After a long and arduous trudge through the last nine months of Ole Miss athletics, you finally get to plop down in folding chair, crack open a cheap brew and enjoy Rebel baseball this weekend. But before you load up that cooler and head to Swayze (or whatever distant location from which you plan to watch), you’ll want to familiarize yourself with the offseason changes to the roster.
It’s a roster that boasts an intriguing mix of experience and raw talent, an amalgam that’s made it hard on those prognosticators tasked with slotting Ole Miss into its preseason rankings. Gone are veteran contributors like J.B. Woodman, Brady Bramlett, Henri Lartigue and Wyatt Short. In their place stands a group of key returnees and the No. 1 freshman class in the country—a class that could have as many as four members in opening-day lineup.
Let’s take a few minutes to run through who’s gone, who’s back and who’s new.
We’ll miss ya
J.B. Woodman was an absolute monster last season, leading the SEC with 15 homers while hitting .323, slugging .578 and making incredible defensive plays in center field. He was scooped up in the second round of the MLB Draft and skipped his senior season in order to join the Blue Jays’ farm system.
Brady Bramlett is still a student at Ole Miss, but last year’s Friday night ace won’t be playing ball this spring. He turned down a pro contract (he was drafted in the 13th round by Boston) and another year of college eligibility to focus on his career after baseball, which he hopes will lead to a job as an athletic director.
Henri Lartigue moved on after being drafted in the seventh round by the Phillies. Not only did he lead the Rebels in batting average last season, he swung the most clutch stick on the team. Remember his walkoff single to cap a five-run rally against Auburn? How ‘bout his three-run, walkoff dinger to sweep Kentucky a few weeks later?
Errol Robinson took over as the starting shortstop as a freshman and manned the position for three years. His junior season wasn’t as productive as expected, but it was enough to earn him a sixth-round selection to the Dodgers.
Wyatt Short was a reliable closer, though Mike Bianco hopes junior Will Stokes will step seamlessly into that role. What can’t be replaced, however, are Too Short’s dance moves.
Glad you’re back
Tate Blackman bounced back from a tough freshman season to hit .322 and knock 18 extra-base hits as a sophomore. The second baseman’s been tagged as a Second-Team All-SEC selection by the conference’s coaches but we all know he has First-Team hair.
Colby Bortles is one of the keys to the 2017 season. If the senior can pair his considerable power (he has 17 career homers) with a more consistent approach (he hit just .269 and led the team in strikeouts last year), Ole Miss’ lineup becomes a hell of a lot more dangerous.
James McArthur emerged as a spectacular midweek starting pitcher as a freshman but stumbled when moved to a weekend role late in the season. After an offseason of development, he’s ready to try again—he’ll start on the mound this Saturday.
David Parkinson will be the starter on Friday. He was impressive after being thrust into a weekend starting role midway through his sophomore season, winning five of his nine starts while posting a 2.78 ERA, the third lowest on team.
Will Stokes had a hiccup or two last year (including the Tulane homer that ended the Rebels’ season) but was generally dominant as a part-time closer behind Short. He reportedly hit 98 on the gun this offseason and enters 2017 on the preseason watch list for Stopper of the Year.
Other key returnees include Ryan Olenek, Will Golsan, Connor Green, Brady Feigl, Michael Fitzsimmons and Andy Pagnozzi.
Grae Kessinger is the Preseason SEC Freshman of the Year and was recently named the fifth best freshman prospect in all of college baseball. The grandson of Ole Miss legend Don Kessinger and a product of Oxford High, Grae will immediately take over for Robinson at shortstop.
Cooper Johnson was considered by some to be the best defensive catcher in the entire MLB Draft, but ended up in Oxford after sliding out of the top rounds. He reportedly made progress with his bat during the fall, which has earned him the starting job behind the plate on Opening Day.
Ryan Rolison, a 6’2 lefty who threw 94 in high school and ranks in the top 10 of D1 Baseball’s top freshmen, has the talent to become a weekend starter as early as this season. If he can develop quickly enough, it could allow Bianco to tab him as the Sunday starter and move Brady Feigl back into a shutdown reliever role.
Will Ethridge is the other ace pitcher in this freshman class and could himself compete for a weekend starting role at some point this season. In the meantime, he and Rolison will likely trade off starting midweek games or filling spot bullpen duty.
Thomas Dillard hit more home runs than any high school player in the country last season, and that prowess with the bat earned him an Opening Day job as the Rebels’ left fielder. One thing we know for sure, the young man knows how to pimp a home run.
Other key newcomers include Cole Zabowski, Greer Holston, Thomas Spinelli, Korey Bell and JUCO transfer Chase Cockrell.