#RebsBSB Season Preview: Infield

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OXFORD, Miss. - Ole Miss opens its 2018 baseball season in 19 days when the Rebels hosts Winthrop for a three-game series Feb. 16-18. Mike Bianco's group enters the year ranked in the preseason top 10 and will want to build on a 2017 season that provided some tough but valuable learning lessons to a relatively young team that boasted 29 freshmen and sophomores headlined by an immensely talented 2016 recruiting class.

Last year, Ole Miss boasted a .970 fielding percentage and will likely want to improve on that mark as it was good for 12th in the SEC. The two biggest voids the team needs to fill are the ones left by Tate Blackman and Colby Bortles at second and third base.

Here, we take a look at what the Rebel infield could look like this season.

First Base: Nick Fortes/Cole Zabowski/Tim Elko
This position was a revolving door of sorts for the Rebels a year ago. Bianco struggled a bit to find consistent defense here for much of the year as well as offense early on. Eventually, Ole Miss found an answer here in Nick Fortes. It happened suddenly. Bianco approached Fortes two days before a late-April midweek game against Arkansas Pine-Bluff and consulted him about slipping on a first baseman's mitt. The primary reason for the move was the ability to keep Fortes' bat in the lineup thanks to his .301 average and .452 slugging mark at the time. Fortes had assumed the bulk of the catching load for the previous month due to Cooper Johnson struggling at the plate. Johnson began to hit better and is a high-level defensive stopper, so the move seemed to make sense.

Fortes made a fairly seamless transition and played the position about as well as anyone could've asked of him on such short notice. Now, he's had the fall and winter to become accustomed to the larger glove and new home. Fortes will still likely catch a decent bit to help alleviate the workload of Johnson's knees throughout the grind of a college season, leaving the opportunity for Cole Zabowski and highly-touted freshman Tim Elko to see action at first base. Zabowski started 22 games at first base for the Rebels a year ago and hit .239 with a home run and 11 RBI in 92 at bats last year. All three of these guys will likely see time here with the possibility of Chase Cockrell too. Fortes will get the bulk of the starts and will ideally add some pop to the Rebels' lineup too.

Second Base: Anthony Servideo/Ryan Olenek
Ole Miss will have to replace the likes of Tate Blackman at this middle infield spot. Blackman had been the everyday second baseman the last two seasons and his presence at the plate will be missed more so than anything else.

Servideo is a true freshman from Miami and has the ability to make an impact for the Rebels immediately. Both a shortstop and a second baseman in high school, Servideo is a speedy and talented defender that could develop into a really good combo with Grae Kessinger in the middle of the Rebel infield.

He's a speedy 6.71 runner with good hands and an accurate arm. If he hits well enough, Servideo could be a really attractive option for Ole Miss in a leadoff slot the team didn't really have a natural fit for a year ago.

"I am not really a middle of the lineup guy," Servideo said. "My role is to get hits and get on base and do my thing. Let the bigger guys drive me in."

Bianco has said more than once before that Olenek is one of the best athletes on the team. He's invaluable to the Rebels because he can be placed quite literally all across the diamond. He was a natural shortstop coming out of high school, played right field his freshman year and was an aggressive center fielder that went and got the ball for Ole Miss last season. His late-inning catch in Baton Rouge against that knifed spike marks into the wall and preserved a Friday night Ole Miss win immediately comes to mind. Ideally, Bianco would probably prefer to keep his speed and athleticism in the outfield if he can, but Olenek is a more than capable infielder if needed and his versatility will surely help this team more than once this season.

Shortstop: Grae Kessinger
This position belongs to the rising sophomore who started 53 games for Ole Miss up the middle last year. Kessinger's season ended prematurely when he broke his foot at the SEC Tournament. He is a sure-handed defender with great range and a strong arm. There were times where he made incredibly difficult plays, particularly going toward the hole to his right, look routine. He struggled some at the plate as most freshmen do when adjusting to the learning curve that comes with handling SEC pitching, but is confident he can improve on this season.

"Last year I learned a lot," Kessinger said. "One thing was to be consistent and aggressive with your swing and in your approach. As long as you're swinging like that good things will happen."

