The 2015 Ole Miss baseball season begins this Friday with a weekend series against William & Mary. Each day this week, we'll be previewing a different position group.
This time last year, the Ole Miss baseball was replacing both of its top two options in the weekend rotation and starting pitching was the biggest question mark on the team. As we all know, Chris Ellis developed into a dependable Friday night ace, transfer Christian Trent was lights out all season and the Rebs rode the pair to a historic reappearance in the College World Series.
Despite the loss of Ellis to the MLB draft, the 2015 Diamond Rebs are actually in better shape heading into the season than their 2014 counterparts. Trent, who was one of the biggest surprises in the conference, is back as Mike Bianco's undisputed No. 1 option and the reliable-though-stamina-challenged Sam Smith returns to hold down the back end of the rotation. Throw in a towering, flame-throwing JUCO pickup and the healthy return of a rising prospect and Ole Miss might have the arms to make another run at Omaha.
Let's meet the fellas.
As talented as Ellis was, Trent was easily the most consistent starter Bianco had last season. The lefty was phenomenal in his first year in the SEC, posting an unblemished 9-0 record, a 2.05 ERA and a .233 opponent batting average (for comparison, Ellis went 10-3 with a 2.33 ERA and a 2.61 opponent average). And while Ellis hit a rough patch in the NCAA Tournament, Trent was on fire: he allowed just one run in three starts, including eight scoreless innings in a CWS elimination game against Texas Tech.
Trent turned down the Dodgers after being drafted in the 29th round last June and will hold down the Friday night spot all season.
A JUCO transfer out of Iowa Western, Johnson is the biggest question mark in the rotation. He might also be the biggest key to another postseason run. On paper, at least, he's a beast: a 6'7 righty with a 93 mph heater, a curve and a changeup. If he can adjust to SEC hitters and become a reliable Saturday arm, the Rebel staff will be decidedly more potent.
We'll have to wait to get a look at Johnson, though. He's dealing with a spot of tendinitis and will be replaced by Brady Bramlett in the opening series against William & Mary. According to Chase Parham at Rivals, we could at least see Johnson throw out of the bullpen this weekend.
For three seasons, we've been waiting for Smith to break out into something more than the "Sunday Sizzle." But after an up-and-down junior campaign, it's time to just accept him for what he is: an above average Sunday starter who's gonna give you four or five decent innings then dip out. In fairness, he's better than his 2014 numbers (5-4, 3.61 ERA), but don't expect a big jump from what we've seen in the past.
Other names to know
As mentioned above, Bramlett will replace Johnson in the starting rotation on opening weekend (he'll throw Sunday with Smith bumping up to Saturday). He'll likely slide back as the go-to midweek arm, though if he plays well enough, he could end up making it a permanent gig. Bramlett missed all of 2014 with a serious shoulder injury but threw in the Cal Ripken league last summer and it sounds like he's good to go.
Evan Anderson was impressive as the midweek guy last year (2.11 ERA, .134 opponent batting average) and should be in that mix again as a sophomore. If he can continue to develop, he'll be a major asset come tournament time.