Preseason Top 25 Capsules: No. 23 Mississippi State

2017 Record: 40-27 (17-13 in SEC); reached super regional. Final ranking: No. 14. Coach (Record at school): Andy Cannizaro (40-27, one year). Top 200 2018 Draft Prospects: LHP Konnor Pilkington (36), OF Jake Mangum (91).

The good news: Everything has slowed down in Starkville after a manic 2016-17 school year that saw the team earn a super regional appearance, head coach John Cohen promoted to athletic director, Andy Cannizaro hired to succeed him and Brent Rooker winning the Southeastern Conference triple crown. This has been a much more settled offseason. Mississippi State has some key pieces to build around, including center fielder Jake Mangum, ace Konnor Pilkington and top relievers Spencer Price and Riley Self. The Bulldogs have also had time to get healthy after a rash of injuries swept through the pitching staff last year. Lefthander Ethan Small is one of the pitchers ready to get back in action and, if he regains his pre-injury form, could form a strong 1-2 combination with Pilkington at the front of the rotation.

The bad news: Rooker, the best hitter in the country last year, has moved on to pro ball, leaving a massive hole in the lineup. Not only will his production be nearly impossible for the Bulldogs to replace, he also brought an important presence and veteran leadership to the team. In addition to Rooker, shortstop Ryan Gridley and outfielder Cody Brown must also be replaced, leaving Mississippi State without three of its top four hitters from 2017. That trio combined for 38 of the Bulldogs’ 59 home runs last year, and it will be up to returners such as Elijah MacNamee and Hunter Stovall to step up in their absence. Mississippi State’s recruiting class also includes some talented hitters who could quickly make an impact.

Returner to know: Luke Alexander, SS: Alexander was Mississippi State’s Opening Day shortstop in 2016 before Gridley won the job and Alexander moved to third base. Now, with Gridley in pro ball, Alexander will be counted on at shortstop, where he is a solid defender. He is a career .222 hitter in 88 games (73 starts) for the Bulldogs, and if he takes a step forward offensively, it would be a boost for the Bulldogs’ lineup.

Path to Omaha: The Bulldogs will have a different formula this spring than the one they used to reach super regionals last season. This year, a deeper pitching staff and another solid defense should be able to take some of the pressure off the lineup. Mississippi State may have to do more to manufacture runs, rather than relying on its sluggers, but they have the athleticism on the team to do so. With Pilkington at the front of the rotation and Price and Self shortening games at the back end of the bullpen, Mississippi State has stars on the mound more than capable of carrying the load. In the end, that may be a formula better suited for postseason success.

2018 lineup:

C Marshall Gilbert, So. Transfer – John A. Logan (Ill.) JC
1B Elijah MacNamee, Jr. .267/.315/.344 | 180 AB | 2 HR | 22 RBI
2B Hunter Stovall, Jr. .288/.345/.375 | 160 AB | 2 HR | 18 RBI
3B Justin Foscue, Fr. HS – Huntsville, Ala.
SS Luke Alexander, Jr. .222/.295/.343 | 198 AB | 5 HR | 21 RBI
LF Hunter Vansau, Jr. .297/.377/.356 | 118 AB | 0 HR | 14 RBI
CF Jake Mangum, Jr. .324/.380/.385 | 278 AB | 0 HR | 26 RBI
RF Tanner Poole, R-Sr. .224/.290/.309 | 165 AB | 3 HR | 14 RBI
DH Tanner Allen, Fr. HS – Theodore, Ala.
LHP Konnor Pilkington, Jr. 8-5, 3.08 ERA | 108 IP | 111 SO | 0 SV
LHP Ethan Small, R-So. Did not play – injured
RHP J.P. France, R-Sr. Transfer – Tulane
RP Spencer Price, Jr. 4-1, 2.91 ERA | 34 IP | 40 SO | 14 SV
RP Riley Self, So. 5-2, 3.72 ERA | 48 IP | 60 SO | 8 SV

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