It is possible that Mississippi State could open the 2016 campaign with its fourth different catcher in as many years.
The Bulldogs’ primary backstop the past two seasons, Gavin Collins, is still around but will likely spend most of his junior season playing third base.
Senior Josh Lovelady, who started last year’s opener behind the plate, is also back but is being pushed by a pair of newcomers – juco transfer Jack Kruger and freshman Elih Marrero.
“Marrero is a talented player and he will be a significant part of our success this year,” said MSU skipper John Cohen. “We are putting a lot on a freshman who has never played in the Southeastern Conference. Collins will still be available to catch, as well as Lovelady, who has come along well and is ready to contribute behind the plate. Jack Kruger is a guy who had arm surgery in November. When his arm comes back, and I think it will, it certainly gives us some more depth there, too.”
Collins caught 25 games at catcher for MSU last year while Lovelady started 20 others. Cody Walker, who graduated, started the other nine games behind the dish.
Collins was hampered after hamate surgery on his left hand prior to the 2015 season and underwent another procedure last summer. The 5-foot-11, 205-pounder from Lake Forest, Calif., watched his batting average drop from .304 as a freshman to .228 the following year. He still slugged two home runs, drove in 16 runs and stole a base in 35 total games.
Lovelady batted .222 for the season with a double and 11 RBIs but went just 1-for-14 at the plate in Southeastern Conference play. While his offense struggled in his first year at the Division I level, the 5-foot-11, 200-pounder from Prattville, Ala., was solid defensively. He committed just one error in 181 chances and threw out 13 would be base thieves in 2015.
Kruger comes in with a year of experience at the Division I level having played as a true freshman at Oregon, where he started 17 games and hit .208. with two doubles, a homer, six RBIs and a steal.
Kruger transferred to Orange Coast (Calif.) College as a sophomore, where he was the Most Valuable Player on its state championship team. The 6-foot-1, 185-pounder from Calabasas, Calif., sported a .310 average, 10 doubles and six stolen bases.
“I think Jack is one of the top two or three hitters on our entire ballclub,” Cohen said. “We are going to find him a spot, whether it is behind the plate, in the outfield or first base.”
Marrero gives the Diamond Dogs a switch-hitting option at catcher. The son of former MLB catcher Eli Marrero turned down his first shot at the pros after being selected in the 29th round by the Cincinnati Reds.
“I think he has a high baseball IQ,” Cohen said. “He is somebody that really understands the game. He is a freshman and he will make mistakes. A byproduct of that is that he is going to be a fabulous player. He will be better as a player at the end of the year than he is at the beginning.”
Marrero hit .320 with three doubles, two triples, three home runs and 10 RBIs as a senior at Coral Gables (Fla.) High School where he was a four-time All-American. The 5-foot-7, 200-pounder also played for Team USA, winning a gold medal at the Pan American Championships in Mexico last summer.
Cohen also has another freshman, Hunter Stovall, available if needed to catch. However, Stovall is expected to receive most of his reps at second base.
“The catcher position, when we get 100-percent healthy, is going to be one of the strengths of our ballclub,” Cohen said.