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OXFORD, Miss. — Over the course of two decades under head coach Mike Bianco, Ole Miss has proven that it has staying power as an annual contender, regardless of how much talent it loses from the previous year. The Rebels have made 16 regionals in 19 completed seasons under Bianco — no small feat as a member of the cut-throat SEC. So nobody should have been too surprised that the machine just kept chugging along in 2020, even after the exodus of a host of stars from the watershed 2016 recruiting class.
“Last year I think everybody wasn’t really sure what to expect after we we lost all those players from the No. 1 ranked recruiting class with [Grae] Kessinger and [Thomas] Dillard and Cooper Johnson and [Will Ethridge and [Cole] Zabowski, all those guys,” Bianco said. “The team last year, even though [Anthony] Servideo and [Tyler] Keenan returned, they weren’t guys that took over a room when they walked in. Even though they had good careers and I think everybody had an expectation for their playing level, I think people were unsure of this club. But those inside it, I think we all felt good because we knew that they were they were a little different.”
Servideo and Keenan blossomed into legitimate All-America-caliber players and invaluable clubhouse leaders, helping spearhead a 16-game winning streak that began with a season-opening series win over preseason No. 1 Louisville and ended with the cancellation of the season. So while Ole Miss faces a challenge replacing its two best players — shortstop Servideo was drafted in the third round and third baseman Keenan went in the fourth — there’s also no reason to expect any kind of a drop off in 2021. In fact, the Rebels have the elite pitching and position-player talent to begin the season right back where they left off in 2020: ranked inside the top 10.
“I understand that when you lose guys of the caliber of Servideo and Keenan, those are big shoes to fill,” Bianco said. “But it’s part of college baseball. I mean, the better you are, the better your players are, and obviously they’re not gonna be with you forever. But we return basically everybody else, and we’ve got another really good recruiting class by Coach Laff [Carl Lafferty] and Coach Clem [Mike Clement].”
One of those talented newcomers, freshman Jacob Gonzalez, looks like one of the top candidates to replace Servideo at shortstop, where fireball second-year freshman Peyton Chatagnier plus scrappy junior college transfer Garrett Wood and projectable, ultra-athletic freshman TJ McCants are also in the mix. Factor in three-year sophomore Justin Bench, a speed merchant coming off a broken hand suffered this summer, and the Rebels have a glut of options for the two middle infield spots, though Bench could also wind up starting in center field, and Chatagnier has some experience in the outfield as well as at second base. The one thing that’s certain is that Chatagnier will be in the lineup every day, because he’s the engine that makes Ole Miss go, a high-energy presence both on the field and in the dugout, an on-base machine who grinds out at-bats at the top of the order. He handled himself well at both middle infield spots in the scrimmage I caught last weekend, though his arm is probably best suited for second base at the next level.
McCants, a lean and wiry 6-foot-3, 170-pound left-handed hitter, looks like a huge part of the future of this program, and he is certainly capable winning an everyday job early in his career, though it won’t be easy with so many older players back. Bianco thinks he has the tools to play shortstop, and his power/speed combination is very exciting.
But my money is on Gonzalez winning the everyday job at shortstop, where he is a gifted natural defender who showed off fluid actions, sure hands, very good range, an easy plus arm and a superb internal clock in last the fall scrimmage I saw. At 6-foot-2, 175 pounds, Gonzalez also has strength in his left-handed stroke, flashing some power in batting practice. He uses an open, balanced stance and a quiet setup, and he showed the ability to handle fastballs and offspeed pitches well on when I saw him play, when he singled in each of his first four plate appearances — two on fastballs at 93 and 91 mph, one on a changeup and another on a slider. His knack for making regular hard line-drive contact and his defensive prowess could make him an instant impact player.
Ole Miss shortstop Jacob Gonzalez sported the coveted yellow jersey recognizing outstanding defensive play.
“I think Jacob has been terrific,” Bianco said. “Offensively it’s obvious he’s swung the bat great, but even defensively, there are some guys when they play that position you can see the game gets a little fast for them. And there are other guys, like a Grae Kessinger, where it’s almost like they slow the game down, their approach to the ground balls, their calm personality. He seems like he’s out of that same mix, in the sense that he makes all the plays, he’s a coach’s kid so he always knows where to be, great instincts. So I’m excited about him, but I’m excited about a lot of them.”
