The Rebels kick off their 2020 season against preseason No. 1 Louisville on Valentine’s Day and will be looking to replace a ton of production from the former No. 1 overall recruiting class from 2016.
No more Grae Kessinger. No more Thomas Dillard. No more Cooper Johnson. And no more Will Ethridge.
Those four played crucial roles in key spots on last year’s squad and Mike Bianco is now tasked with replacing them and throwing them in the fire early against Dan McDonnell’s* Cardinals on the first weekend of the season.
(EDITOR’S NOTE: Did you know McDonnell coached at Ole Miss under Mike Bianco from 2001-2006? He has won over 500 games and taken Louisville to five College World Series, seven super regionals, and 10 NCAA Tournaments. Just thought you should know.)
So what else are we doing with our time leading up to first pitch than trying to predict what Bianco is going to do with lineup and opening weekend rotation? Exactly there is nothing else to do.
So let’s get to it.
Catcher - Hayden Dunhurst
When you think of Ole Miss baseball, aside from the beer showers, you think of catchers. Bianco is a former catcher so it’s only fitting that he has the ability to recruit, sign, and coach catchers. Dunhurst is no exception. The No. 44 overall player in the country will be counted on immediately to handle things behind the dish and I don’t think it’s too crazy to think he will handle it just fine. Oh, and his pop time (1.81) is in the 97th percentile.
At the plate, he projects as an above average to really good hitter. He has a smooth, consistent swing from the left side and if he gets his hips into it and extends the arms, he can send one out of the yard with ease. Dunhurst, to me, will be a dude who will only get better from game one.
First base - Cael Baker
Tim Elko was my first guess here but I’m going to live on the edge and go with another newcomer. Baker, the junior college transfer who batted .506 with 101 runs batted in, 25 home runs, 80 runs scored, and also sported a .596 on-base and a 1.051(!) slugging percentage last season, won the NJCAA triple crown and has carried that success over to a successful fall and spring in Oxford.
The junior college player of the year should get plenty of reps early in the year at first base and designated hitter depending on how well he swings and the pitching matchup the Rebs face each game. For now, I think the 6’0, 260-pounder who permeates A LOT of Sikes Orvis #WHISKEYANDMEAT energy gets the nod.
Second base - Peyton Chatagnier
Another newcomer who has been talked about a lot in the fall, Chatagnier is another newcomer from Cypress, Tex. who has exceptional speed (6.71 60-yard dash) and can really swing it.
He reminds me a ton of Servideo and could play some outfield if the Rebels are ever in a pinch there. Chatagnier has had a tremendous spring and figures to factor in to the lineup one way or the other. Justin Bench was another option here, but because of Peyton’s fantastic last couple weeks, I have the future fan favorite here on opening day.
Third base - Tyler Keenan
The preseason All-American has everything you want in a third baseman. He can field, he can throw, he can move laterally, and he can mash.
He is the far-and-away returning leader offensively for the Rebs (.285/.420/.506) and could be poised for an even bigger year. Bigger than 15 bombs and 66 runs batted in? Who are we to say no?
Shortstop - Anthony Servideo
This one is a no-brainer. The returning stolen base leader for the Rebels (24 in 2019) was always going to be the heir apparent to Kessinger and now it’s his turn to die his hair blonde and cement his name in the short stop history record books in Oxford.
Servideo is an elite defender with an elite arm to go with it.
The Rebels won’t skip a bit in the middle field with Ant Man defending the six hole and quarterbacking the defense.
He hit .287 last season and with another year under his belt should continue to progress at the plate with added discipline and power at the plate (3 HR, 26 RBI in 2019).
Outfield - Hayden Leatherwood
The former Vanderbilt signee tore up NJCAA at Northwest Mississippi Community College and I anticipate him being an absolute problem for SEC pitchers in this lineup. He’s got good enough speed and quickness to be an effective corner outfielder, but he will thrive as a hitter for Bianco and Ole Miss.
I expect the Collierville, Tenn. native to shine once he gets his bearings. He hit for tremendous power at the junior college level, but his quick hands and explosive bat speed should make for a fun dude to watch this spring.
