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Aaron Fitt | | February 4, 2020

Mississippi State baseball: Complete 2020 projected lineup and preseason grades

The 2020 college baseball season, previewed

Mississippi State has the offensive firepower, defensive playmakers and pitching depth to make a run at Omaha for the third year in a row if some of its young arms mature as hoped. With that, the Bulldogs have earned the No. 10 spot in's preseason top 25.

Below are a few facts to consider when breaking down the 2020 Mississippi State club:

2019 record: 52-15
RPI: 4
Coach (record at school): Chris Lemonis (52-15, 1 season)
Ballpark: Dudy Noble Stadium (13,000)
Postseason history: 38 regionals (active streak: 4), 11 CWS trips (active streak: 2)

MSU FALL REPORT: How the Bulldogs are preparing for the 2020 season

In this preview of Mississippi State's 2020 season, we've graded the Bulldogs in each characteristic of the game: Hitting, power, speed, defense, starting pitching, bullpen and experience/intangibles. But before we begin, let's present our projected lineup for Mississippi State in 2020.

Mississippi State's projected lineup

C Luke Hancock, So. .326/.483/.419 0 14 0
1B Josh Hatcher, Jr. .321/.379/.500 3 21 3
2B Justin Foscue, Jr. .331/.395/.564 15 60 2
3B Landon Jordan, So. .328/.397/.426 1 11 4
SS Jordan Westburg, Jr. .294/.402/.457 6 61 7
LF Brad Cumbest, So. .286/.345/.429 1 11 0
CF Rowdey Jordan, Jr. .290/.370/.420 6 49 11
RF Tanner Allen, Jr. .349/.426/.516 7 66 1
DH Brandon Pimentel, So. Tr. — Howard (Texas) CC

Mississippi State's projected weekend rotation/closer

Pos. Name, Yr. W-L ERA IP SO BB SV
SP #1 JT Ginn, So. 8-4 3.13 86.1 105 19 0
SP #2 Christian MacLeod, R-Fr. DNP — illness
SP #3 Eric Cerantola, So. 3-0 4.30 14.2 21 11 0
Closer Landon Sims, Fr. HS — South Forsythe (Ga.)

Grading the Bulldogs: Just as scouts grade prospects using the 20-80 scouting scale, we use a 20-80 scale to evaluate teams in our top 25. A score of 50 in each category is average, relative to a typical NCAA tournament team; 55 is slightly above-average; 60 is above-average (plus); 70 is well above-average (plus-plus); 80 is top of the scale, historically strong. Accordingly, 45 is fringe-average or slightly below-average; 40 is below-average; 30 is well below-average; and 20 is the extreme in that direction.

Hitting: 65

Mainstays Jake Mangum and Elijah MacNamee plus 2019 breakout Dustin Skelton are gone, but Mississippi State returns all the other key pieces of an offense that ranked fifth in the nation in batting and 11th in scoring a year ago. This figures to be a dynamic lineup loaded with physicality and tough outs. Rowdey Jordan, an undersized energizer, is cut from the same cloth as Mangum and will slide in perfectly at the leadoff spot, where his impressive barrel skills from both sides of the plate and his solid plate discipline will be put to good use. He’ll be followed by three legitimate All-America candidates in Jordan Westburg, Tanner Allen and Justin Foscue (who was a second-team All-American a year ago). Westburg and Foscue have powerful right-handed strokes and the ability to hit for average as well, while Allen is a gifted natural hitter with a pure left-handed stroke that gives him a shot to follow in Mangum’s footsteps as an SEC batting champion.

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The bottom half of the lineup is less experienced and obviously less talented, but there’s still plenty of upside. Landon Jordan is a skilled bat-handler with a simple left-handed swing who can grind out at-bats, though he could be pushed for playing time by junior college transfer Noah Fondren, a high-energy slasher who competes hard from the right side. Luke Hancock, who figures to lead a three-man catching committee, stands out for his keen batting eye and ability to put the ball in play consistently. Brandon Pimentel, Josh Hatcher and Brad Cumbest offer exciting physicality and could blossom into valuable run producers if they can continue to refine their approaches.