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Look for fourth-year junior Tim Elko to take over for Keenan at third base and serve as the centerpiece in the heart of the lineup. A 6-foot-4, 235-pound Adonis who runs very well for his size, Elko has handled himself well at the hot corner this fall after playing mostly first base and right field last year. He also has enormous right-handed power potential, and he had turned the corner at the plate last spring (.354/.373/.667, 3 HR in 48 AB) after struggling with his approach in his first two seasons. He built upon that performance with a standout summer in the Northwoods League and has kept on mashing this fall, including in my look at the scrimmage, when he drew a walk and hit four balls on the nose, resulting in two deep outs and two singles through the left side. Elko looks like a late-blooming All-American waiting to happen.
The Rebels will get additional right-handed power potential from the burly duo of Cael Baker and Ben Van Cleve, who could alternate between first base and DH. Baker made an early splash as a junior college transfer in the first weekend against Louisville last spring, and Bianco said he’s only gotten better in his second year in the program. In addition to his powerful right-handed bat and his feel for hitting, he’s also a fun, charismatic presence in the dugout and clubhouse, and Bianco had good things to say about leadership qualities.
Freshman Kemp Alderman also brings big right-handed pop. With a 6-foot-3, 215-pound frame that struck me as somewhat Elko-ish, Alderman has some of the biggest raw power this coaching staff has ever seen, and he’s a good athlete who is also capable of running his fastball up to 94 off the mound. Look for him to push for at-bats in the first base/corner outfield/DH mix.
From the left side, in addition to high-upside freshmen Gonzalez and McCants, Ole Miss has an emerging superstar in catcher Hayden Dunhurst, whom Bianco called “one of the best catchers in the country.” In the scrimmage he continued to show off perhaps the best arm of any backstop in college baseball, and he has plenty of pop in his left-handed stroke as well. Corner outfielder Hayden Leatherwood is a line-drive machine who can use all fields and could also provide occasional home run pop. Another corner bat, Kevin Graham, has worked on becoming a tougher out and driving the ball more middle-away, as he did successfully in a couple of at-bats in the scrimmage, including a line-drive RBI single to left off a 92 mph fastball away. He hit 10 homers as a freshman in 2019, so he’s another good source of left-handed power.
Second-year freshman Trey LaFleur is an intriguing breakout candidate who showed off his left-handed pop with a three-run homer to left field at the scrimmage, exiting the bat at 100 mph. He also hit a deep flyout to the track in center field. A rangy 6-foot-3, 195-pound athlete who ran a 6.35-second 60-yard dash last year, LaFleur came in as a two-way player but is now focusing exclusively on being a position player, which could help his bat really take off. He’s also still relatively new to the outfield, but he could wind up winning the everyday center field job if he continues to mature as a defender.
Fellow speedsters Bench and second-year freshman Cade Sammons are also in the mix for the center field job. Sammons is a 5-foot-10 lefty hitter who excels at slashing to the opposite field gap, and he can really fly on the basepaths and in the outfield.
But two-sport talent Jerrion Ealy might be the smartest best to wind up as the everyday center fielder because his speed/power tool set gives him a chance to be one of the most electrifying players in college baseball. He’s already an electrifying running back for the Ole Miss football team. One again, a major X-factor for this team is how Ealy and quarterback John Rhys Plumlee can adapt to baseball this spring after spending the fall with the football team. Ole Miss has enough depth that it doesn’t need either of them to hit the ground running, but both players should factor strongly into the outfield mix, and they enhance this team’s offensive upside.
“We like the position player group,” Bianco said. “We think there’s some physicalness to it, there’s enough right/left to give us a shot against any good left-handed or right-handed starting pitcher. And the two guys from football aren’t here, they’re gonna be a year better.”
That combination of power, speed, balance and defensive skill should make the Ole Miss lineup very good once again. And its pitching staff looks elite.
A wealth of riches on the mound
Third-year sophomores Gunnar Hoglund and Doug Nikhazy have worked in the weekend rotation since the start of their Ole Miss careers, and they return to give the Rebels one of the best one-two punches around. Nikhazy has the ability to miss bats with his big curveball and very good changeup, but his overall package of stuff also plays up because of his athleticism and competitiveness, which he showed off as a position player at the scrimmage, hitting doubles to the left-center gap and the right-field corner, and laying out to make a diving catch (much to the coaching staff’s chagrin). He’s too valuable as a pitcher and the Rebels have too much depth offensively for him to see much two-way duty, but it was a good reminder of how much of a hard-nosed baseball player he is.
Hoglund, an unsigned first-round pick out of high school, has continued to progress year over year. He could always pitch off his high-spin fastball, even when it sat 88-90 during his freshman year, but it ticked up last year and it has ticked up again this fall. Bianco said he’s been sitting 92-95 and hasn’t dipped below 91 in his first couple of fall outings, with a good slider and changeup. One key for him has been the emergence of that slider as legitimate weapon after he shelved the curveball he had when he showed up out of high school.
