Whether it was Mitch Slauter or Nick Ammirati behind the plate last year, Mississippi State had senior leadership from its catcher position.
But with both players graduating and signing professional contracts the Bulldogs are charged with task of breaking in a new backstop this year.
MSU has four catching candidates and each might earn playing time this spring.
“I think all four guys have competed well,” said MSU skipper John Cohen. “They all bring something a little bit different to the table. I’ve really been pleased with that competition. It’s hard during an intrasquad game to get all four of those guys the same amount of playing time.”
Zack Randolph and Daniel Garner were with the Diamond Dogs last year but sat out with a redshirt. Newcomers Gavin Collins and Cody Walker joined the mix during the fall and the foursome has made a competitive battle behind the plate.
“If you combine those four guys you have a first rounder,” Cohen said. “Each of them brings something different. I think there is going to be a lot of opportunities early for us to find out who is going to be that guy.”
None of the four candidates have caught a game at the Division I level.
Randolph has the most experience of the group having three years of experience at the college level. The Amory native earned First-Team, All-State honors by the MACJC as a sophomore at Itawamba Community College. Randolph hit .370 with 11 doubles and 26 runs batted in during that 2012 campaign.
“I think Randolph has really improved as a leader, as a pitch caller, as a blocker whose arm has come a long way,” Cohen said.
Garner redshirted his true freshman season a year ago. The six-foot, 214-pounder was a Louisville Slugger High School All-American at Sparkman (Ala.) High School where he hit .403 with a school-record 21 doubles, six home runs and 39 RBI as a senior.
“Garner can really hit,” Cohen said. “Of the four guys, he is the best hitter.”
Walker transferred in from Chattahoochee Valley (Ala.) Community College where he was named First-Team All-ACCC and Golden Glove Award as a catcher in 2013. The Columbus, Ga., native batted .350 with 29 runs scored and driving in 25 more as a sophomore.
“Cody Walker is a young man who probably has the best arm in the entire group,” Cohen said.
Collins was one of the nation’s Top 25 catching prospects according to Perfect Game last season. The Lake Forest native was a member of the Rawlings California All-Region First Team after hitting .351 with five home runs and 24 RBI as a senior. Collins recorded a 1.87 pop time to second base.
“Collins is a freshman who keeps getting better every single day,” Cohen said. “He is a great receiver. I think he is starting to make some adjustments offensively.”
Each player is expected to get an opportunity this season. All four weekends of non-conference action features a four-game series and will be pivotal as to which emerges at the starter heading into league play.
“We want to make sure we keep them competing,” said pitching coach Butch Thompson. “We want to keep everyone in the mix. We obviously have to make a decision on who is going to catch the first game, and no one is going to catch consecutive games in a doubleheader this early in the season.”