Opening day has arrived for 17-year head coach Mike Bianco and his team. Ole Miss opens the season against 10th-ranked East Carolina in one of the marquee series of the weekend in the world of college baseball. With the season arriving, let’s take a look at the strengths and weaknesses of a team that features 28 underclassmen and eight upperclassmen.
- Impact freshmen – It’s been well-documented that Ole Miss reeled in the nation’s No. 1 recruiting class, and a number of them will make an impact immediately. From Grae Kessinger at shortstop, to Cooper Johnson behind the plate, to Thomas Dillard in left field and Cole Zabowski at first base, there will be freshmen littered across the diamond for the Rebels from day one. Bianco has praised the group’s business-like attitude since it’s set foot on campus. There is a ton of depth behind the plate in particular, but Bianco felt Johnson had been the most impressive and thinks he is well-prepared for the task.
“To this point, Cooper’s shown me defensively he can be a game changer with his arm and his quick release. There’s times in intrasquads where you just shake your head, but the other guys are all talented,” Bianco said. “The other guys, we don’t feel a problem with any of them running out and catching, especially the last two or three weeks.”
2. A deep bullpen – The bullpen last year was a huge asset for the Rebels last year and kept the team from coming unglued as it struggled to find starting pitching. Most of the pen was composed of freshmen like Andy Pagnoizzi, Dallas Woolfolk, Connor Green and Andrew Lowe, all of whom return. Now, Ole Miss will add the likes of freshmen Will Ethridge, Ryan Rolison and Greer Holston, who were in the mix for rotation spots (and may still end up getting one), t0 an already deep bullpen. Toss in veteran closer Will Stokes, and Bianco will have a plethora of options when he elects to go to the pen.
3. Depth in the the field – As mentioned earlier, with the incoming class filled with freshmen ready to contribute, Ole Miss has stockpiled some depth in the field, as well. In addition to the starting eight behind the pitcher, guys like Kyle Watson, D.J. Miller, Michael Fitzsimmons and Chase Cockrell will all be looking to find a role on this team somewhere. Watson hit well in the postseason last year and offers a versatile piece off the bench because of his ability to play infield and outfield. Bianco thinks he is one of the athletic guys on the team. Cockrell is a power bat whom the Rebels added by way of junior college, and he will certainly see time at designated hitter along with catcher Nick Fortes, who will get some time behind the plate, as well.
This team has many young bats and some versatile pieces, both young and old, on the bench. The depth at catcher, in particular, is remarkable with Johnson, Fortes and Dillard, who is a catcher by trade but is playing left field because Bianco needs to keep his bat in the lineup somehow.
- A lefty in the bullpen- We discussed the deep bullpen earlier, but it is extremely right-hand heavy. Ole Miss only has four left-handed pitchers on the roster, and one of them is in the rotation. There isn’t a lefty in the bullpen with experience. Rolison is a freshman left hander who could find a valuable role late in games if he doesn’t end up in the rotation. But even with him and fellow freshmen Jackson Tavel and Thomas Spinelli, there aren’t many left-handed options out of the pen.
2. A true leadoff hitter- Bianco didn’t seem to know who would leadoff for his team at media day, and it may be the most glaring puzzle that isn’t yet solved. Will Golsan is an option, but he really isn’t a natural leadoff man in terms of taking a lot of pitches and finding ways to get on base. That’s not to say this team doesn’t have speed, but the guys who can run are more aggressive hitters, most namely Ryan Olenek.
“One thing this team doesn’t have is that prototypical leadoff guy. We don’t have that Braxton Lee or that Jordan Henry that’s fast and is going to take a lot of pitches and work the counts; we have a lot of really good hitters,” Bianco said. “This team will be more physical than last year’s team as far as extra base hits and home runs, but I think we have that component of running, just not that leadoff hitter. Most of the guys that run like Blackman, Golsan and Olenek are very aggressive hitters, as well. I think the leadoff spot is one I’d like to try to figure out as quickly as possible.”
3. Experience- Twenty-eight underclassmen and a group of freshmen who will play from day one doesn’t leave a ton of experience on the field, especially with the Rebels’ ridiculously tough non-conference slate. Sure, there’s some there with Golsan, Tate Blackman and Colby Bortles, but it’d be hard to argue that Ole Miss isn’t lacking experience to some degree.
With the young talent on the roster, there is a high ceiling and a low floor for this team. Dillard, Johnson and Kessinger could take college baseball by storm and be game-changers from the start. If the starting pitching can hold up and turn games over to a strong bullpen, Ole Miss could easily contend for an SEC title and a national seed. But it could also fall victim to an often steep learning curve that comes with making the jump from high school to major college baseball.
I think this team drops a few early in the midst of a rigorous nonconference schedule as it tries to find its footing. But eventually the freshmen will figure it out, and once they do, no one will want to play this team late in the year. I think the Rebels finish somewhere around 16 SEC wins and will be a nightmarish two-seed for whomever’s regional they fall into, but I wouldn’t be surprised at all if they exceed that mark and host one in Oxford.
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