STARKVILLE – Mississippi State has enough offensive firepower returning to conceivably make another run to the College World Series this season.
However, the Diamond Dogs have plenty of questions surrounding their pitching staff that must be answered before making reservations in Omaha for the third straight year.
MSU has 21 pitchers on its roster for 2020 but 14 of them are new to the program. The Bulldogs will also have to replace two-thirds of their weekend rotation as well as find a new closer and setup men.
"We have a chance to have a dynamic pitching staff, but a couple of them haven't done it yet,’ said MSU coach Chris Lemonis. “That's the piece we have to find out about.”
First round pick Ethan Small and Peyton Plumlee both went pro last season from the starting rotation as did closer Cole Gordon and relievers Keegan James, Jared Liebelt, Colby White and Trysten Barlow.
But State certainly has a solid cornerstone to build its staff around in sophomore ace JT Ginn. Ginn served as the Diamond Dogs’ Saturday starter a year ago going 8-4 in 17 starts with a 3.13 earned run average, 105 strikeouts and only 19 walks in 86 1/3 innings. He earned National and SEC Freshman of the Year honors.
The right-hander from Brandon will slide into the Friday night role this season and has developed into one of the team’s top leaders.
“We feel like we can go Friday night with anyone in the country with JT,” Lemonis said.
The rest of the weekend rotation is still unproven. Southpaw Christian MacLeod is slotted for the Saturday spot after missing all of last season with mononucleosis while sophomore righty Eric Cerantola will try Sundays again.
“MacLeod is a guy we loved last year who had to redshirt because of an illness and is back,” Lemonis said. “We feel like he has a chance to be one of the better No. 2's out there in the country. We felt that way last year and we didn't get to have him and that was that left-hander we needed most of last year. Then Eric Cerantola had a really good spring training, if he figures it out, he's a first-rounder type of guy. (In the) SEC tournament he was 96-98 (miles per hour).”
Cerantola, a 6-foot-5, 222-pound Canadian, pitched in 11 games last season and made four starts. He went 3-0 but struggled with command at times posting a 4.30 ERA, 21 strikeouts and 11 walks in 14 2/3 innings.
Mississippi State had hoped Brandon Smith would factor into the weekend rotation this year following a promising freshman campaign. However, Smith suffered an injury in the fall and underwent Tommy John surgery which ended his chance to pitch in 2020.
Lemonis and pitching coach Scott Foxhall are also eyeing a pair of newcomers as potential midweek starters. Carlisle Koestler is a graduate transfer from Southeastern Louisiana while Davis Rokose is a freshman left-hander they are looking to start some.
“We have a couple of really good options there,” Lemonis said.
Koestler brings plenty of starting experience with him. The righty from Vicksburg started 14 games for the Lions in 2018 going 7-1 with a team-low 2.68 ERA. He also started four games last spring before suffering a season-ending injury.
“It feels like he's 30 years old even though I think he's only 24,” Lemonis said. “He's been through a lot of college baseball. He was the closer at Hinds Community College. He was the Friday night guy at Southeastern Louisiana. He's done it, been there, has good stuff, and has a maturity. I think he's a swing guy for us because he can start too.”
Koestler isn’t the only graduate transfer that State picked up during the offseason. Right-hander David Dunlavy arrives in Starkville after stints at Wofford, USC-Lancaster and Furman.
Last season, Dunlavy led Furman in starts (15), wins (5), innings pitched (88), strikeouts (77) and ERA (4.19).
The Bulldogs do have some experience returning in the bullpen. Riley Self, Spencer Price and Jack Eagan are all veteran arms with Self and Price both having closed early in their careers.
“I'd love to be able to get those guys back in the mix and have their experience and maturity with everything,” Lemonis said. “Spencer had an okay fall and Riley didn't pitch last fall.”
MSU hopes that junior college arms Chase Patrick, Jared Shemper, Jaxen Forrester and Houston Harding can step into relief roles.
“We have handful of juco arms that we brought in that will give us a chance like Chase Patrick and Jaxen Forrester,” Lemonis said.
True freshmen KC Hunt, Landon Sims, Will Bednar, Xavier Lovett and Josh Hill are also trying to find their way onto the bump as well.
The Diamond Dogs also signed a pair of two-way true freshmen Drew McGowan and Logan Tanner that could see some innings on the mound in addition to their roles on the field. McGowan is also an outfielder while Tanner is a catcher.
One of the main things Lemonis is looking for right now is a southpaw to send in from the bullpen. Shemper, Rokose, Eagan, MacLeod and Harding are the only lefty arms on the pitching staff.
“We need to find a good left-handed piece, that's where Trysten Barlow for us was huge (last year),” Lemonis said.