By Mike Christensen
If you needed confirmation that 2021 was the Year of the Pitcher on the Mississippi college scene, the Major League Baseball draft provided strong evidence. Eight pitchers from the state’s Big 3 Division I programs were picked over the three days of the draft, including two in the first round.
“This was a year that, nationwide, was deep in arms,” said a Mississippi-based MLB scout, “and we had plenty of them here. There was a bunch of pitching depth in the state. … Every (MLB) team needs pitching, and we had it at the highest level here.”
Mississippi State’s Will Bednar, who seemingly shot up the draft charts after his College World Series performance, was the 14th overall selection by San Francisco, and Ole Miss’ Gunnar Hoglund, whose sensational season was cut short by injury, still went 19th overall to Toronto.
Ole Miss’ Doug Nikhazy was picked in the second round by Cleveland, State’s Eric Cerantola went in the fifth to Kansas City, fellow Bulldogs left-hander Christian MacLeod in the fifth to Minnesota, Ole Miss’ Taylor Broadway in the sixth to the Chicago White Sox, Southern Miss’ Ryan Och in the seventh to San Diego and USM’s Hunter Stanley in the 11th to Cleveland.
Other Mississippi-connected pitchers drafted were Jackson Prep alumnus Will Warren, picked in the eighth round out of Southeastern Louisiana by the New York Yankees, and Northeast Mississippi Community College alum Tyler Samaniego, selected in the 15th round out of South Alabama by Pittsburgh.
Position players from the state weren’t entirely overlooked. USM outfielder Reed Trimble was chosen in the competitive balance round following Round 2 by Baltimore, and State outfielder Tanner Allen may have been a steal in the fourth round by Miami. Magee High shortstop Brennon McNair went in the 11th to Kansas City as the only prep player from the state to be drafted. One Royals official compared McNair to former Atlanta Braves star Ron Gant.
“Scouts are busy in the state of Mississippi, and that’s a good thing for the state,” said the Mississippi scout. “Our level of baseball is very strong, and interest is very high. You go to Pete Taylor Park or Dudy Noble or Swayze Field or Delta State, you’ll see it. The high school kids see it, and they aspire to play at those places. That’s good for the development of talent here.”
Bednar, a 6-foot-2 right-hander from Pennsylvania who was the Most Outstanding Player in the CWS, had the honor of being the first from the state to be selected.
“He really put it together at the right time,” said the Mississippi scout. “He deserved to be a first-rounder.”
“I think anyone that got a glimpse of him in Omaha saw the type of competitor that he is,” Giants director of amateur scouting Michael Holmes told mlb.com. “He checked a lot of boxes for us as a starting pitcher, and we were really excited to be able to select him.”
MLB Pipeline’s Jim Callis, a draft guru, ranks Bednar among eight candidates from the 2021 draft to be first to reach the big leagues. “The younger brother of Pirates reliever David Bednar, Will had one of the best combinations of stuff and strikes among this year’s college crop. He rode a mid-90s fastball and a mid-80s slider to a 139/26 K/BB ratio in 92 1/3 innings.”
The Giants have had previous success with first-round picks named Will from Mississippi State. See Clark, No. 2 overall, 1985.
“I’m going to compete wherever I go,” Bednar said in an mlb.com piece, “and I’m going to work my tail off to be the best that I can be wherever I go.”
Hoglund, a 6-4 right-hander, was Ole Miss’ ace before he went down with an elbow injury in May that required Tommy John surgery and probably hurt his draft stock. Most pitchers recover just fine from that procedure, and Toronto officials apparently are confident Hoglund will, as well, calling him a “very opportunistic pick.” He won’t see the mound again in a live game until late 2022.
“We saw a tick up in fastball velocity this year,” Blue Jays director of amateur scouting Shane Farrell told mlb.com, “combining that with an upper-level ability to command the ball on both sides of the plate and command the slider off the fastball. That’s what really drove us to make this selection.”
Left-hander Nikhazy was the 58th overall pick by Cleveland. He set a UM record for strikeouts in a single game in the Oxford Regional and also notably beat Vanderbilt’s Kumar Rocker head-to-head in a May matchup. “I don’t know if we’ve had a guy better than Doug. He’s been terrific,” Ole Miss coach Mike Bianco said earlier this season.
Cerantola and MacLeod, both big, hard-throwing lefties, had rather disappointing seasons for State after entering 2021 as relatively high draft prospects. Cerantola, who didn’t make the Bulldogs’ travel roster for Omaha, may have helped his stock by participating in the MLB Draft Combine, where he reportedly threw well. Ranked No. 247 on the mlb.com draft chart, he went much higher, at 139 overall to the Royals. MacLeod actually slipped on draft day, picked 159th overall by the Twins after being rated No. 113 going in.
But those draft ratings can be very arbitrary. Broadway, Och and Stanley weren’t ranked among the top 250, yet Broadway and Och were among the top 220 picks. All it takes is for one team to have an interest.
Right-hander Broadway, Ole Miss’ closer, set a program record with 16 saves in 2021 and put up a 3.44 ERA. Och, a lefty, went 8-0 with a 1.27 ERA working out of the USM bullpen this season. Stanley was 6-4, 2.56 ERA, as a member of USM’s regular rotation.
Mississippi State won the national championship, Ole Miss reached another Super Regional and USM made it to the deciding game in the Oxford Regional. The common theme running through that success was pitching. Major league teams certainly seemed to notice.