Don’t let this week’s snow on the infield at Pete Taylor Park fool you, the college baseball season is fast-approaching.
With more lofty expectations, Southern Miss will begin practice on Jan. 26 in preparation for the season-opening series against Mississippi State in Hattiesburg on Feb. 16-18.
The 2017 USM team featured a powerful lineup with plenty of options off the bench, allowing the Golden Eagles to finish 50-16 and earn the right to host an NCAA regional for the first time since 2003.
When asked this week if he sees the 2018 version of Golden Eagles as being similar in that he has plenty of depth in the lineup, USM head coach Scott Berry didn’t disagree.
“I really do position player-wise,” Berry said. “We have depth on the mound as well, but depth is just a number. If you really want to define what depth is and how important it is, you add quality depth. We’re still unsure of our (pitching) depth because so much of it is unproven, untested. As far as position players, we certainly have depth.”
USM loses only two key players from last year’s regular starting nine, but they will be important bats to replace — third baseman/starting pitcher Taylor Braley and first baseman/team leader Dylan Burdeaux.
Mississippi State transfer Luke Reynolds should alleviate the pain of losing Braley at third and at the plate. While he may not have quite the power that Braley had, he’s potentially an upgrade in the field and a left-handed bat that should find a home in the middle of the lineup.
Asked about first-year players who are expected to make an impact, Berry immediately mentioned Reynolds.
“He’s a very exciting player that’s going to fit well in our lineup. He’ll be strong defensively and offensively,” Berry said.
Reynolds, a junior from Forest, hit .304 with 12 RBIs in 92 at-bats in 2015 at Mississippi State. Against SEC competition, he hit .370 with a .452 on-base percentage.
Berry also pointed out another player who had to sit out last season, but was a member of the team — junior outfielder Jaylon Keys. He was sidelined with an injury last year after transferring in from Meridian Community College.
Prior to the start of spring practice, he has an edge on being the team’s starting center fielder.
“He’s really continued to improve,” Berry said. “He’s got power in his bat and can really run. He’s got a feel for the game and good athleticism. I think being hurt last year served as a good year for him to to watch and learn. Sometimes, that learning doesn’t take place by playing.”
Keys, a junior from Bay Springs, hit .302 with 32 RBIs and 45 runs scored during his sophomore season at Meridian.
Similar lineup card
If Keys and Reynolds fit into the opening day lineup, the rest of the starting nine should be very familiar to USM fans. Last year’s left fielder, Hunter Slater, is on pace to take over at first base while All-American sophomore Matt Wallner has shifted from center to right and senior Mason Irby has moved from right to left.
Senior LeeMarcus Boyd is back at shortstop and redshirt sophomore Matthew Guidry returns at second after taking over late as a starter and leading the team with a .363 batting average.
Junior Cole Donaldson and sophomore Bryant Bowen return as the team’s primary catchers. Eastern Michigan transfer Robert Iacobelli, a sophomore, will add much-needed depth there as well.
While Burdeaux and Braley combined for 29 homers and 130 RBIs last year, USM’s returning players produced 57 homers and 322 RBIs.
Wallner will be the centerpiece of the lineup after hitting .336, 19 homers and 63 RBIs to become a consensus All-American.
Gulfport product Daniel Keating, who hit 11 homers and knocked in 31 runs last year, will also factor in as an outfielder or designated hitter, but he will need to get back in the swing of things after missing the fall due to surgery on the hamate bone in his hand.
“I think we’re very loaded in the outfield,” Berry said. “You have Keys and (freshman) Gabriel Montenegro, who is another left-handed bat. He’s probably our best outfielder and he has a lot of offensive potential.”
The biggest part of losing Braley and Burdeaux is that the team will lose its two best right-handed bats. There’s a good chance USM will have five regular starters who hit from the left side of the plate this season, but Berry doesn’t see that as much of a concern if he’s matched up against a left-handed pitcher.
“My message to lefties is you need to learn to hit lefties,” Berry said. “The righties need to hit righties. Either you learn to do it or you don’t stay around.
“There’s no guarantee left-handed pitchers can get left-handed batters out.”
One returning player who has a chance to take a significant leap forward this year is Slater, who mostly worked out of the three-hole last year and hit .312 with four homers and 42 RBIs.
“I think he showed good athleticism (at first base) in the fall,” Berry said. “You see him progress offensively. His average is good, but you’d like to see his power numbers go up with this being his third year and fourth in the program.
Berry also said he hopes to see Slater cut down on his team-leading 61 strikeouts from last season.
One spot in the lineup that will be a priority to fill over spring practice will be at the top due to Burdeaux’s graduation. The member of the Detroit Tigers system was a little unorthodox as the leadoff hitter the last couple of seasons, but he was a good athlete with pop who consistently got on base.
Berry sees Keys, Irby and Guidry as his most likely options in the leadoff role.
“I’m kind of toying with Guidry at leadoff,” Berry said. “He’s got tremendous bat control and great pitch selection. He can really hit. He’s kind of a Wade Boggs type of guy.”
With so many hitters that can play a variety of roles, the rest of the lineup will be much easier to fill out for Berry. The biggest challenge will be balancing out the left-handed and right-handed bats.
A pair of signees out of Jones County Junior College will provide depth, but have to make progress this spring to earn starting time — speedy center fielder Fred Franklin and slugging first baseman Erick Hoard.
Franklin stole 43 of 46 passes last year at JCJC.
“Coming out of the fall, Freddie is still adjusting to this level of play,” Berry said. “He’s not by himself. Each young man that makes the move to this level goes through a period of adjustment. Some make it quicker than others. Wallner made it very quick. Some guys, it takes a year or two. With continued reps, Freddie will continue to move forward.”
Hoard hit .413 with 14 homers and 63 RBIs for the Bobcats a year ago.
“We felt like he was starting to get a grasp of the offensive side (in the fall),” Berry said. “He’s serviceable at first, but his power needs to show up. We don’t need Erick to hit singles. He started there at the end of the fall to hit more line drives.”
Junior Storme Cooper, who has plenty of experience at second base, will fill more of a utility role this year. The same will be expected of senior Casey Maack.
Next up: A break down of USM’s pitching staff will appear in Wednesday’s Sun Herald.
Who: Mississippi State vs. Southern Miss
When: Feb. 16-18
Where: Pete Taylor Park, Hattiesburg
Tickets: SouthernMissTickets.com, 1-800-844-TICK