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Aaron Fitt | | January 19, 2021

Possessing one of the best rotations in the SEC, Mississippi State baseball looks like an Omaha team

Jake Mangum on his remarkable baseball career at Mississippi State

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STARKVILLE, Miss. — Heading into the 2020 season, Mississippi State’s greatest strength seemed obvious: a loaded lineup anchored by a pair of preseason All-Americans who became first-round picks in the middle infield: Jordan Westburg and Justin Foscue. Both of those superstars are gone now, but the shortened five-round draft ensured the Bulldogs got back three other core players who would almost certainly have moved on to pro ball in a normal year: right fielder Tanner Allen, first baseman Josh Hatcher and center fielder Rowdey Jordan.

Allen is one of the best pure hitters in the SEC, and he was in peak form in the scrimmage I caught last Monday, going 4-for-5 with 2 RBI. Hatcher started to really take off last spring before the season was canceled, and now he looks like a supremely confident, seasoned hitter whose left-handed power will be a major weapon. He was a wrecking ball last Monday, going 5-for-5 with two doubles to deep center field (one that exited the bat at 103 mph), two sharp singles back up the middle and even a push bunt single to beat the shift. He’s always tantalized with his power, but he’s gotten more and more mature as a hitter, and he looks primed for a monster year. Jordan, meanwhile, is the switch-hitting spark plug who should make this lineup go, a slasher with some sneaky pop and good speed on the basepaths. He’s got some swing-and-miss tendencies, but he nonetheless has a .307 career average in 121 career games over the last three years, so he’s a proven commodity.

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With those three veterans anchoring the lineup, the Bulldogs should be plenty capable offensively once again, though not as explosive as they have been in recent years. But the strength of the 2021 Bulldogs once again appears glaringly obvious: the absurd depth of power arms on the pitching staff. There are only a few teams in college baseball — Florida, Vanderbilt, maybe Ole Miss, Louisville and UCLA — that can rival MSU’s firepower on the mound, from top of the staff to bottom.

“I mean, it’s crazy. I think in our first two weekends we had 15 guys hit 95 or higher. Crazy,” MSU coach Chris Lemonis said. “Our starters are … shoot, the first three may be as good as we’ve seen in college baseball. They’ve still got to do it, but…"

… But the upside of the rotation is outrageous, to finish Lemonis’ thought. The most established, polished pitcher of the group is ace lefty Christian MacLeod, who went 4-0, 0.86 with a 35-6 K-BB mark in 21 innings last year. He doesn’t have the overwhelming velocity of some of the other arms on the staff, but Lemonis compares him to 2017 Golden Spikes Award winner Brendan McKay (whom Lemonis coached at Louisville) for the way both of them can cruise along at 89-92 and then reach back for 93-94 whenever they need it in the middle innings. The metrics on MacLeod’s curveball also really stand out, and he has very good extension in his delivery, which makes everything play out. A physical, durable lefty who scores well in the advanced metrics, MacLeod looks like a safe bet to be a top-50 draft pick and potentially a first-rounder.

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The other two projected weekend starters, third-year sophomore righty Eric Cerantola and second-year freshman righty Will Bednar also have first-round stuff, but different styles than MacLeod: they’re straight-up power pitchers. Cerantola, a 6-foot-5 Canadian, has always tantalized with his prodigious arm strength, but his command and consistency of stuff was a work in progress over his first two seasons, typical of young pitchers from cold-weather climates. This fall, he’s been simply dazzling, running his fastball up to 98 mph and throwing his 84 mph hammer curveball with an off-the-charts spin rate approaching 3300 rpm.

“I had a scouting director tell me, ‘Best breaking ball I’ve seen in the country.’ He has to throw it for more strikes, but his command piece has grown every year,” Lemonis said. “And it’s real stuff. He could pitch right now in one of those Rays games and be 98-100 with a wipeout hammer. He may hit the backstop but… last year even, we went to Long Beach State and he pitched his tail off. And he’s pitching, he’s added the changeup. What would hurt him before is the curveball is so good that it’s sometimes hard to command, and if he didn’t have it, then he’d have to groove a fastball, and I don’t care how hard you throw it, in our league they’ll hit you. Well now he has the changeup, and the changeup he always throws for a strike, so if he needs a pitch he can pull back and throw that one.”

Mississippi State Athletics Christian Macleod of Mississippi State baseball Mississippi State's Christian MacLeod went 4-0, 0.86 with a 35-6 K-BB mark in 21 innings last year.