Power: 65

The Bulldogs ranked ninth in the SEC in home runs per game last year but ranked third in the conference (and 19th nationally) in slugging, largely because they led the nation with 166 doubles. Allen, Foscue and Westburg are doubles machines who each topped the 20-doubles mark in 2019, while Rowdey Jordan chipped in 15. All four should continue to drive the gaps and rack up doubles this spring, but each of them also brings home run power — Foscue hit 14 long balls a year ago and seems like a strong bet to match or increase that total as a junior, and each of the other three figure to push for double-digit homers after hitting a half-dozen apiece as sophomores.

Westburg and Hatcher have the most raw power on the team — coach Chris Lemonis raved about an opposite-field, upper-deck homer that Hatcher hit against Southern Mississippi last year, and if he can improve his pitch selection, he could put up big numbers now that he’ll get regular playing time.

Pimentel joins Hatcher and Allen (plus the switch-hitting Rowdey Jordan, who has surprising pop in his compact frame) to give MSU another bona fide power threat from the left side. The 6-foot-3, 220-pound Pimentel hit .458 with 14 homers and 70 RBIs at Howard (Md.) CC last spring and showed the ability to drive the ball to all fields in the fall. The 6-foot-5, 250-pound Cumbest doubles as a tight end on the MSU football team, and his raw power is gargantuan, but he needs more reps to truly harness it. The Bulldogs have been pleased with how his hit tool has started to develop this offseason. Freshman two-way talent Logan Tanner gives MSU a more offensive option with intriguing pop behind the plate.

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Even Landon Jordan can flash some sneaky pop to the pull side, giving Mississippi State a chance to get some power production from every spot in the lineup. So even though State lost its only two double-digit homer guys in MacNamee and Skelton, we expect a big power surge from this club in 2020.

Speed: 50

The running game wasn’t a big part of the MSU attack last year, when it ranked 171st in the nation in steals per game, despite getting 22 steals from Mangum. Rowdey Jordan is a good runner who swiped 11 bags in 13 tries last year and should apply more pressure on the basepaths out of the leadoff spot, helping the big boppers behind him see more fastballs. Westburg is an explosive athlete who runs very well for a 6-foot-3, 191-pounder, and he could steal double-digit bases this year. Likewise, the Bulldogs say the 6-foot-2, 192-pound Hatcher is a plus runner with good instincts on the basepaths, and Cumbest moves well for his massive size as well. Fondren can really run and figures to get plenty of base stealing opportunities whether he earns a starting job or comes off the bench. And Landon Jordan is another solid runner.

Defense: 65

Mississippi State was a better defensive team than its modest .972 fielding percentage indicated last year, and its overall athleticism and experience should translate to defensive excellence this spring. Westburg and Foscue form a high-end tandem in the middle infield, as both of them have good instincts, quick first steps and take good angles to the ball. Westburg also has a rifle arm with easy carry, allowing him to make the occasional sensational play from deep in the hole.

Landon Jordan and Hatcher give MSU two very athletic standout defenders on the infield corners, and Hancock is an above-average receiver and blocker with a solid, accurate arm behind the plate. Tanner is less polished as a defender but has a bazooka arm. Rowdey Jordan covers plenty of ground in center field, where he’ll take over for the gifted Mangum after spending last year in left field. Allen moves from first base to right field, where he saw action for Team USA last summer and continued to make big strides in the fall, even improving his arm strength. Cumbest is something of an unknown, but the coaches say he defends very well in left field.

