By MATTHEW STEVENS
Now that Mississippi State head coach John Cohen has signed his nine prospects during the early period, the mission now is to get them on campus.
For at least one of those prospects that may be a difficult decision that the Bulldogs baseball program understands fully.
Brandon Wheeler made his mother Belinda, a diehard Mississippi State fan, thrilled by signing Wednesday with the Bulldogs but is expected to be drafted high after throwing 95 miles per hour at the Junior Sunbelt Classic in Oklahoma.
“He’s started to get some looks from pro people and it’ll be interesting to see if we can get him here,” Cohen said. “With that type of velocity coming with such ease, we know he’ll be highly looked at in terms of the next level.”
Wheeler, who chose Mississippi State over Ole Miss and Southern Miss, has a 11-5 breaking curve ball and has already developed an 80-81 mile-per-hour changeup to go with the movement off his two-seam fastball. MLB Fanhouse rankings have the 17-year-old as the 39th-best draft eligible prospect in the 2011 class.
Wheeler, who is 6-foot-4 and 220-pounds, has already discussed a potential reliever or even closer role with the MSU coaching staff but also is intrigued about the opportunity to both hit and pitch in college after posting a .534 batting average with 31 hits, 21 RBI and 16 extra-base hits for Wheeler High School last season.
“He’s a guy that’s already mature in terms of his body and understanding the game on the mound and at the plate,” Cohen said. “He could contribute for us in some way immediately.”
Not wanting to let the pitching mishaps of his first two years in Starkville ever repeat themselves again, Cohen went out and signed five pitchers of his nine-man early class hoping to provide some much-needed depth to a never-ending quest to find consistency on the mound.
“Everything starts on the mound because you can be average or below average at some spots if you’re good on the mound,” Cohen said. “We can’t have what’s happened the last two years on the mound any longer. Nothing else matters if you can’t control a game on the mound.”
One of those talents on the mound is actually a two-way talent that can contribute at first base in Gulfport’s Jonathan Holder.
Holder, a 6-foot-3 and 225-pound prospect that just turned 17-years-old in June, had a .429 batting average with 10 home runs and 46 RBIs at Gulfport High School and defensively committed just one error in 135 total chances at first base. On the mound, Holder posted a 3-5 record with a 2.54 earned run average.
“They were the first to set up a campus visit with me and I could tell how much they wanted me to play for them,” Holder said in a phone interview when he committed to State in July. “(Coach Cohen) made a visit to my home during the recruiting process and that meant so much to me.”
Holder said when he committed, he currently has a three-pitch arsenal that includes an 87-90 mile-per-hour fastball along with a curveball and a developing changeup.
“I’m so looking forward to working with (MSU pitching coach) Butch Thompson because of his knowledge and ability to teach, I know I’ll improve,” Holder said. “I think I can get stronger at the plate and have increased velocity on the mound.”
Mississippi State also signed arguably the best pitcher in the state of Alabama again by securing Pelham’s Trevor Fitts.
The 2010 Birmingham News Metro Baseball Player of the Year won all 14 of his starts as a junior for Pelham and threw complete games every time he went to the mound. The 6-foot-2, 205-pounder struck out 151 batters in 92 innings.
"As a starter, he was perfect," Pelham coach Jeff Mauldin told the Birmingham News. "I've never had a kid in my career do what he did. Every ounce of Trevor was poured into pitching every time out for his team and community. No coach can ask for more than that."
Fitts continues Cohen’s tradition of stockpiling arms in his home state with Ben Bracewell, C.C. Watson and Kendall Graveman a part of last year’s recruiting class.
With the loss of senior catchers Cody Freeman and Wes Thigpen to graduation after next year, Mississippi State has brought in a catching prospect that started 49 of 50 games on his junior-college team last year as a true freshman.
Barton County Community College catcher Mitchell Slauter will be able to help in State’s depth behind the plate immediately after posting a .343 average with 58 hits and a team-leading eight home runs to go with 47 RBI against high-quality junior-college competition.
"Our needs for this recruiting class were pretty specific," Cohen said. "We are losing two senior catchers this year, so we needed to sign an exceptional catcher. And we wanted to continue the process of bringing in quality arms and players with great athleticism. We feel like we have accomplished all of these with this recruiting class."