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Aaron Fitt | | November 20, 2019

Youth should not be a downfall for Ole Miss baseball's uber talented staff

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OXFORD, Miss. — It feels like a new era at Ole Miss, as most of the members of the Rebels’ hallmark 2016 recruiting class are now off in pro ball, after leading the program to 89 wins in the last two years and back to back home regionals. The 39-man fall roster features just four seniors (three of whom arrived a year ago as junior-college transfers) and eight juniors (four of whom are new to the program as junior-college transfers this fall). So Ole Miss will clearly be a young team in 2020 — but maybe not quite so inexperienced as you might expect.

“When you look at us on paper and you think about it, you go, ‘Man, they’re young, they’ve only got a handful of juniors and seniors on the entire team,” Ole Miss coach Mike Bianco said. “But man, some of those juniors and sophomores have played a lot and contributed. You start looking around and you go, ‘Wait a minute, that doesn’t look too new.’ These guys have been in the program, and even though maybe they didn’t start every day, they’re names that our people know, it’s not like they’re all new.”

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Most notably, Ole Miss returns two-thirds of its weekend rotation in talented sophomores Gunnar Hoglund and Doug Nikhazy. That’s a change from this time a year ago, when the entire rotation had to be replaced. Righties Greer Holston and Max Cioffi have accrued loads of experience over the course of their collegiate careers, giving Ole Miss a couple of battle-tested veterans to lean on in the bullpen — or in Holston’s case, perhaps in the rotation. That group looks like the backbone of a very good pitching staff, even before you look at potential breakout candidates among the other returnees or this year’s batch of talented newcomers.

Hoglund and Nikhazy both have legitimate two-way ability and could compete for at-bats in the DH spot, but their primary roles certainly figure to be on the mound. Nikhazy, a freshman All-American last year after going 9-3, 3.31, is an undersized warrior with a quick arm and a hammer breaking ball from the left side, while Hoglund — an unsigned first-round pick out of high school — has the ability to be college baseball’s premier strike-thrower.

In the Rebels’ first scrimmage of the fall on Friday, Hoglund looked sharper than ever, breezing through two scoreless innings. He spotted up to both sides of the plate with a 90-92 fastball with more life than it had a year ago — its spin rate is up into the 2500 rpm range, a significant jump from his freshman year. His 74-76 mph curveball was sharp and tight, with excellent spin rates in the 2600-2700 range. And he has reincorporated his 83 mph slider into his repertoire after shelving it last spring. It was a good pitch Friday, with late tilt and a 2500+ rpm spin rate. He used it as the putaway pitch on his lone strikeout. The next step is to make his changeup more of a viable weapon against lefties, but it’s already clear Hoglund is ready to make the jump to bona fide frontline ace as a sophomore after going 3-3, 5.29 in 17 outings (16 starts) as a freshman.

“He looks different,” Bianco said. “And it’s hard, it’s hard when you’re a freshman and you come in as that high-profile guy with all the accolades, and certainly when you’re a first-rounder and you come into college, we can only imagine how much pressure that is. I think if he was being honest, yeah, he felt that last year, but he hung in there, and he got better as the year went on and pitched really well down the stretch for us. Of all the starters, I think we won more of his starts than anybody. It’s just, can he get a little deeper in the game, will the stuff play up a little bit?

“And just to be able to pitch, one of the things that’s an area of improvement for him is, out of high school he walked like one guy, it was like 108 strikeouts and like one walk. So he’s a strike-throwing machine with good stuff, and I think because he’s always thrown so many strikes, last year that kind of got him in trouble. You always tell people to try to attack, but he’s one guy that needs to try to stay out on the edges a little more and not worry, he’s not gonna walk people, he’s not gonna hit people. I think last year that got him in trouble a little bit and he gave up more hits than he’s probably used to, just because he’s used to flooding the strike zone. He needs to make better pitches and not worry as much, because strikes aren’t a problem for him. Making better pitches is, and I thought [Friday], that’s the start of it.”

Holston, who logged just one inning last year while dealing with a sharp reduction in the quality of his stuff, also showed good stuff in his two innings of work Friday, attacking at 91-93 mph from his long three-quarters arm action, along with a decent slider at 79-82. He had the look of a potential closer to me, especially because Bianco said his fastball is capable of playing up to the mid-to-upper 90s in short stints and his slider has been a wipeout mid-80s power pitch in the past. But Bianco said it’s too early to tell if Holston will wind up as a starter or reliever.

All four Ole Miss senior pitchers threw Friday: Holston plus second-year junior-college transfers Austin Miller, Tyler Myers and Taylor Broadway. Miller has a funky long arm action and good angle on an 87-88 fastball that sinks and cuts, along with a quality 75-79 breaking ball with good spin in the 2500 rpm range. He is well suited for a long relief and/or setup role. Bianco mentioned Broadway and Myers as potential candidates for the two open starter jobs, though Broadway also seems like a good fit in the late innings, where his 80-83 mph breaking ball can get swing-and-misses and his heavy 90-93 sinker can get crucial groundball outs.

