Mike Bianco announced his starting rotation and projected a couple of Opening Day lineup options at the program’s annual media day on Tuesday.
Ole Miss opens the 2019 season on Friday against top-ranked Louisville. The Cardinals are throwing All-American left-hander Reid Detmers, which will heavily influence which nine guys Bianco slots into the lineup. But here is what it may look like.
C: Hayden Dunhurst (Fr.)
Bianco hasn’t often started freshman catchers from the jump, but will do so for the second time in four years. Cooper Johnson started the season opener as a freshman in 2017. Dunhurst is an elite talent that has hit well throughout the spring, possesses as strong arm and has improved his blocking and receiving since arriving on campus. He was the top-ranked catcher in the 2019 class according to Perfect Game. Sophomore Knox Loposer will be his backup.
1B: Tim Elko (Jr), Cael Baker (Jr)
It is a make or break year for Elko, who has shown flashes of promise in past falls but struggled through sporadic opportunities through is first two years. Baker is a junior college triple crown winner a season ago who struggled in the fall, but has hit much better in the last month leading up to the season. Baker will likely be a DH candidate, or perhaps a corner outfield slot when needed, if he produces at the plate. The same can be said for Elko, who had 13 starts in the outfield as a sophomore.
2B: Justin Bench/Peyton Chatagnier
Bench played a little bit of second last year despite missing a chunk of the season with a broken hand. The Rebels are replacing Jacob Adams at this slot and Bench appears to be the most likely candidate. He and Chatagnier have competed for the starting job here and it is highly possible that Chatagnier sees playing time at one of the corner outfield spots as well. The freshman is a versatile player with pop in his bat, which will likely land him in a starting lineup in at least one of these games this weekend.
3B: Tyler Keenan:
The preseason All-SEC selection will start at third for the second consecutive season and will anchor a lineup that lost a lot of run production from a season ago. The overarching challenge Bianco will face this year is forming a formidable middle part of the batting order around Keenan.
SS: Anthony Servideo
Servideo was dubbed the shortstop of the future since he arrived on campus two years ago and has patiently waited to take the reins at shortstop. Servideo is a plus defender with great range. He hit .287 with three home runs and 26 RBIs a season ago, and the staff expects him to take a jump in production at the plate in 2020.
LF: Hayden Leatherwood/Kevin Graham:
Before reading any further on the outfield, know this: all three spots are fluid and will likely take the first month or so of the season to play out. Graham showed some raw power as a freshman, belting 10 home runs in 174 plate appearances. Graham saw time at DH and first base last year and has made the transition to the outfield to give the Rebels more lineup flexibility. Leatherwood is another junior college transfer with a big bat. Like Baker, if Leatherwood hits at the clip the staff expects him to, he will remain in one of these corner outfield slots.
CF: Jerrion Ealy
Ealy was announced as the opening day starter in center field, a remarkable accomplishment for the two-sport phenom. Ealy is a talented prospected who entered his senior year of high school as a projected first-round pick. But freshman Cade Sammons will likely get a hard look in center field as well. Sammon (a lefty who wouldn’t match up well against Detmers) is a plus defender with great speed.
RF: John Rhys Plumlee, Chatagnier, Bench
Like left field, this slot is pretty wide open and will likely go to one of the guys who loses out elsewhere, or John Rhys Plumlee. Bianco said you could see 6-7 guys in the outfield throughout the weekend.
Friday: Doug Nikhazy
Saturday: Gunnar Hoglund
Sunday: Derek Diamond
Nikhazy’s punishment stemming from his DUI arrest was handled internally, per Bianco, and the sophomore left-hander will not miss opening day. Hoglund slides up a day from his Sunday role a year ago and the former first round pick will need to take a major step forward for this club this season.
Hoglund posted a 3-3 record with a 1.57 whip with 53 strikeouts and 14 walks as a freshman. He improved later in the season as he found living off of his fastball inside the zone was not a recipe for success in the SEC. He is a crucial component of this pitching staff
Diamond sits in the shoes Hoglund filled last year — a true freshman cracking the weekend rotation. Diamond touches 93 mph with his fastball and throws three secondary pitches; a slider, changeup and a developing curveball. The right-hander’s four-pitch mix should help him navigate through quality lineups without leaning too heavily on his fastball, often a flaw of freshman making the jump from high school to the SEC.
Diamond and Hoglund talked about their offseasons, what they improved on and more below.