Bednar made three relief appearances and one start as a true freshman last year, posting a 1.76 ERA and a 23-6 K-BB mark in 15.1 innings. A physical 6-foot-1, 226-pound righty with a loose high three-quarters arm action, Bednar topped out at 94 and showed a good curveball the last time I saw him in February, but his stuff has been much more electric than that this fall. He’ll be draft-eligible in 2021, and his combination of pure stuff and solid command could make him the highest pick of the bunch.

“Bednar’s an animal — people don’t know. Nobody talks about Bednar,” Lemonis said. “We had one scrimmage last year he hit 97 like 13 times as a freshman. It’s hard every time, but it’s good stuff, he knows how to pitch, he competes. It’s been 94-96, up to 97, and it’s a four-pitch guy. It’s strikes, and it’s good. The slider’s more like a cutter, the breaking ball is probably the best one. But they’re all good. I can see all three guys going in the first 60 picks, if they perform. And then you’ve got all the rest of them behind ’em.”

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One obvious breakout candidate is second-year freshman righty KC Hunt, a quick-twitch athlete who showed up as a two-way player but is now focusing on pitching. In the scrimmage I attended, Hunt flashed three legitimate above-average or better secondary pitches: a 76-80 mph downer curve that was a hammer at times, up to 2636 rpm; an 83-86 slider with late, hard tilt that was simply vicious when he had it going; and a quality 84-85 mph changeup with very good arm speed and tumbling action. His fastball has been up to 96 this fall, but he sat 91-93 last Monday, and he left too many out over the plate — and was hit hard. If he can continue to hone his fastball command, his ceiling is awfully exciting.

Junior college transfer Parker Stinnett really impressed in his two scoreless innings, running his heater up to 96 and pitching at 91-94, along with a swing-and-miss slider at 82-84 and a hard downer curve at 77-79 (though Lemonis suggested those might be variations on the same pitch). An athletic, wiry-strong righty with an easy over-the-top delivery, Stinnett is a dogged competitor whose aggressiveness and putaway stuff should play well in a key bullpen role. He fanned four in his two innings last Monday, using his slider as the out pitch on three of them.

Another newcomer who showed good stuff in that scrimmage is 6-foot-3, 220-pound RHP Stone Simmons, a transfer from Furman, where he made four starts and posted a 2.91 ERA last spring. In my look on his first day back in action, Simmons sat 90-93 with a decent 80-82 slider and a very good sinking changeup in the mid-80s. Junior college transfer Drew Talley also worked at 91-93, though he has a high-effort delivery and needs to improve his command.

I also liked what I saw from polished three-quarters lefty Jared Shemper, who retired all six batters he faced in a clinical two innings of work. He sat 88-90 with a quality three-quarters breaking ball at 72-75 and a nice 77 mph changeup that he could throw for a strike. He joins cutter specialist Riley Self and fellow seasoned veterans Spencer Price, wily slot-shifter Carlisle Koestler (now a seventh-year senior), lefty changeup specialist Houston Harding, sidewinder Chase Patrick, funky uptempo righty Jaxen Forrester (who was 88-91 with a good curveball last Monday) and lefty Jack Eagan to give Mississippi State plenty of valuable veteran presence in the bullpen.

Third-year sophomore righty Brandon Smith, who was expected to work in the weekend rotation in 2020 before getting hurt last fall, is back from Tommy John surgery, and Lemonis said he’s looked good in his early bullpen sessions, working at 88-91. The coaches expect him to be back into the mid-90s by the spring, as he was in the SEC tournament as a freshman. He figures to factor into the four-man rotation mix, and so could Wabash Valley CC transfer Cameron Tullar, a polished lefty who attacks at 89-92 with good angle and a pair of quality breaking balls.

Other power arms who have looked good this fall include second-year freshman righty Xavier Lovett and true freshmen Jackson Fristoe, Cade Smith, Mikey Tepper and Dylan Carmouche. The 5-foot-11 Lovett has a quick arm that has generated 95-97 mph heat this spring, per Lemonis. The projectable 6-foot-4 Fristoe has sat 92-94 and touched 96 every outing along with a good slider. Smith has been 92-94 with a hammer breaking ball and a little more polish than the other freshmen. Tepper has also worked at 92-94 with a good breaking ball, and Carmouche has worked at 90-92, though Lemonis said he’s been a bit erratic. He’s an athletic, lean 6-5 lefty with an uptempo delivery, good sink on his fastball and a swing-and-miss changeup that he can throw to righties or lefties, along with a promising curve. All of those young arms have ridiculous potential.

