Mississippi State Baseball: Rotation “to be determined” when the Bulldogs start the 2023 season
STARKVILLE — A guest speaker, Mississippi State baseball coach Chris Lemonis, brought in Thursday, asked the assembled Bulldogs players how many volunteers were part of the group.
Only three players raised their hands.
“So I have three helpers and 17 starters,” Lemonis said on Friday.
With less than three weeks until the Bulldogs’ season opener on Feb. 17, that presents an issue Lemonis has yet to resolve.
The Bulldogs coach said that Mississippi state’s weekend rotation was “to be determined” and that he “couldn’t name you a man right now” who would participate.
That’s not to say there aren’t many contenders for the three spots.
“Every kid wants to start,” Lemonis said. “I just told them whoever we let go out there, they’re going to deserve it.”
Though Lemonis said no one has cemented a spot in the Bulldogs’ rotation, junior right-hander Cade Smith reckons he has an inside lane at one position.
Smith was Mississippi State’s top starter last year, posting a 3.86 ERA in 72 1/3 innings. He was MSU’s Sunday starter for most of the season and was largely effective in some Southeastern Conference starts despite a few struggles. Smith left the team with an injury after one inning in his last start of the season against Tennessee but should be ready for 2023.
Injuries were an issue for the Bulldogs last year as they lost ace Landon Sims as well as relievers Stone Simmons and Brooks Auger in tears from UCL. Sims started the season as a Friday night starter at Mississippi State before going down with an injury in early March and pushing senior Brandon Smith into the rotation.
Smith and Preston Johnson — the SEC’s 2022 strikeout leader — each threw 64 or more innings, but each ended with ERAs over 5 by the time the season was said and ended.
The Bulldogs will need a lot more of their starters for 2023, and they have a pair of returning pitchers from a shaky bullpen that could fill those roles.
Right-hander Parker Stinnett said he got his biggest hit last season when he could spot his fastball and breaking ball anywhere in the zone for strikes, but then that command went away and then “I wasn’t throwing any strikes.”
A nagging injury he sustained against Texas Tech in March forced Stinnett out of action in April after exacerbating it against Auburn, and he finished the season with a 6.12 ERA — along with 49 strikeouts and 26 walks — in 32 1/3 innings.
Stinnett said he feels “perfect” now and said he worked at Starter, Middle Reliever and Closer over the fall and feels comfortable in every role.
“Whatever they tell me, I’m willing to do it,” he said.
Senior righty KC Hunt took a similar line of thinking, saying that as a starter or from the back of the bullpen if needed, he “will be ready”.
Hunt spurned the major leagues after being drafted in the 12th round by the Pittsburgh Pirates this summer but refused to sign.
“That was pretty cool,” Hunt said. “It was surreal. But I’m ready to come back here and try to make us successful again.”
Behind Smith, Stinnett and Hunt, returning left-handers Pico Kohn and Cole Cheatham impressed during their freshman season, mostly from the bullpen.
The state of Mississippi also has several newcomers vying for rotation spots, including 6-foot-6 right-hander Colby Holcombe of Northeast Mississippi Community College.
Memphis transfer Landon Gartman, Ball State import Nate Dohm and freshman left-hander Bradley Loftin will also be there.
So did two-handed pitcher Jurrangelo Cijntje, who showcased his unique talent during Monday’s scrimmage at Dudy Noble Field.
Lemonis dispelled some rumors about the use of Cijntje, who shows better speed from the right but has quite an arsenal of shots with both hands.
“Some people think maybe one day we can just throw him with our left hand and then lead him back out with our right hand,” Lemonis said. “It doesn’t really work that way. But it’s special. It’s not a circus act. He’s really good with both. For a small child, he will play a big part in what we do on the hill.”
Whoever ends up in the weekend rotation – which will almost certainly change as the season progresses based on health and performance – has to hold its own.
Mississippi State’s 6.07-team ERA in 2022 was last in the SEC by a wide margin, and the Bulldogs can’t afford a similar performance this year to get where they need to be.
“We need guys who can give us good starts,” said Lemonis. “We need a couple of guys to take over the ball and give us a chance to win the game. I think that’s a big piece and we’re just trying to figure it out.”
Theo DeRosa covers Mississippi State sports for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @Theo_DeRosa.
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