Outfield - Connor Walsh
CONVERTED INFIELDER ALERT!!!!
But, really, Walsh is another elite athlete with big league speed (third-fastest 60-yard dash ever recorded by Perfect Game) who should seamlessly transition to leading the outfield. His athleticism should be able to carry him as he learns to track balls off the bat and take proper angles in the green grass.
2019 Ole Miss commit Connor Walsh (FL) is creating a lot of #MLBDraft buzz and for good reason. Watch his workout from PG National where he ran a 6.25 60, threw 87 mph across the IF, 95 exit velo and swung it very well. #25 in 2019 class and #6 in FL https://t.co/YypfLh8zXh pic.twitter.com/wh04lb1Cp2— Perfect Game Scout (@PG_Scouting) March 14, 2019
At the plate, Walsh should be able to transition well to the college level with added reps against the pretty good to elite arms that he will face night in and night out on the weekend.
Outfield - Jerrion Ealy
No this is not a publicity stunt by Mike Bianco. The Freshman All-American football player has earned the right to play on opening day and he has honestly surprised a ton of people with how quickly he has adjusted to the game coming off a SEC football season. He has worked a ton on his swing, shortening things up and using his speed to enhance his offensive approach and it has already paid off.
I expect Ole Miss to play a number of dudes not only in the outfield but all over this weekend against Louisville, but Ealy making the starting nine on February 14th is a great sign for this team.
Designated hitter - Kevin Graham
The O’Fallon, Mo. native shined last season, slugging .507 along with 10 home runs and 34 runs batted in. The DH role will suit him well, letting him get plenty of at-bats as he continues to grow into his body in year two at Swayze.
@olemissbsb Kevin Graham’s 2R Bomb vs @lsubaseball Follow @outoftheyardbsb for more bombs! Video via ESPN #motivation #baseballlove #dinger #draftday #baseballgame #mlbtheshow #softball #baseballfan @olemiss @olemissfb @olemisssoftball @olemissmbb @olemissathletics pic.twitter.com/xludXhvIIM— OutoftheYardBSB (@outoftheyardbsb) May 16, 2019
The Freshman All-American will be counted on now in the middle of the lineup and should be able to add to those impressive numbers a year ago.
Friday - Doug Nikhazy
As if there was ever a doubt, Doug Day has been moved to Friday. The Windemere, Fla. native set the Rebel freshman record with 86 strikeouts a year ago en route to being named All-SEC, All-American, and earning a spot on Team USA.
It seemed at times last season Nikhazy willed Ole Miss to wins with not only his pitching performances, but also his attitude and swagger, helping him win nine games a year ago. He’s not going to wow you on the radar gun by any means, but he is one of the craftiest hurlers I’ve seen in my time watching Ole Miss baseball. Look for him to command the zone (just 33 BB in 89.2 IP in 2019) for seven innings or so every Friday night and to battle his ass off every time he toes the rubber.
Saturday - Gunnar Hoglund
It took a minute and there were peaks and valleys, but Hoglund could take a huge leap from year one to year two. The former first-round pick had a rather disgusting earned run average as a freshman (5.29), but there were flashes of why the Pittsburgh Pirates were so high on him.
Another year in the weight room should really benefit the 6’4, 220-pounder and should help him not only work deeper into games, but to get stronger as the innings pile up. D1Baseball’s Kendall Rogers told us that he was sitting comfortably in the low-90’s all fall camp and had consistent spin rates at 2500 for fastballs and 2700 for his lethal curveball.
Lastly, I wonder if Mike will let him swing it this season.
Sunday - Derek Diamond
The trend continues. Yet another newcomer. The former Stanford commit and all-time name team selection was extremely impressive per our fall camp sources. He was comfortable in all settings on the mound and seems to have command and feel for four(!) pitches.
The Ramona, Calif. native will do his best to slam the door shut on opponents this season with a Cruisin’ USA fastball that can touch 94 and a devastating duo that is a change up and a slider. This one should get folks excited because if things progress like they should in years one and two, he could be the next big thing on Friday nights.
If Diamond isn’t the dude here, I expect Wes Burton, all 6’8 of him, to get a chance to earn a spot.