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June 5, 2014

Baseball: Five questions for 2015

With the 2014 season in the rearview and the unpleasant taste it left still in the mouth, let's freshen our breath with five questions that will inevitably rise to the surface between now and the start of the 2015 season.

Who will close?

Right now, it's rather assuming that standout junior closer Joel Seddon (3-2, 1.66 ERA, 14 SV, 59 Ks in 48.2 IP) will go pro, as it's also believed that junior setup man extraordinaire Cody Mincey (5-0, 1.04 ERA, 44 Ks in 34.2 IP) will return. He could move naturally into a closer role, as could sophomore Vince Fiori (1-0, 1.37 ERA in 19.2 IP) or even freshman Taylor Widener (3-0, 1.79 in 40.1 IP). Other candidates include redshirt freshman Canaan Cropper (Tommy John surgery in January, but regarded as an elite power arm), freshman Matt Vogel (tough freshman year but promising arm) or a number of incoming signees.

What pitching coach Jerry Meyers has shown is he has a formula for closing and using his bullpen staff that not only is proven, it's elite. The performance of the bullpen in 2014 was nothing short of sensational all season long, which is amazing considering the arms it lost the year before. Whomever Meyers settles on, expect great results.

Who will catch?

Oh, boy.

Returning is freshman Logan Koch (.286 in 28 at-bats with no home runs and an RBI), but his play wasn't strong enough to allow the staff to rest Grayson Greiner even when Greiner desperately needed it. His .286 average may look promising, but his chances came against primarily non-conference opponents, with his best two games (2-for-3) coming against Stetson and Davidson. In his last start against USC-Upstate on April 23, he was 0-for-4.

Defensively, he's nowhere near Greiner, which is a category that also includes most humans. But suffice to say that the Gamecocks' recruiting in this area, specifically with the loss of 2013 commitment Nick Ciuffo to the Major Leagues, has left them remarkably thin.

The answer, then (and let's go ahead and rule out Patrick Harrington in that role, even though he can play it), appears to be either catcher Hunter Taylor of Onley, Va., or junior college transfer Jared Martin.

Taylor is ranked fifth in the nation at catcher by Perfect Game USA and the 117th player overall. He has the arm strength - as a pitcher, he was 4-2 with an upper-80s fastball and struck out 70 in 40 innings pitched - to compare favorably to Greiner. Martin played in the JUCO World Series with Chattahochee Valey CC and is the most ready to start every day, especially given his .359 average and 53 RBI.

Who plays center?

Should Tanner English leave, he'll take with him one of the best gloves in college baseball, one in a long line of outstanding Gamecock center fielders. The most likely possibility is Gene Cone, a player who surged into the lineup midseason with injuries to Elliott Caldwell and Connor Bright and, once there, couldn't be removed because his disciplined plate approach, outstanding defense and sheer moxie became an invaluable at the bottom the lineup.

While incoming freshman Clark Scolamiero has rave reviews as a center fielder and projects extremely well, he'll have a lot of work to do to move past a player in Cone who has done nothing but reward the confidence the coaches have in him since the day he arrived on campus. Should Scolomiero do that, it would be impressive indeed and cause to be extremely optimistic about the outfield in 2015. Until he does, no one is in any way uncomfortable with the reliable Cone in center.

Who can hit?

An anemic offense was the 2014 team's greatest weakness, and finding bats to replace Greiner (.311 AVG, 8 HR, 50 RBI), Joey Pankake (.303 AVG, 5 HR, 31 RBI) and Kyle Martin (.336, 5 HR, 38 RBI) will be a challenge.

If Bright returns, that's a welcome .311 average and .349 OBP. Despite significant injury, Max Schrock should be able to improve on his .299 season and may threaten .340 or better. It's unlikely Marcus Mooney will improve his .274 average by much, but he does enough at the plate to feel good about him in the order and, of course, brings a remarkable glove to the park every day. Same goes for DC Arendas (.271).

So who will mash?

With Widener's success on the mound (3-0, 1.79 ERA) and lack of it at the plate (.191), he's becoming more and more an unlikely candidate to hit regularly, though how he performs in spring and fall ball could keep him in the mix significantly - he was third on the team in DH appearances with 13, just behind Schrock's 12. Of the freshmen coming in, OF/P Alex Destino is the real deal and could make a push, while returners Weber Pike and little-used Brock Maxwell and Zack Madden certainly would like a look.

Another possibility is Spartanburg Methodist transfer Collin Steagall, a power-hitting first baseman with the ability to play first every day or DH should other players return or move around. Third baseman Matt Williams, who redshirted this season, also is a possibility.

The bad news is there will be large offensive holes to fill around the diamond, which doesn't bode extremely well for a team that struggled at the plate to begin with. The good news is that there appears to be enough people - and talent - to fill them, talent that will be young and on-hand for the long haul.

Who will lead?

This may be the most difficult question of all to answer, because for those who watched this team closely, the leadership vacuum that appeared to emerge in the postseasons of 2013 and 2014 raised significant questions. Did players with an eye to tonight's Major League Draft stop playing with their hair on fire, as English said twice late in the year after losses? I can't say for sure because I'm not in the locker room, but I struggle for other ways to describe it.

The Gamecocks were toxic in Hoover, listless in the regional. The carelessness in the field, on the basepaths and at the plate in the SEC Tournament opener against Mississippi State and both games against Maryland was embarrassing to watch for fans of competent baseball. With a tournament history that's a House of Horrors for USC, the loss to MSU loss was South Carolina's worst since joining the league in 1992. Expected to play with passion realizing the opportunity against No. 1-seed Florida, the Gamecocks responded by rolling over when Florida overcame a 2-0 deficit with a three-run third inning.

Swatted from Hoover, USC came home with its tail between its legs and fell twice to an ACC team making its first appearance in the NCAAs since the Nixon presidency. After getting down early in the first game due to carelessness in the field, carelessness at the plate foiled a comeback. And when Maryland used a two-run fourth to erase the Gamecocks' 1-0 lead the game essentially was over, just like in Hoover, only Maryland piled it on until it finally piled itself on the infield at Carolina Stadium, the first opponent in stadium history to do so.

So, leadership. Underclassmen such as Cone and Crowe, Schrock, Mooney, Arendas and Widener played their guts out this year all the way through the postseason, giving everything they were able to give. That's encouraging, and those players should provide excellent leadership next season, especially since they'll have the experience and, hopefully, fire in their belly to atone for this year's postseason regrets.

South Carolina NEWS


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