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The favorite for the No. 3 starter job, second-year freshman right-hander Derek Diamond, made four starts a year ago and showed very good stuff, but he’s been slowed by some elbow soreness this fall. He looked good in a bullpen session I watched in the fall, but the Rebels won’t rush him into scrimmage action. At full strength last spring, he showcased a 91-93 mph fastball and two quality secondary pitches in his 80-84 slider and 80-82 changeup, and he has a durable frame and a clean delivery, all of which bodes very well for his potential as a workhorse starter.
Two other contenders for starting roles faced off in the scrimmage: junior college transfer Brandon Johnson and freshman Cody Adcock. Johnson, a sturdy 6-foot righty with a clean high three-quarters arm action, worked at 91-94 and showed the makings of a good downer curve at 76-79 and a promising changeup at 84-86, though he struggled to throw both pitches for strikes in this look. Adcock is a lean, projectable 6-foot-3, 175-pound righty who carved with an 89-92 fastball and got strikeouts with both his sinking 78 mph changeup and his solid 76-77 curveball with sharp 11-to-5 break. The highest-profile pitcher in the Ole Miss recruiting class, Adcock likely would have drawn significant draft interest in a normal year, so in that sense the pandemic might have helped Ole Miss get him to campus. He struck out the side in order in his second inning of work, twice freezing hitters with good breaking balls on the outside corner — and Bianco said his curve has been even better than that in some of his bullpen sessions.
I also liked what I saw from freshman righty Josh Mallitz, a loose, whippy 6-foot-4, 185-pounder with plenty of upside and current arm strength. He missed the first weekend of intrasquads with a pulled hamstring, so I saw his first outing of the fall, and he showed legitimate feel for pitching with three quality offerings: a 90-93 fastball with good run, a sharp two-plane slider at 78-82, and an 83-84 changeup with good arm speed.
“It’s great to come watch them the first time out and they don’t look scared,” Bianco said. “He looked like he belonged and he threw the ball like he belonged.”
Two other freshman pitchers who have made positive impressions this fall are righ-thander Jack Dougherty and lefty Luke Baker. The 6-foot-3, 210-pound Dougherty is a low-90s strike-thrower with a good breaking ball and a splitter. The 6-foot-6, 200-pound Baker presents a different look, as a low three-quarters southpaw with an 89-92 fastball and a good slider, according to Bianco.
And the list of quality arms goes on and on. In the scrimmage, second-year freshman righty Drew McDaniel showed really good stuff in his three strong innings of work, sitting at 91-93 and bumping 95 along with a swing-and-miss 83-85 slider with big tilt and a solid 83 mph changeup. Bianco said his fastball command and his confidence have taken big steps forward this fall, and his slider looks like one of the best out pitches on the staff. Fellow second-year freshman Wes Burton, a 6-foot-8 monster with an over-the-top trebuchet delivery, worked at 91-94 (up from 86-91 the last time I saw him during opening weekend) and flashed very good tilt on his 81-83 slider — a firmer breaking ball than the 77-79 curve he showed in February. Bianco said he was pumping 94-96 heat with a mid-to-upper-80s slider earlier in the fall before Ole Miss paused camp for a couple of weeks, and he’s been able to command his improved stuff.
Burton and McDaniel (who is also a potential starter) have the look of shutdown back-end pieces, joining proven returnees Braden Forsyth, Austin Miller, Max Cioffi, Taylor Broadway and Greer Holston in a loaded bullpen. Forsyth emerged as the closer last spring, posting five saves and a 1.23 ERA, and Bianco said he’s working on becoming a little more consistent in the strike zone, which would make him even better. With a fastball that can reach the mid-90s and a putaway power breaking ball, he has wipeout stuff, and so does Broadway, a 91-93 righty with a good 82-84 slider. Miller, Cioffi and Holston all offer some funk in their deliveries, giving this bullpen a good variety of looks.
And don’t forget about second-year freshman lefties Benji Gilbert (a 5-foot-11 bulldog with a quick arm that can generate low-90s heat) and Jackson Kimbrell. An athletic 6-foot-1, 195-pounder, Kimbrell works at 89-92 with a solid 80-82 changeup and an excellent changeup, giving him a chance to work his way into one of the four rotation spots.
“On the mound, I think we’ve got a ton of depth,” Bianco said. “Everybody returns from last year’s staff, basically, and you saw some of the new arms and some of the other guys like McDaniel and others that, as a freshman last year you don’t know if they were gonna be ready, but they’re ready this year. Some of those pieces last year that maybe we weren’t really sure of, now when you look at them, they’re different.”
One thing that isn’t different: Ole Miss will remain one of the best teams in the country. You can bank on that.