The Mississippi State Bulldogs come into the 2013 season in an unfamiliar role. By virtue of taking the 2012 SEC Championship in Hoover, Ala. last season, their first SEC title since 2005, MSU is now the hunted, not the hunter. But even as one of the favorites for this year’s SEC crown, they have unfinished business left over from last year that needs to be taken care of.
After winning the SEC Championship, the Bulldogs headed to Florida State for a NCAA regional. Head coach John Cohen’s squad then lost two of its three games, both losses to Samford, promptly ending any possible run for greater achievement. Even with the disappointing conclusion to last year, Coach Cohen said he hasn’t seen any hangover on the team, and the Bulldogs are ready to get after it again in 2013.
And they should be ready. The Bulldogs return all but three players from last year’s championship squad, instantly thrusting MSU into the role of a favorite for this upcoming season’s SEC race. The players turned out in summer leagues across the country, and 22 of the 24 Bulldogs that landed on a summer roster stayed for the entire duration of the summer slate of games. The Diamond Dogs also add a top-40 recruiting class to a club that finished last year ranked 22 in the nation.
“We have a chance to be a very good club,” said Cohen. “We really like the group that we have, and we feel good about it.”
While the Bulldogs are widely considered favorites in the SEC, Coach Cohen is working hard to keep the players humble. The Fall Camp thus far has been focused on fundamentals, on flexibility, and on lifting and running. As for all of the hype that surrounds Cohen’s club?
“You’re just an expert on your own team,” he says. “We leave all of the speculation to the media.”
From what Cohen has seen thus far from this Bulldogs squad, he believes that the team’s biggest strength is the infield defense. He also noted that the outfielders have “tremendous range,” and that the team has to compensate for losing some depth on the mound.
“We don’t have quite the depth on the mound as last year,” he said. “But we’re still solid.”
The Bulldogs are bringing in the nation’s 37th-ranked recruiting class, featuring some top class talent. Cohen feels that many have a chance to come in and make an instant impact, all starting with a duo of Canadian prospects Kyle Hann and Jacob Robson.
Hann, a shortstop, gained experience with Robson on Canada’s IBAF 18U World Baseball Championship squad that finished second in the tournament, losing to the United States in the Gold Medal Game. As a prospect, Hann has already shown his value to Cohen.
“Kyle has a chance to contribute very quickly,” said Cohen. “He’s got great range and great power.”
Hann was named to the IBAF all star team for his play in the tournament, a squad that consisted of 11 players from all around the world.
Robson, an outfielder, was selected in the 30th round by the San Diego Padres in the 2012 MLB Draft, and he has drawn comparison’s to Boston’s Jacoby Ellsbury. He batted .500 with Canada’s Junior National Team, and stole five bases in six attempts in his 10 games with the club.
Catcher Daniel Garner, a Madison, Ala. product, also has earned praise from Coach Cohen. Garner hit .403 with 21 doubles his senior year of high school in addition to six home runs and 39 RBI.
“He’s got tremendous power,” said Cohen. “He’s a really polished hitter right out of high school, one of the best I’ve ever seen.”
Pitcher John Marc Shelly also appears to be a promising young player, and Cohen figures that Shelly can earn his way onto the mound in meaningful game action this year. Shelly boasts a mid-90s fastball with a plus breaking ball as a complement.
The class, while not ranked as highly as other SEC schools, is very deep with talent and shows a lot of long-term potential for the Diamond Dogs.
Mississippi State is returning 24 lettermen from last year’s championship squad, so obviously many key players are back for the Bulldogs. Hunter Renfroe set records at the Cal Ripken Summer League this offseason in home runs (19) and RBI (57) en route to being crowned as “top prospect” in the Ripken League by Perfect Game.
Coach Cohen thinks that Renfroe is ready to take the next step this season and become a household name as well as a high draft pick.
“He’s on the cusp of becoming a great college player,” said Cohen about Renfroe.
Wes Rea also came up as a name of a player who is ready to take the next step. After sitting out 2011, he only played in six games in 2012 as a redshirt freshman. In those games, he batted .300 with four doubles and three RBI. With his limited experience, Rea is poised for a big breakout season this year if he can make everything click.
Adam Frazier is also obviously a key returner for the Bulldogs, providing veteran leadership in the infield as well as first-class talent. Frazier was named a top-20 prospect on Team USA, and he played on the USA National Collegiate Team. Last season, Frazier batted .371 in his 64 starts including 16 doubles and a triple. He flashed an OPS of .927 in the 2012 year and boasts a fielding percentage of .957.
Cohen also mentioned Demarcus Henderson as a key returner. Henderson batted .245 for the Bulldogs last season but scored 17 runs with 10 RBI in limited action for MSU.
The main position battle in Starkville right now is at second base. A handful of players are vying for time at that position, including Sam Frost, Matthew Britton, Daryl Norris, Nick Flair, and freshmen Brett Pirtle and Hann.
Frost made 41 starts last season for MSU, posting a triple slash of .214/.271/.319 and a fielding percentage of .917. Britton is also experienced, starting 34 games last year for the Bulldogs and posting a triple slash of .177/.185/.288 and a fielding percentage of .947.
“We have some really good competition right now for innings,” Cohen said.
The players have the rest of fall to show what they’ve got and earn some innings at second base.
The Bulldogs like to keep fall ball fairly formal. Coach Cohen wants his team to et stronger, faster, and gain more flexibility. However, the Bulldogs will host a Fall World Series, as they do every year, at Dudy Noble Field.