Myers showed a more traditional four-pitch starter’s repertoire: a 90-92 fastball from a three-quarters slot, a very good three-quarters breaking ball at 75-78 with spin rates as high as the 2800 rpm neighborhood, a serviceable slider at 80-81 and a changeup at 84 mph, though the latter two pitches weren’t as effective in this look.

“I certainly think this is almost the opposite of last year, where we returned so many position players but no weekend starters. Now, not only do we return two SEC starters but there’s other guys in the mix, some young guys, even Broadway and Myers that were junior-college guys last year that have really good stuff, that pitched for us and pitched in critical situations, to take another step forward,” Bianco said. “So we’re really excited about the pitching. How it all shakes out, who’s gonna be that third starter, who’s gonna be that midweek starter, I think we’ll find out in the next five weeks or so. But I’m excited about the stuff.”

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A host of newcomers will factor in heavily, of course. Bianco tabbed freshman Derek Diamond as a legitimate candidate for a rotation job, and he’s just scratching the surface of his potential. A loose, projectable 6-foot-2 righty, Diamond showed feel for a quality four-pitch mix of his own in two scoreless innings Friday, pumping strikes at 89-91 from a high three-quarters slot along with a very promising 82 mph changeup and a 78-80 slider, in addition to a slow curve at 72 for a show pitch. Fellow freshman Drew McDaniel also looks ticketed for a prominent role early in his career, perhaps even as the closer. An athletic high-slot righty, McDaniel sat 92-93 in his first inning of work Friday, and Bianco said he has been up to 95. He also features a sharp, big-breaking 11-to-5 curveball in the 74-78 range, with high spin rates in the 2600-2700 rpm range.

Wes Burton, a 6-foot-8 righthander from Southern California, has exciting upside and showed arm strength in high school last year, throwing in the low 90s. He’ll be a key building block for the future and could push for innings as a freshman. Sophomore junior-college transfer Braden Forsyth could be a good fit in the late innings, with a fastball that sits low 90s and bumps mid-90s along with a good breaking ball, Bianco said.

And Ole Miss now has six two-way players on the roster, several of whom could factor into the pitching mix in 2020. In addition to Hoglund and Nikhazy, freshmen Trey LaFleur, Zack Smith, Ben Gilbert and Diamond all have two-way ability. LaFleur is a premium athlete who ran a 6.5-second 60-yard dash last week and can bump the low 90s from the left side off the mound. Gilbert is another high-end athlete who can play center field and reach the low 90s from the left side. Smith is another strike-thrower , capable of reaching the low 90s from the right side.

“Early on for two-way guys it’s tough to judge just because we don’t see them every day,” Bianco said. “We didn’t think Stephen Head could pitch when he first got here, just because it’s tough. But then you see them and watch them compete on the mound time and time again … All of those guys threw the ball in the upper 80s, low 90s in high school, they’re strike throwers, and they’ll all add depth to this staff.”

Newcomers figure to make an even bigger impact on the lineup, which must replace regulars Grae Kessinger, Thomas Dillard, Ryan Olenek, Cole Zabowski, Cooper Johnson and Jacob Adams. That leaves just two everyday players who started 60-plus games last year (third baseman Tyler Keenan and middle infielder Anthony Servideo) along with one more who started 38 of the team’s 68 games (sophomore corner infielder Kevin Graham). The powerful Keenan will be the centerpiece of the lineup, and he certainly should be up to the task after posting a .926 OPS and 15 homers as a sophomore last spring. He picked up right where he left off in the team’s first fall scrimmage, hitting two hard line drive singles in his first two at-bats and flying out to deep center. He’s a proven commodity and a likely top-three-rounds pick, with a chance to go on Day One if he has a big year, as the Rebels expect.

Graham, who played first base in Friday’s scrimmage, came on strong down the stretch last year, hitting 10 home runs in just 152 at-bats. “He’s just got lightning in his hands,” Bianco said. “He’s really working to be a complete hitter this year.”

Servideo is a natural shortstop but had to wait his turn for the everyday job behind Kessinger. His contact-oriented bat took a big step forward as a sophomore last year (when he hit .287 with 24 stolen bases in 26 tries), but he could make the jump to stardom as a junior now that he’ll get to play shortstop every day, because he has the ability to be a special defender at that premium position. Servideo was simply dazzling on defense Friday, as his quick feet and excellent instincts translated to plus range to both sides, and his sure hands allowed him to make adjustments on a few very tricky hops. He threw accurately on the run and from the hole, and he demonstrated superb body control, particularly on one tough chopper up the middle that he had no business getting to and fielding cleanly. He also showed off his plus-plus speed on a bunt single, getting up the line in 3.94 seconds from the left side. And he chopped a double the other way down the left field line, demonstrating good barrel control on a changeup.

