STARKVILLE — Baseball season is fast approaching.
Mississippi State gets its 2023 season underway Feb. 17 against VMI at Dudy Noble Field, the start of a three-game series with the Keydets.
The Bulldogs will be looking to put some distance between them and their last-place finish in the Southeastern Conference in 2022.
MSU added a strong recruiting class and several key transfers in an attempt to do so, and it returns plenty of key pieces from last year.
Here’s The Dispatch’s projected starting lineup for the Bulldogs’ opening game.
2B Amani Larry
For the third straight year, a transfer player is likely to win Mississippi State’s second-base job; for the second straight season, he might lead off. A .370 hitter last season at the University of New Orleans, Larry is the perfect fit for the Bulldogs’ leadoff spot. With nine home runs last year, Larry doesn’t possess the power of RJ Yeager, but he got on base at a .477 clip last year and slugged .578. Those numbers will dip against SEC competition, but Larry is the Bulldogs’ best option at second and in the leadoff position.
CF Colton Ledbetter
Mississippi State could be poised to bat transfers 1-2 in its 2023 lineup. The gem of the Bulldogs’ transfer class, Ledbetter hit .318 with 16 home runs and a .640 slugging percentage last year at Samford. He set the Southern Conference single-season RBI record with 57 and was a first-team all-conference pick. The Hoover, Alabama, native should be an immediate impact bat for the Bulldogs, and hitting high in the lineup would be a good fit.
C Luke Hancock
Hancock was selected as the Bulldogs’ captain after going undrafted and choosing to come back in 2023, and he’ll provide a veteran presence behind the plate and in the middle of Mississippi State’s order. Hancock hit only .276 last year but drew 36 walks, pushing his on-base percentage north of .400. He slugged seven homers and drove in 32 runs. Hancock typically hit third last season, and a return to the same spot would make a lot of sense.
1B Hunter Hines
Hines showed off prodigious power from the left side in his freshman season in Starkville, hitting 16 home runs and 13 doubles and driving in 52 runs. Hines finished the year with an even .300 batting average and slugged a cool .600 to boot. With Hancock replacing Logan Tanner at catcher, Hines can move from the designated hitter spot to first base, his natural position. Batting him cleanup once again would allow the Bulldogs to maintain some continuity as well as put Hines’ tremendous raw power to use.
3B Slate Alford
Pitcher KC Hunt called third baseman Slate Alford Mississippi State’s best hitter in the fall, and Alford has continued his success into February. He’s been tearing the cover off the ball in preseason scrimmages, and with Kamren James off to the minor leagues, the third base job is Alford’s to lose. He started only nine games as a freshman last year, hitting just .209 in 43 at-bats, but he’ll have the chance to prove himself with regular at-bats in 2023.
RF Kellum Clark
In 2022, Clark broke out of an early slump and showed off the power he displayed toward the end of his freshman season. The left-handed slugger hit .257 with 14 home runs, a .369 OBP and a .556 slugging percentage. A 25 percent strikeout rate is cause for some concern, but Clark batted sixth for much of last year and keeping him in the same spot would work for coach Chris Lemonis.
LF Dakota Jordan
A two-sport athlete also set to play football at Mississippi State, Jordan has impressed on the baseball diamond early on. The freshman from Jackson Academy has the power to clear fences at Dudy Noble Field, and he can play capably in the outfield as well. It’s not always easy for a true freshman to earn a starting spot right away, but Jordan is the Bulldogs’ best candidate to do so.
DH Aaron Downs
The Iowa native, who spent his senior year at Heritage Academy, showed flashes in a limited role as a freshman. He finished with an average of just .206, but three of his seven hits were doubles. Downs could be poised to see more at-bats in 2023, but outfielder Bryce Chance, lefty utilityman Von Seibert or switch-hitting freshman David Mershon could also fill this spot.
SS Lane Forsythe
Forsythe made some changes at the plate that saw him take a leap toward the end of last season. The Bulldogs’ regular starting shortstop finished the year with a .273 average and a .359 on-base percentage, although he hit just three doubles, one triple and no home runs. Given his dynamic glove, Forsythe has a fairly strong hold on the shortstop spot, although he’s unlikely to move out of the bottom of the order.
Theo DeRosa reports on Mississippi State sports for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @Theo_DeRosa.
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