What will Ole Miss Baseball look like in 2020

Ole Miss’ season sputtered to an end on Monday evening with a 14-1 loss to Arkansas in a winner-take-all game three of the Fayetteville Super Regional.

The 2019 season, in a vacuum, was not a disappointment. Ole Miss came one game away from making the College World Series, which is exactly where the team should have been given the level of talent it possessed. But the 2019 season was never evaluated in a vacuum. The haze of the catastrophic collapse in the 2018 Oxford Regional — commonly referred to as Black Monday — loomed over this club for most of the season. The disappointment of the 2018 postseason created an odd dynamic headed into 2019. Regular season success was always going to be viewed as minuscule compared to postseason redemption. 

Ole Miss came up a game short. It can hardly be faulted for that. Again, the season was a success in a vacuum. But, fair or unfair, the result only adds to a two-decade long narrative of postseason heartache.The Rebels lose a lot of crucial pieces and 2020 could prove to be rebuild, even with a top five recruiting class on the way. Let’s take a look at some things that will impact the 2020 baseball season.

  1. Does Houston Roth return?

Roth, the Baltimore Orioles 29th round selection, is the only real question mark left with regards to guys that could return for their senior season. Thomas Dillard, Grae Kessinger, Cole Zabowski and Cooper Johnson are all leaving. Parker Caracci is gone. Zack Phillips announced earlier this week he will not return.

Roth has yet to make a decision. He was in the running for a weekend rotation slot heading into last season and was placed in the bullpen to due to his versatility  more so than anything else. He got off to a slow start, largely due to a sprained AC joint in his non-throwing shoulder after falling off the mound in practice a couple days before the season, but was arguably Ole Miss’ best bullpen arm the last two months of the season. Roth posted a 1.02 ERA in 10 appearances in SEC play with eight walks and 23 strikeouts. He could potentially be the Friday night starter if he returns and will almost certainly be in the weekend rotation. 

But does he come back? His two friends and former Oxford teammates Dillard and Kessinger are gone and he loses signing leverage as a senior. If he’s good as a weekend starter, he could potentially be a day two selection, but would likely sign well under slot value because he is a senior. I would lean that Roth does not return, but if he elects to come back, it will be an enormous boost for the 2020 pitching staff that should be the strength of the team as is.

2. What does the rotation look like?

For the sake of projecting, let’s assume Roth elects to sign with Baltimore and does not return. Ole Miss has two of three rotation slots returning from the 2019 team in Gunnar Hoglund and Doug Nikhazy. In an ideal world, Nikhazy would remain on Saturday. He projects better in that role. The left-hander will be better than just about anyone he faces on Saturdays. Pitching on Friday nights in the SEC is different. There are more guys with elite arm talent with high velocity and plus secondary stuff. That’s not to say Nikhazy couldn’t end up being the Friday night guy and flourish in the role, but I would imagine Mike Bianco and his staff would prefer that Hoglund make a jump or someone else emerge as the ace. Hoglund has to improve a great deal for that to be the case. He was entirely too fastball reliant, left It over the plate too often and paid for it frequently. Hoglund’s breaking ball and changeup has to improve. But if it does, the fastball is good enough for him to take a fairly large leap.

So who takes the third slot? Derek Diamond is a long, talented right-hander coming in out of Ramona, California. Diamond boasts a fastball that tops out at 93 mph with a good breaking ball and a decent changeup. He will presumably have say in how the rotation shakes out. Meridian Community College right-hander Braden Forsyth is another newcomer with a shot at the weekend rotation. He boasts a fastball that sits around 90 mph with a looping curveball and a slider. He and Diamond are undoubtedly the two pitchers in this class with the best chance at an immediate impact, and Forsyth will almost certainly have an impact immediately in some way as a junior college product. 

 Freshman lefty Kaleb Hill made 14 appearances last season. He could potentially have the best stuff of anyone on the 2020 pitching staff, but his command needs to improve and his velocity dipped at times. If you are looking for a single player to make a large jump forward form year one to year two, it is Hill. I think he’s the wildcard in this whole thing. He will have a bigger role next year, but how? His stuff projects well out of the pen and he was used as a matchup lefty in a couple of fairly important spots at the end of the year.

Things will change between now and the fall, and then again between the fall and February. Roth coming back would obviously alter this as well, but here is a guess as the weekend rotation next year.

Friday: Hoglund

Saturday: Nikhazy

Sunday: Hill

Midweek: Diamond/Forsyth

Would it shock me at all of Forsyth or Diamond crack the weekend rotation by mid-March, or even opening day? No, but this is my best guess for an opening weekend rotation. 

3. Who hits?

With Kessinger, Dillard, Johnson, Olenek and Zabowski gone, that’s a lot of offensive production for the 2020 Rebels replace. If next season is in-fact a rebuild, this will likely be why. 

Tyler Keenan returns. Kevin Graham will likely be counted on as a centerpiece in the middle of the lineup. Pearl River Central catcher Hayden Dunhurst is a good defensive catcher and a solid left-handed bat who has a chance to be the starting backstop next season. Hayden Leatherwood and Cael Baker are two junior college bats with power that will push for immediate playing playing time. Tray Lafleur and Connor Walsh are a couple of freshmen outfielders from Florida with a chance to play, too. Walsh is an athletic high school shortstop with great speed. Lafleur is another left-handed bat with power with more than enough athleticism to play an above average corner outfield spot.

The overarching theme here is that if Ole Miss is going to hit next year, it will likely be because of immediate impacts from newcomers. The aforementioned names not returning were five of the first six hitters in the everyday lineup last year with Keenan being the sixth. That is a lot of production to account for, particularly with Dillard and Zabowski. 

 

So it begs the question: what is the opening day lineup in February of 2020? Here’s a guess.

3B-Keenan

SS-Servideo

2B-Bench

1B-Graham

C-Dunhurst

LF-Elko

CF-Walsh

RF-Hall 

DH- Loposer

A couple of thoughts on this:

1.Lafluer could easily push for a starting corner outfield slot

2. If Elko hits, he could potentially play third base and open up another outfield slot with Keenan moving to first and Graham sliding to DH. 

3. If Baker and Leatherwood hit at close to the clip they did in junior college, one or both of them will see time at DH. 

4. It is hard to tell what Bench is as a player yet, but Bianco consistently using him, even after he missed time with an injured wrist, tells me the staff sees him contributing heavily next year.

5. “Gunnar (Hoglund) will hit at Ole Miss. He just won’t hit this year,” Mike Bianco said more than once this year. Will that be in 2020? Who knows, but it is something keep in mind.

6.. This is June of 2019 and the chances of this being the exact lineup next year are slim to none.