Jack Wynkoop’s decision to sign a pro contract, together with Wil Crowe continuing to rehabilitate from Tommy John surgery last spring, gives South Carolina a new look to the weekend starting rotation.
Sophomore Clarke Schmidt is the heavy favorite to claim the Friday night starter role. Behind him, though, is a group of pitchers separated by millimeters.
Late last season, Schmidt became a weekend starter as a freshman and finished with a 2-2 record and 4.81 ERA in 58.0 innings. He averaged nearly one strikeout per inning (55) with 20 walks.
“Clarke Schmidt has stood out,” Holbrook said. “He is much improved from a year ago. He has some weekend experience. He has a great arm, great demeanor, great work ethic, great competitor. We feel good about Clarke.”
Freshman right-hander Braden Webb from Owasso, Okla. is one of the headliners of a 2015-16 signing class ranked No. 2 nationally by Collegiate Baseball. Webb was ranked among the top 150 high school prospects in the country by Perfect Game in 2014.
“We feel great about the talent Braden Webb brings,” Holbrook said. “He has as gifted of an arm as we have on our pitching staff. But he’s a freshman. I like the fact he is a little bit older than most freshmen, but he has great stuff.”
Lefthander Josh Reagan (2-2, 4.72 ERA in 47.2 IP with 34 strikeouts in 2015), Taylor Widener (returning from an elbow injury) and Reed Scott (best ERA on staff last season for pitchers above 18.0 IP) could factor into the mix as well.
“Wynkoop is not here and Wil Crowe is out for the year with his injury, so we’re going to have some new guys,” Holbrook said. “We have to make a lot of decisions with regards to our pitching staff. There are a lot of talented kids and new faces that are pretty close in the way they perform.
“There is not much separation between those guys. The good news is the number of pitchers and the depth we have. I feel good about the talent. I just have to put a talented kid into a role that benefits him and our team. That’s a lot easier problem to have than having a pitching staff that lacks depth.”
Another freshman to watch? Right-hander Adam Hill from T.L. Hanna High in Anderson, rated one of the top five high school prospects in the Palmetto State last year. As a senior in 2015, Hill went 9-2 with a 1.13 ERA with 111 strikeouts in 68 innings.
“Adam has shown great promise,” Holbrook said. “He could factor into the weekend at some point this year. Does it happen early? Does it happen after he gets his feet wet through some middle of the week appearances?”
The biggest question mark could be Widener, who registered nine saves in 2015, striking out 44 batter sin 32.0 innings. He could fill a number of roles in 2016. Right now, the most important thing for him is his health, and he looks to be completely healthy just over two weeks from the season opener.
“I don’t know his role, but Taylor has been healthy and his bullpens have been great,” Holbrook said. “He’s bouncing back from his bullpens, which is a concern anytime you have a procedure on your elbow. His bullpens have been impressive. It looks like he has gotten over that psychological hurdle of having a procedure on his elbow.
“A decision we have to make is how we use Taylor. We love his arm. He has great stuff. Right now, I’m leaning towards putting him in a starting role. Will he start on the weekend? He’ll have to pitch well to do that. But he will have that opportunity because we like his experience. Taylor might be able to blossom as a starter. But we have to see how some other kids perform.”
Brandon Murray (5-0, 4.36 ERA in 33.0 IP) showed flashes of his potential out of the bullpen last year and finished as the second winningest hurler on the Gamecocks staff behind Wynkoop.
Matthew Vogel allowed just 11 hits in 17.0 innings with 16 strikeouts in 2015 (.183 OBA), but finished with a 5.82 ERA in 17.0 innings.
“Is Matt going to make the next step and be a very good guy for us out of the bullpen,” Holbrook said. “I feel good about the improvement he has made. What type of improvement has Brandon Murray made? He had some big moments a year ago. Answers to those questions could ultimately affect how we use Taylor.”
If Widener earns a starting job, Reagan, Murray and Vogel could compete to become the closer.
“We might not have an (exclusive) closer per se to start,” Holbrook said. “They might do it together. It could be closer by committee to start the season. Josh Reagan dominated our hitters all fall and might be our most improved pitcher. I think Reagan is one of our best pitchers. He’s not throwing 82 miles per hour anymore. He’s throwing 88 and that makes his best pitch, the changeup, even better.”
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