New era begins for Gamecock baseball

When South Carolina took the field at TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha for what turned out to be the final game of the 2012 College World Series, three freshmen dotted the starting lineup: shortstop Joey Pankake, outfielder Tanner English and catcher Grayson Greiner.
In all likelihood, the trio played their last game for the Gamecocks on Sunday night in the disappointing 10-1 loss to Maryland that eliminated USC from the NCAA Tournament, its earliest exit since 2009.
The MLB Draft begins Thursday and all three players are expected to hear their names announced early enough that they'll sign professional contracts and begin traveling a long road they hope ends in the major leagues.
But English, Greiner and Pankake are far from USC's only draft-eligible juniors eyeing the proceedings this weekend. Friday night starter Jordan Montgomery, outfielder Connor Bright, closer Joel Seddon, first baseman Kyle Martin and long reliever Cody Mincey should be selected as well.
"I love those guys to death," USC coach Chad Holbrook said Sunday night following the loss to Maryland. "Grayson and Joey and K-Mart and Joel and Jordan, those are the guys at the top of my head that I think will have an opportunity to sign professionally. They're great kids. They gave us all they had. They're baseball rats.
"I hate that it ended like this for them. But (short of the national title), there is no easy way to end the season, especially with good kids that have given everything they have. It's a special group. They won a lot of games here. They did this program right. They made our fans and supporters awfully proud. I'm proud of them as well."
In many ways, the 2015 season marks the beginning of a new era for USC baseball as the shining lights of the fabulous three-year College World Series run (2010-12) fade in the distance. Few - if any - players on next season's team will have any connection to the CWS teams.
Should all the aforementioned players sign pro contracts, the look of the 2015 USC roster would be altered dramatically. The core of the Gamecocks next season promises to be infielders Max Schrock (hampered by injuries for most of 2014), DC Arendas, Jordan Gore and Marcus Mooney, outfielders Gene Cone and Elliott Caldwell (missed final 23 games due to injury), and pitchers Jack Wynkoop, Wil Crowe, Taylor Widener, Reed Scott, Josh Reagan, Vince Fiori and Curt Britt.
Widener can also play first base and designated hitter.
Could we see an infield of Widener at first, Schrock at second, Mooney at short and Arendas at third on opening day in 2015? Perhaps. Gore will battle hard for a starting job as well.
Montgomery's likely departure leaves Wynkoop (7-6, 2.86 ERA in 88.0 IP, 94 hits, 40 runs, 58 strikeouts, 10 walks) and Crowe (8-3, 2.75 ERA in 91.1 IP, 76 hits, 32 runs, 59 strikeouts, 19 walks) as the top two weekend starters.
The likely exit of Seddon means pitching coach Jerry Meyers must find a different closer for the fourth straight year. If Mincey leaves, the top long/middle relief would be vacated, as well.
Will Patrick Harrington (one year if eligibility left) and Evan Beal (13.2 IP in 2014) return in 2015? Harrington saw the first significant action of his career in the second half of the season and the taste of regular action could tempt him to return next season.
Initially recruited as a catcher, Harrington could battle rising sophomore Logan Koch (28 AB in 2014) and 2014-15 signees Jared Martin from Chattahoochee Valley Community College and Hunter Taylor from Onley, Va., for the right to succeed Greiner behind the plate.
Holbrook acknowledged a lack of depth at catcher forced him to play Greiner an excessive number of innings in 2014. Greiner started 58 of USC's 62 games and led USC in doubles (13) and RBI (50).
But all that action behind the plate took a physical tool on the junior from Blythewood.
"I could see the wear and tear on him. It's a tough position to play," Holbrook said. "I wish I could have given him a little more rest, but if I did I don't think we're in a Regional."
Improved depth at catcher is a priority for 2015 because of the physical demands of the position.
After returning from an injury, Beal made four starts in midweek games and allowed 12 hits and five runs in 13.2 innings with eight strikeouts and four walks.
Fifteen players on USC's 35-man roster in 2014 were freshmen, so the Gamecocks were young in some areas.
Of course, the incoming freshman class could make an impact, as well. During college baseball's early signing period, USC signed two players among Baseball America's Top 100 high school prospects - LHP Alex Destino (Weaverville, N.C.) and RHP Brandon Murray (Hobart, Ind.).
Regardless of who's on next season's 35-man roster, Holbrook and his players understand the lofty expectations around a program that won consecutive national titles in 2010-2011 and reached three straight national championship series.
So, while a 44-18 final record looks decent on the computer screen, the Gamecocks are ultimately judged by how far they advance in the NCAA Tournament.
"It was a good season, but good's not good enough around here," Holbrook said. "I understand that. We have to do better than good, and that's going to be the attitude here as long as I'm the coach. South Carolina baseball is a special program. Our kids understand at South Carolina that good is not good enough.
"We have to do better."
At the moment, here is how the probable 2015 roster shakes out:
DRAFT-ELIGIBLE JUNIORS LIKELY TO SIGN: Connor Bright, Tanner English, Grayson Greiner, Kyle Martin, Cody Mincey, Jordan Montgomery, Joey Pankake, Joel Seddon;
CURRENT JUNIORS LIKELY TO STAY: Evan Beal (RHP), Elliott Caldwell (OF), Patrick Harrington (C/OF);
RISING JUNIORS: DC Arendas (INF), Curt Britt (RHP), Vince Fiori (LHP), Marcus Mooney (SS), Max Schrock (2B), Jack Wynkoop (LHP);
RISING SOPHOMORES: Gene Cone (OF), Wil Crowe (RHP), Jordan Gore (INF), Logan Koch (C) Zack Madden (OF), Brock Maxwell (OF), Josh Reagan (LHP), Reed Scott (RHP), Matthew Vogel (RHP), Taylor Widener (RHP/1B), Weber Pike (INF);
QUESTION MARKS: Trey McNickle (RHP), Canaan Cropper (RHP), Tyler Haswell (RHP), John Parke (LHP), Jackson Smith (RHP);
NEWCOMERS: 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).