“You don’t want to ever take it for granted, but I don’t think [Servideo’s defense] is a surprise for anybody,” Bianco said. “We’ve been fortunate the last couple years with Grae, but the truth of the matter is [assistant coach] Mike Clement said last year, we might have the two best shortstops in the SEC with Kessinger and Servideo. And Anthony, even though he didn’t get a lot of time at short the last two years, the games he got in, the SEC championship game — he was doing it in some high-pressure situations.”

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With Servideo at short and Adams gone, the second base job is an open competition between sophomore Justin Bench and freshmen Connor Walsh and Peyton Chatagnier. Bianco said the “rock-solid” bench would have played more last year if he hadn’t broken his hand early in the season, so he looks like the favorite for the job, a good athlete with bat-handling skills and speed. Walsh, though, has legitimate game-changing speed — he ran the two fastest 60 times in program history at scout day, a laser timed 6.28 and 6.32. That speed could get him into the outfield mix if he doesn’t win the second base job. Chatagnier is one of the sleepers of this Ole Miss freshman class, a 5-foot-10, 175-pound baseball rat who showed me a nice line-drive swing, a mature gap-to-gap approach, good pitch recognition and athletic defensive actions at second. Bianco said he looked terrific over the last month during skill work, and he carries himself like he belongs, at a young age.

Another freshman, Hayden Dunhurst, rivaled Servideo and Hoglund for most impressive performance in Friday’s first scrimmage. Dunhurst’s calling card is his rifle arm, and he threw out four base stealers in eight innings Friday, producing a 1.85 pop time on one of them, then impressing even more by reaching across the zone for a pitch that missed its spot and firing a strike to second base from his knees, a 2.00 pop time. Dunhurst and hard-nosed sophomore Knox Loposer (who blocks and receives well and has an accurate arm) will have a great competition for playing time behind the plate, and both are likely to see plenty of action. But it’s hard not to get excited about Dunhurst’s star potential.

“You saw Dunhurst throw today, he’s special,” Bianco said. “He’s got big-time power. He’s quick, got great hands and good arm strength — usually you don’t get the combination, usually it’s either great arm strength and struggles with the exchange, or somebody who’s really quick getting rid of it but doesn’t have a lot of velocity on the ball, but he’s really good with both. And it’s a good bat and a big bat. It’s tough because we haven’t been out here, but if you follow what he’s done before he got here, people loved the bat before they loved the glove, it’s a big left-handed bat, he’s got power, he can hit it the other way.”

Look for transfer Cael Baker to make a big impact at DH or first base after winning the triple crown in junior-college ball last year. A burley 6-foot, 245-pound right-handed masher with a plus-plus mullet, Baker is in the mold of former Rebel Sikes Orvis. Not only does he have big power, but he has advanced feel for hitting, and he moves around the bases better than you think, as Bianco pointed out.

Another junior-college transfer, Hayden Leatherwood, brings a polished left-handed bat to the outfield mix, and he delivered a couple of singles up the middle in Friday’s scrimmage. Sophomore Josh Hall is another blazing speed merchant on this super-athletic roster, and he could compete for the center field job, with the freshman Gilbert in that mix as well. Fellow freshman LaFleur is new to the outfield after pitching and playing first base in high school, but Bianco said he’s too good of a runner to leave at first, and he seems to be taking to the outfield corners.

Two more freshmen outfielders are probably the biggest X-factors on the team: two-sport talents Jerrion Ealy and John Rhys Plumlee, both of whom have already made instant impacts with the Ole Miss football team. Because of their football commitments, the baseball coaching staff hasn’t gotten to evaluate them as much, but Bianco said he’s thrilled with how engaged both of them are with the baseball team — they come over and hit in the cage and have made an effort to bond with teammates.

Finally, don’t forget about junior Tim Elko, one of the most obvious breakout candidates on this roster. Elko looks the part of a masher at 6-foot-4, 225 pounds, but he’s also an excellent athlete with 6.7 speed and a strong arm that will play at either outfield corner, as well as either infield corner (though he probably fits best in the outfield on this club). The Rebels are counting on him to take a huge leap forward after he hit .212/.316/.364 in 66 at-bats as a sophomore, and there’s reason to believe he’s ready to do it.

“This might be his time,” Bianco said. “There are some guys that just don’t do it immediately, but I think this is the time for him to really emerge as a player in the program.  I think there’s a chance for him to really be an exciting player in the program before it’s all said and done.”

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