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Ole Miss Baseball season preview: The infield

Ole Miss returns seven of eight starters in the field from a year ago, allowing most of the focus in the fall and winter to be shifted towards filling out the weekend rotation and defining roles in the bullpen.

Be that as it may, the first portion of SuperTalk’s Ole Miss Baseball season preview takes a look at what to expect from the infield. 

3rd base: Tyler Keenan, Tim Elko

Clearly the hot corner belongs to Tyler Keenan, who is coming off a freshman season in which he hit .301 with 9 home runs and 38 RBI in 50 starts at third base en route to being named a Freshman All-American by Collegiate Baseball and Perfect Game. Keenan was tasked with replacing the likes of Colby Bortles after winning the third base job early in the season and budded into one of the better freshmen Mike Bianco has had in recent years. Keenan showed a mature approach at the plate and was a sure-handed defender.

“Offense is the sexier thing,” Bianco said. “If you ask people in the stands, most people don’t know what a good fielding percentage is, but they know what a good batting average is. I think that is always the thing that goes unnoticed unless you are at one of those premium positions like shortstop, center field or catcher. Tyler had an outstanding defensive year. We have pushed him to move around more, play a little deeper, try to give himself a little more range. He has a very good and accurate arm.”

Keenan will see most of the time here, but sophomore Tim Elko could catch a few starts at third as well. He started 11 games at the position last year before Keenan separated himself and won the job. Elko had one of the better fall seasons on the team, slugging  .762 with a 1.209 OPS. One of the more interesting things Bianco will have to balance is trying to find at bats for the number of hitters he has on the roster, Elko being one of them. 

Shortstop: Grae Kessinger, Anthony Servideo

Once again, there isn’t any uncertainty here as to who will be playing shortstop every day. Kessinger has 115 starts under his belt through two years and is coming off a year in which he batted .300 and struck out just 34 times in 293 plate appearances. Servideo saw a handful of starts at shortstop last year while Kessinger tended to a mild leg injury and played well. Servideo is in a position battle at second base with Jacob Adams, but will find a role on the team no matter what decisions are made at second base. Servideo has good speed and is one of the better defenders on the team, and having him as a safety net at shortstop is a luxury for Bianco.

Second base: Jacob Adams, Anthony Servideo

Perhaps the only real uncertainty for this Ole Miss team headed into the year is the competition between Adams and Servideo at second base. It could be classified as round two of this battle as the two competed for the spot last offseason, both newcomers attempting to replace Tate Blackman. Adams, a junior college transfer, ended up seeing the bulk of the time due to being the more consistent hitter at the plate and a steady defender in his own right. But Servideo appeared in 34 games with 12 starts at second base as a freshman.

Servideo probably offers more defensively. How much his production at the plate improves from year one to year two will be a determining factor in how this shakes out.

“I am starting to get comfortable,” Servideo said. “Early in the year last year, I was trying to do too much. Just playing where my feet are and playing like I know how. This summer helped me gain my confidence back and playing every day was nice.”

Both Servideo and Adams are going to contribute. Servideo has been taking fly balls in the outfield as well. What is Bianco looking for in the next couple of weeks?

“Really just for one of them to separate,” Bianco said. “Jacob had a great spring for us last year, but Anthony had a tremendous summer, a young player that looks like he is on the verge of playing every single day. I think if we started today, we would play them both like we did to start last year to see if there is any separation in their output. I think with where we are, I think we’d move them around some, maybe a start or two in the outfield. Maybe even at third base to relieve Keenan some. You can’t have too many good ones.”

First base: Cole Zabowski

Zabowski’s coming off a season in which he drove in 44 runs and hit 10 homers in what proved to be a bounce back season after struggling a bit as a freshman. For as much that was made of his offense — and rightfully so — Zabowski is a good defender at 6-foot-5, 240 pounds. He started 49 games at first base last year. Zabowski is likely the three-hole hitter and adds a left-handed bat with power in the teeth of Ole Miss’ lineup.

Catcher: Cooper Johnson, Knox Loposer, Thomas Dillard, Hunter Nabors

Bianco elected to go with Nick Fortes behind the plate most of the time last season because of his offensive production after toying with the idea of him being the every day first baseman. With both Zabowski and Fortes being two of most productive hitters in the lineup, it made sense to move Fortes behind the plate, which squeezed Johnson out of the lineup and limited him to 20 starts as the team’s backstop.  He hit .235 in 26 games with a couple of home runs and 11 RBIs. 

It will be Johnson’s job to lose to start the year. He’s got elite pop time and a reputation for being a good defender, though past balls and framing have been issues at times. Johnson’s plate production will be the main determinant in whether he remains in the lineup on a daily basis.  Freshman Knox Loposer could contribute, but is still nursing a foot injury. Junior college transfer Hunter Nabors could get a look as well. Loposer should be ready by opening day, but his injury has meant more innings behind the plate for Thomas Dillard, who was a catcher in high school and has caught in the summer and fall the last two years.  Again, it is Johnson’s time to step in and take command of this job, but it creates an interesting dynamic considering the numerous options behind him.

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