Although the Rebels made it to a NCAA Regional in Los Angeles in 2015, the pitching staff was nowhere near as strong as it was in 2014. Friday ace starter Christian Trent went from undefeated to 7-7 with a 3.74 ERA. Although Brady Bramlett was good on Saturdays (7-4 record), his 3.74 ERA was mediocre. And please don't make me talk about the debacle that was the Sunday starter. Sam Smith and Will Stokes went a combined 4-10 in series finales and with the exception of a few nice outings here and there, never showed signs of settling in.
The one constant was the back end of the bullpen, where 2016 preseason All-American Wyatt Short collected 10 saves and Scott Weathersby went 4-2 with three saves and a nice 2.62 ERA.
But even with the departures of Trent, Smith, Weathersby and Jacob Waguespack, there's somewhat of a hushed buzz throughout the program heading into opening weekend. Bramlett returns as the starter on Friday with his trademark heavy fastball that hitters just couldn't seem to figure out; redshirt junior JUCO transfer Sean Johnson, recovered from the Tommy John surgery that knocked him out last season, is ready to take on the hype; and a bevy of newcomers are chomping at the bit to get their hands on that third starting spot.
With so much turnover, it's difficult to predict what this staff will end up looking like. It could end up being a team weakness, but if the newcomers can develop quickly, it could end up being a team strength.
Entering his redshirt junior season for Ole Miss, Bramlett will get the pill on opening night against Florida International. You know what you're getting with Brady: consistent command of the strike zone, minimal free passes and a sneaky good fastball. He kind of reminds me of a bigger Greg Maddux with the way he goes about his business and can make the pitch when backed into a corner.
Hopefully strength coach Ben Fleming worked a lot with Sean Johnson's shoulder strength this off-season because they're carrying heavy expectations. The 6'7 JUCO transfer from Durango, Colorado was sidelined last season with Tommy John surgery but appears to be ready to take on a weekend starting role. Two years ago, Johnson led Iowa Western to a national title while going 10-1, striking out 88 and walking only 16 batters. If Ole Miss has any hopes of being in the hunt for hosting this year, they need Big Johnson to put up big numbers against SEC competition.
The later stages of games last year were hardly ever in doubt if Wyatt "Too" Short was able to take the mound with a lead. The mini Billy Wagner was arguably Bianco's best arm last season and I personally don't think it was even close. Short carried a 1.38 ERA and an opponent average of .200 through 38 innings pitched last season. A relentless competitor with the "it" factor you look for in a closer, he gets every fiber of his 5'8, 175 pounds into each pitch.
Also back from last season is Will Stokes, who had an up-and-down freshman campaign as a midweek and Sunday starter. With the influx of JUCO starters, look for Stokes to return to a setup role where he can throw max effort (mid-90's) for an inning or two before giving way to Short.
Mike Bianco addressed his needs by going out and signing a TON of pitching. As we mentioned in the season preview, newcomers Chad Smith and James McArthur will likely compete to be the long-term Sunday starter.
There are plenty more vying for the finale spot in the weekend rotation, however. Southpaws Brian Browning and David Parkinson went a combined 13-5 with a 2.83 ERA at the junior college level and could push Smith and McArthur.
Other names to know from the new class are Brady Fiegl, Connor Green and Dallas Woolfolk. Fiegl is a big kid (6'5, 220) who will flex a nice fastball and could get some time early if his secondary stuff is good. Green is another hoss and a local product from Memphis who was filthy his senior year, striking out 122 in 76.2 innings and going a perfect 9-0. Lastly, Woolfolk continues the trend of big freshman who throw with a little extra mustard. He has a VERY live arm, though he'll need to show consistency with his location.
Again, this group is a major question mark. But if the JUCO pieces and wide-eyed freshmen can make a splash at Swayze, this staff could be special.