And don’t forget about second-year freshmen Landon Sims and Davis Rokose. Sims has been up to 96 with a good slider this fall and could carve out a role at the back of the bullpen or perhaps as the fourth starter. Rokose, a lefty with a good slider, got a bit of a later start but was 90-91 in his first outing this fall.

So there shouldn’t be any worry the biggest challenge for pitching coach Scott Foxhall will be figuring out how to deploy all of his weapons on the mound.

“I just don’t know how many balls we got, you know?” Lemonis mused. “Do you start playing five innings and then go one-one-one-one-one? I think those are some of the questions you have to answer.”

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Lengthening the lineup

The Bulldogs have a few questions to answer in the lineup too, but they can set it and forget it with probably six spots: Jordan in center field, Hatcher at first base, Allen in right, bazooka-armed, powerful Logan Tanner behind the plate, Jacksonville transfer Scott Dubrule at second base, and second-year freshman Kamren James at shortstop. 

“That’s six that I’ll put against anybody,” Lemonis said.

Dubrule is a classic savvy baseball rat who can really defend at second and has a knack for getting on base by any means necessary. He’s a skilled bat handler who sprays the ball around the field, bunts well and is a solid runner, making him a likely catalyst in the leadoff or 2-hole. And the 6-foot-3, 185-pound James offers huge upside at shortstop, where his strong arm is a real asset. He showed off his power potential last Monday with a two-run homer to the opposite gap that exited the bat at 101 mph, and I wrote in my notebook that his frame and tool set reminded me a lot of Westburg. I’m not alone in that assessment — turns out that’s a pretty obvious comparison.

“He’s big, he’s physical, man. We joke, it’s a lot like Jordan Westburg,” Lemonis said. “Last year when they stood out there and took ground balls, it was hard to tell the difference. They’re not the exact same player, but there’s a lot of similarities, and obviously Kamren needs to do the things that Jordan did in games. But we’re excited about him, we feel like we have two of the better sophomore position players in the country with him and Logan Tanner.

“Man, Logan has put on a show this fall defensively but also with his offense. He has had a lot of big swings; his swing has come a long way. You’re seeing him grow every day. And if we didn’t need him behind the plate, he’s 100 off the mound, but we’re in a situation where he’s such a good catcher and we have the arms that we don’t have to use him there.”

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Luke Hancock gives MSU a second quality catcher with a nice left-handed stroke, allowing the Bulldogs to keep Tanner fresh over the course of a long season.

The Bulldogs have another future star at third base in true freshman Kellum Clark, a 6-foot-4, 220-pound with a powerful left-handed with and a mature, disciplined approach at the plate. He drew two walks and ripped an RBI double off the wall on a 92 mph Hunt fastball when I was in Starkville last week. He’s still working on his defense at the hot corner, but he has a rifle arm (Lemonis said he’s another that would be 95 mph off the mound if given the chance), and his powerful bat will likely keep him in the lineup every day.

Brandon Pimentel, in his second year at State after transferring in from the junior college ranks, is another physical left-handed power hitter who could win the left field job if he continues to mature as a hitter. When two-sport talent Brad Cumbest returns from his duties with the football team, he’ll provide a powerful right-handed alternative (a need for a lefty-dominant lineup), with an imposing 6-5, 245-pound physique. The Bulldogs could also opt for more speed and defense in the outfield by playing junior college transfer Brayland Skinner, a strong-armed speed merchant whose defensive instincts rival some of the best outfielders Lemonis has coached. At the plate, he’s a left-handed slasher with a table-setting skill set, but he also has some sneaky strength in his compact 5-foot-11 frame, as he showed by cranking a two-run triple to the right-center gap off a 92 mph fastball last Monday.

Last year, MSU had serious star power in the heart of the lineup, but Lemonis was a bit concerned about the length of the lineup, because the bottom of the order didn’t click early in the year. This year, some star power remains, but Lemonis hopes the lineup will prove deeper.

On paper, this looks like an Omaha team — and that would be the third straight trip to the CWS for Mississippi State, which has also been to four straight super regionals. But to keep those streaks going, the Bulldogs have to translate their incredible raw ability into production. There’s no reason to doubt their ability to do it, but they’re counting on some marquee talents who have yet to fully establish themselves.

“It’s a fun group. I think we’re really good, but like I tell our coaches and our team, I think everybody thinks they’re really good right now because there are so many players in our league,” Lemonis said. “So we have to go out and prove it.”

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