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June 10, 2014

Incoming signing class excites Holbrook

Within minutes after the fifth round of the annual Major League Draft concluded last Friday afternoon, one of South Carolina's top baseball prospects relied on social media to reveal his intentions.

"Columbia, I'm coming," 6-foot-3, 220-pound left-handed pitcher Alex Destino of North Buncombe, NC, tweeted, undoubtedly making USC coach Chad Holbrook a very happy man.

Destino was USC's highly rated prospect when Baseball America released its list of the Top 100 high school players in the country last November shortly after the early signing period ended. Destino was ranked No. 68.

However, Destino, who was 10-1 with a 1.43 ERA and 116 strikeouts in 73.1 innings pitched for his high school team this past spring, went undrafted based in large part on the signing bonus demands given to MLB teams before the draft.

He told his hometown newspaper, the Asheville Citizen-Times, that unless he was drafted in the first two rounds, he was headed to college.

Could Destino duplicate the feat of Wil Crowe and quickly establish himself in the fall as a weekend starter for the 2015 season? In 15 starts as a true freshman, Crowe was 8-3 with a 2.75 ERA in 91.2 IP with one complete game shutout for USC this past season.

Destino boosted his stock after helping Team USA win the 18-and-under World Cup in Taiwan last summer, but was overlooked in the draft, a sentiment shared by the second USC signee among Baseball America's Top 100 high school players - RHP Brandon Murray of Hobart, Ind.

Destino and Murray are the headliners in an extremely talented 2014-15 signing class that could see multiple newcomers make significant contributions next season on the mound and in the field.

"We feel great about the class coming here in August," Holbrook said Tuesday during his end-of-the-season press conference. "Obviously, we dodged some bullets in regards to that class in terms of professional baseball and the draft. That class is intact. Guys we felt we could lose, we're going to keep. They're going to start their careers as Gamecocks in August. We're excited about that group.

"I'm as excited about this recruiting class as any class I've had since I've been here. I hate to put those expectations on them, but it's a talented group. I expecting just as much from those guys as any recruiting class I've had here."

Unlike Destino, Murray was drafted in the 30th round by Philadelphia. Soon thereafter he tweeted, "I will officially be honoring my commitment to play baseball for the University of South Carolina."

"Brandon Murray turned down a lot of money to come to school here and Destino did as well," Holbrook said. "They could have gone and played professional baseball, but they wanted to be at South Carolina. That excites me, when somebody turns down a heckuva opportunity to go into pro ball because they want to be a part of our program."

The likelihood of Destino and Murray seeing significant mound time in 2015 - perhaps as starters - is very good. As long as they stay at USC, both must pitch for the Gamecocks for three years or more until they are eligible for the draft again.

"We signed them for that reason (to become weekend starters)", Holbrook said. "We think they're as talented as any high school pitchers in the country. Destino will also be a big-time hitter for us from day one. He has the potential to not only be a weekend starter, but hit in the middle of our lineup. We're going to let him attempt to do both, that's for sure. They both have great arms. They can run it up there pretty good. But like all freshmen, they have things they have to work on like command.

"If they can fine tune their mechanics with Coach (Jerry) Meyers over the course of the next few months, they have everything they need from a makeup and talent standpoint to have great careers here. We don't need to wait on those guys until their sophomore or junior years. We need them to be ready to go now. That's why we signed them."

Murray was one of two USC signees taken in the MLB Draft - AC Flora High infielder Madison Stokes was a 40th round pick of the New York Yankees, and has already proclaimed he will enroll in school.

With Joey Pankake headed to pro baseball, Stokes is an instant contender for the full-time job at third base.

"He doesn't have the age (and experience) Joey had, but Madison is a talented kid in his own right too," Holbrook said. "We're certainly not going to be lacking depth in the infield, that's for sure. It will all work itself out."

Greenville High product Clark Scolamiero should compete with Gene Cone for the centerfield job, earning the right to succeed three-year starter Tanner English, who was drafted in the 11th round by the Minnesota Twins and expected to sign a pro contract.

Like the infield, the outfield picture for next season is crowded, with Connor Bright and Elliott Caldwell, both of whom were hampered by injuries this past season, expected to return to USC along with rising senior Patrick Harrington

"Scolamiero is going to have a chance to win the centerfield job, but he's going to be pushed by Gene Cone," Holbrook said. "Whoever doesn't win the job can go to a corner spot. Connor Bright is a fixture in right and he'll have an opportunity to win the job, but he is going to get pushed too. There will be some competition out there, no doubt about it. The older guys aren't going to just lay down for these young guys."

If Kyle Martin departs, Lexington High graduate Collin Steagall from Spartanburg Methodist College joins the battle for the starting first base job along with Taylor Widener and possibly Bright.

"I'm fired up about Collin Steagall," Holbrook exclaimed. "He put up great numbers at Lexington High and then at SMC this year. He's a left-handed hitter that I think will hit for some power in our park."

Hunter Taylor (Onley, Va.) and JUCO transfer Jared Martin from Chattahoochee Community College in Alabama will compete with incumbent backup Logan Koch (28 at-bats in 2014) for the catcher's job.

"Martin is experienced and played in the Junior College World Series and is very gifted defensively," Holbrook said. "Taylor is very gifted offensively. He was one of the better high school hitters. We think he can hit in the middle of our lineup early, like right now. He got a lot of draft attention, but put up a number (signing bonus) that was very high. Hunter and Jared will compete right away for the job. It will be great to watch that competition with Logan in the fall."

2014-15 SIGNEES: Hunter Taylor (C), Clark Scolamiero (OF), Brandon Murray (P), Clarke Schmidt (P), Junior Harding (SP)*, Dylan Rogers (P), Jared Williams (INF), Braden Webb (P), Madison Stokes (SS), Alex Destino (P), Jared Martin (C), Tyler Johnson (P), Collin Steagall (OF), Everett Eynon (INF), Banks Cromer (P).

* Holbrook said Tuesday that Harding must overcome some academic hurdles before enrolling at USC in August.


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