Kessinger only struck out 30 times in 154 at bats. He was a good contact hitter, put the ball in play and at times just got unlucky. He had a .202 average on balls he put in play.

He says his foot feels completely healthy and returned to baseball-related activities by the end of the summer.

With the way he hit to contact and a year's serving of SEC pitching under his belt, most signs would point to the Rebels' infield anchor taking it to another level at the plate this season.

Third Base: Tyler Keenan/Tim Elko
Here lies the second hole Ole Miss must fill off last year's team. Senior captain Colby Bortles departed and took 10 home runs, 42 RBI and a .482 slugging percentage with him. Bortles was also a sneakily good defender even with his larger frame, especially on balls in foul territory. Bortles was a solid option at third base for Bianco the last two seasons.

A couple of guys could be tasked with replacing him, the first being Tyler Keenan. The true freshman played third, first, catcher and outfield and was ranked as the number one third baseman in the state of North Carolina out of high school. He's like Bortles in the sense that he shows pretty good range and athleticism even with a 6-foot-3, 205-pound frame. He's a left-handed hitter that possesses good power and could add some balance to a right-hand heavy Ole Miss lineup. Keenan had a strong fall and will certainly get a hard look at being the Rebels' primary guy at the hot corner.

Elko could also see time here. He's another large frame at 6-foot-4, 225 pounds with power and the ability to hit the baseball to the opposite field. Elko tallied 117 hits and 93 RBI in his high school career and has the chance to find his way into the lineup in some form consistently if he can produce at the plate.

Catcher: Cooper Johnson/Nick Fortes
One of the more interesting storylines of the 2017 season was the evolution of catcher Cooper Johnson. The rising sophomore entered his first college season with an incredibly strong arm, quick pop time and a sense of maturity that disguised the fact he was just an 18-year-old freshman. The defense was never a question with Johnson. He was an athletic defensive stopper that threw out 17 runners and made opponents think carefully whether they wanted to run on Ole Miss.

But Johnson hit a brutal 7-for-51 slump at the plate to begin his college career and began to see his time behind the plate shrink in favor of the more consistent bat in Nick Fortes. He spent a couple of weeks out of the lineup in early April and retooled his approach at the plate. The uncanny maturity he possesses showed during that time and Johnson worked his way back into the lineup during the last month and a half of the season. He recorded a hit in 12 of his final 17 games and raised his average as high as .218, a remarkable feat considering the averaged absorbed such a slow start. Johnson was a core piece of the 2016 recruiting class and his early struggle at the plate was really just a natural part of being a freshman with a significant role on an SEC ball club. Johnson turned it around quicker that most in his shoes would've been able to do.

As mentioned earlier, Fortes will also catch a decent bit to alleviate the stress on Johnson that comes with a 60-game season. But Johnson will surely be a solid and improved hitter in Ole Miss' everyday lineup this season.

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    Tiffany J. Moore said:

    This is amazing with what he have done so far! Hope that he'll achieve more in the future!

    in post Evan Engram Hauls in Midseason Accolades

    Fiftyyears fan said:

    How can you have five straight top 25 recruiting classes and look as bad as Ole Miss has this year. Easy lack of coaching fundamentals. Look at Mason at Vandy, nothing but 2 and 3 star recruits out of high school and he developers players that want to win. Hugh freeze has 3, 4 & 5 recruits and he expects them to win because of what they were in High School. Mr. Freeze you have not been teaching the fundamentals of football or winning in life. Mr. Freeze you have quit on your players because you have some false expectations of what they are instead of what you can develop in them. Either do your job or quit. Oh yea, please quit running your smoke and mirrors offense, everyone has figured it out. Run a physical offense that can open up holes for your running backs and then your pass attack want require 12 are 14 four and five star receivers. Mr. Freeze you have problems and you need to know that you are not smarter than the rest of the coaches in the SEC.

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    Karen Holden said:

    Not every pass can be caught. Too low, too short whatever. Not every Kelly pass is perfect. Records were broken by receivers also. But they sre not going to catch every ball thrown. The loss to Auburn was not one players fault. You win or lose as a team.

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    Trent browning said:

    Hey I was just wandering if these are the only 2 olemiss players signing. If there are more signing please respond to me ASAP. Also wondering if neil everett will sign any autographs. Thank you very much

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