Starting Pitching: 60

Mississippi State must replace two-thirds of its weekend rotation in first-team All-America ace Ethan Small and steady Sunday guy Peyton Plumlee, but the Bulldogs still have a bona fide frontline ace in JT Ginn, who has already been a first-round pick (No. 30 overall) out of high school. A three-quarters right-hander who pounds the strike zone, Ginn has college baseball’s best turbo sinker, a 91-95 mph bowling ball that induces ground ball after ground ball and also misses bats. He also can put hitters away with a plus slider that tunnels well with his fastball, and he’s working to improve his changeup, which has similar action to his fastball — but he’s already proven that he can dominate exclusively with his fastball and slider.

The rest of the rotation is unproven but very talented. An athletic 6-foot-3, 215-pound southpaw who redshirted last year, Christian MacLeod worked at 89-92 and touched 93 with riding life up in the zone in our fall look, and he flashed a good sharp downer breaking ball at 77-79 that Lemonis says is his best pitch. His 83-85 mph changeup is firmer than Lemonis would like and needs refinement, but it has some good diving action to it.

Eric Cerantola, a 6-foot-5 righty with enormous potential, flashed high-90s heat out of the bullpen as a freshman, then spent the summer refining his pitchability in the PGCBL and with Team Canada. In the summer, he located better at 93-95 and showed the makings of a true power curveball and a very promising changeup. He figures to work his share of deep counts and issue some walks, but he has the putaway stuff to get himself out of jams, and MSU doesn’t need him to turn in seven innings every week as the Sunday guy.

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The midweek starter slot isn’t set, but the Bulldogs have some good candidates. Lemonis compares freshman Davis Rokose to Auburn star Jack Owen; he’s a polished low-three-quarters left hander who showed advanced feel for pitching at 89-91 with a solid 78-79 slurve this fall, though like Owen his changeup is his go-to secondary pitch. And he has some deception that allows his fastball to get on hitters quick. The other obvious candidate for midweek starts is 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 that touched 92 this fall and a swing-and-miss changeup in the mid 70s that he can throw against righties or lefties and a useful slider. He also messes with hitters’ timing using both hesitations in his leg lift and quick pitches.

Bullpen: 55

Mississippi State will have its hands full replacing Cole Gordon, Jared Liebelt, Colby White and the injured Brandon Smith, who formed the backbone of last year’s strong bullpen. The Dawgs will rely on a number of young arms who have intriguing upside but need to prove it in the SEC. Freshman righty Landon Sims, one of the crown jewels of a strong MSU recruiting class, appears to be the early front-runner for the closer job, but that competition is ongoing. Sims is an athletic high three-quarters righty who showed a very heavy fastball at 90-94 and touched 96 this fall. He also showed a promising 83 mph slider and some feel for an 84 mph changeup.

Fellow 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, and he also showed the ability to spin a promising 80 mph slider and a 73 mph curve, along with advanced feel for his changeup. Two more freshman two-way players who could carve out bullpen roles include Logan Tanner (who showed me 91-95 mph gas this fall but has been up to 97) and Kamren James (the brother of former Bulldog Keegan James), who ran his fastball up to 92 in the fall.

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Four junior college transfers will be counted on to provide additional depth: lefties Jared Shemper and Houston Harding plus righties Chase Patrick and Jaxen Forrester. Shemper has a long three-quarters arm action that produces 89-91 sinkers and good sliders at 77-78. Harding showed good pitchability 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. Patrick is a 5-foot-9 warrior who showed I was in attendance 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. Forrester 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 in the fall 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 was down in the fall but 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 Division I newcomers. The super-experienced Koestler could also provide the bullpen a huge boost if he doesn’t start midweek. Still, a lot of newcomers will have to prove themselves, but Lemonis feels good about the depth, for good reason.

Experience/Intangibles: 60

Mississippi State has been to four straight super regionals and back-to-back College World Series, so the upperclassmen in the lineup have loads of invaluable postseason experience and have proven they know how to win when the stakes are highest. Foscue, Westburg and Ginn front an outstanding leadership core, but MSU is relying on a host of newcomers on the mound and four new starters in the lineup, so there’s still some seasoning to be done.

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