen mix — but there’s no question that he’s a key building block for the future.
Lemonis also felt very good about his starting pitching until Brandon Smith exited with an injury. After releasing a pitch, Smith immediately stormed off the mound and pointed toward his forearm/elbow area, which is usually not a good sign. Word arrived Tuesday evening (Oct. 15) that Smith would be missing the 2020 campaign with an injury, depriving the MSU staff of a valuable power-armed workhorse who was expected to occupy a rotation job.
Even without Smith, the Bulldogs have a chance for a very good weekend rotation. Ginn is a proven stud, of course, with perhaps the nation’s best bowling ball sinker and a wipeout slider to go with it. Lemonis envisions redshirt freshman lefty Christian MacLeod as a good fit in the Saturday starter role. He started the first game and showed good stuff in his two scoreless innings, even though he wasn’t his sharpest. An athletic 6-foot-3, 215-pound southpaw, MacLeod worked at 89-92 and touched 93 with riding life up in the zone, and he flashed a good sharp downer breaking ball at 77-79. His 83-85 mph changeup is firmer than Lemonis would like and needs refinement, but it has some good diving action to it.
“His stuff is real,” Lemonis said. “He was a little amped up, but he’s a plus breaking ball guy, that’s his best pitch. He didn’t really throw a great breaking ball all day, but his stuff is good enough to compete.”
Ideally, sophomore right-hander Eric Cerantola would pitch in the weekend rotation as well, though he’s shut down this fall after pitching for the Canadian national team this summer. Before joining Team Canada, Cerantola got some work with the Amsterdam Mohawks in the PGCBL, showing the makings of a true power curveball, a very promising changeup, and a 93-95 fastball that has reached the high 90s in the past. If his command can take another step forward, Cerantola has a chance to be a big star.
“He figured it out late last spring and pitched great all summer,” Lemonis said. “I’m hoping he can be a really good Sunday guy for us because I have a feeling he’ll be a little bit of a high pitch count guy. But every day you pitch him the stuff is getting better and better.”
Perhaps MSU’s most impressive pitcher in the exhibition was right-hander Carlisle Koestler, a sixth-year senior graduate transfer from Southeastern Louisiana who likes to tell teammates that he’s the oldest player in college baseball. He’s the epitome of a wily veteran — he can carve up the strike zone with a lively 88-90 sinker, a swing-and-miss changeup in the mid 70s that he can throw against righties or lefties and a useful slider. He messed with hitters’ timing using both hesitations in his leg lift and quick pitches.
“We can’t hit him,” Lemonis said. “He’s like 23 years old. Everywhere he’s pitched he’s had success. He had an injury last year and redshirted so we were able to pick him up, a Mississippi kid. He’s been 90-92, doesn’t miss a spot, and he changes his delivery, kind of like Ethan Small. Hitters just aren’t on him, it’s unbelievable. I don’t know if he becomes a fourth starter or a closer for us.”
Junior college transfers Jared Shemper and Houston Harding give MSU’s a couple of quality veterans from the left side, addressing a shortcoming of last year’s staff. Shemper has a long three-quarters arm action that produced 89-91 sinkers and good sliders at 77-78 in the exhibition Saturday. Harding showed good pitch ability with an 89-91 fastball and a filthy tumbling changeup at 72-74 with excellent deception. That changeup is his calling card, and it’s a weapon against lefties as well as righties.
Freshman Davis Rokose gives this staff another weapon from the left side. He was also 89-91 with a solid slider at 78-79, and he has a chance to be a major impact contributor in this program.
“Davis was one of the last cuts from Team USA, a really polished lefty who knows how to pitch,” Lemonis said. “I kind of see a Jack Owen from Auburn type of guy, a lot of poise and polish for a young guy.”
Several other newcomers will bolster this staff from the right side. As mentioned above, Logan Tanner has enormous arm strength, though he needs to become more consistent with his strike-throwing. Fellow freshman righty Landon Sims, one of the crown jewels of this recruiting class, is an athletic high three-quarters righty who showed a very heavy fastball at 90-94, and Lemonis said he’s been up to 96 this fall. He also showed a promising 83 mph slider and some feel for an 84 mph changeup, giving him the arsenal to carve out a role as a midweek starter as a freshman — unless MSU asks him to let it fly in short stints in the bullpen.
Freshman righty KC Hunt, the younger brother of former Tulane star and current Prep Baseball Report superstar writer Shooter Hunt, is oozing with projection at 6-foot-3, 176 pounds. He’s a gifted athlete who runs a 6.7-second 60-yard dash and has legitimate two-way ability, and it’s easy to envision him throwing in the mid-90s as he matures. The Bulldogs say his fastball has been up to 93 in the past, though it sat 87-90 in the exhibition. He also showed the ability to spin a promising 80 mph slider and a 73 mph curve, and he has advanced feel for his changeup. Another freshman righty, Will Bednar, has been working his way back from the tendinitis that hampered him in the spring and didn’t pitch in the exhibition, but Lemonis said he’s close to getting on the mound. He can run his heater up to 96 and features a good 85-86 slider/cutter that can get outs.
Finally, a couple more junior college transfers will be counted on to provide additional depth from the right side: Chase Patrick and Jaxen Forester. Patrick is a 5-foot-9 warrior who showed an 87-88 sinker from a low three-quarters slot, but Lemonis said he’s been up to 93 this fall. He also has a decent slider at 78-80. Forester has a funky, uptempo delivery with a high leg kick, giving him good deception. He worked at 90-91 with riding life up in the zone and showed a useful short slider at 80 mph.
Righties Riley Self (a cutter specialist, as always) and Spencer Price (whose stuff still hasn’t come all the way back to where it was a couple years ago) plus lefty Jack Eagan (whose stuff and command were down but who has shown a low-90s fastball and solid breaking ball in the past) add some veteran presence to a bullpen that will rely on a lot of D-I newcomers. A lot of newcomers will have to prove themselves, but Lemonis feels good about the depth, for good reason.
“I think we have some real nice pieces to work with,” he said.