Into the unknown

USC baseball: Five questions for next season

Large holes to fill next year will leave the Gamecocks with some big questions heading into the 2009 season

semerson@thestate.comJune 3, 2008 

  • PROJECTED 2009 LINEUP

    CF: Whit Merrifield, sophmore

    SS: Bobby Haney, junior

    C: Justin Dalles, junior

    LF: DeAngleo Mack, reshirt junior

    3B: Nick Ebert, junior

    1B: Jeff Jones, junior

    DH: Jesse Barbaro, reshirt junior

    RF: Adam Matthews, freshman

    2B: Scott Wingo, sophomore

    P: Sam Dyson, redshirt sophomore

    P: Blake Cooper, junior

    P: Mike Cisco: senior

Monte Lee spent Monday recruiting rather than coaching third base in an NCAA tournament regional. Far from ideal for the USC assistant coach.

Lee and the Gamecocks started their journey into the great unknown after being eliminated from the postseason in a 2-1 loss to N.C. State on Sunday. They face life without a host of stars, including Justin Smoak and Reese Havens, who are likely to be professionals within the month.

“It’s going to be a new team,” Lee said Monday. “I think it’s going to be exciting in that way. We’re going to have a lot of new faces in here competing for time.”

As the Gamecocks head into the offseason, here are five questions they face:

HOW WILL THE DRAFT AFFECT USC?

Smoak, the program’s all-time home run leader, is likely to be among the top 10 picks in Thursday’s first round of the major league draft. Havens and James Darnell should follow over the next few rounds.

Smoak and Havens offered caveats, but no one in the program expects either of them, or Darnell, to return. That opens spots at first base, shortstop and third base.

More uncertainty revolves around the other juniors: pitchers Mike Cisco and Will Atwood and utility player Andrew Crisp. Atwood, a left-hander with decent stuff, is the most likely to be drafted high enough to leave. Cisco also could get a look, but his late-season struggles might force him to stay at USC.

Crisp elected to stay in school after being picked in the 36th round of last year’s draft. He might be ready to leave this time, even if he is not drafted high. He was in and out of the lineup late in the season because of coach’s decisions, and Crisp might not want to deal with that again.

The Gamecocks also will be watching to see if any recruits are drafted.

Pitcher Jordan Lyles (Hartsville) could be the first high school player from South Carolina taken, so his chances of coming to USC are slim. The Gamecocks also will be sweating the decision of junior-college catcher Justin Dalles, who could help fill the middle of USC’s order.

Three more high school recruits from South Carolina are being looked at by pro scouts: left-hander Adam Westmoreland (Brookland-Cayce), right-hander Matt Price (Sumter) and outfielder Adam Matthews (White Knoll.)

WHO WILL BE THE IMPACT PLAYERS?

Next year’s team will start with no stars. But by this time next year, a few could have emerged.

Dalles, a power-hitting catcher, is a good candidate if he passes on the pros. Another junior-college prospect, third baseman Nick Ebert, has the potential to hit a lot of homers at USC’s new stadium.

Left fielder DeAngelo Mack came on late this season, hitting two homers in the regional. His left-handed bat would look good in the middle of the lineup, if he can lay off the high fastball.

Pitcher Sam Dyson went from midweek starter to anchoring the postseason rotation, and he will be the favorite to be the Friday starter.

WILL THE CHARACTER OF THE LINEUP CHANGE?

That is almost certain. The Gamecocks figure to lose at least five starters (the big four and senior Harley Lail) who accounted for 84 home runs this season. The top returning hitter will be Whit Merrifield, who hit in the No. 2 position this season and figures to slide into Havens’ leadoff role.

So next year’s team figures to rely more on a small-ball approach.

“Are we going to hit 100 home runs? I wouldn’t think so,” Lee said. “We’re definitely going to be a club that uses the whole field, puts the ball in play and runs the bases.”

That’s not to say the new lineup won’t have power. The junior-college transfers can hit homers, as can returning players such as Mack and Parker Bangs.

WILL THE PITCHING IMPROVE?

It seems it would have to, considering who is coming back.

Dyson’s late-season emergence put him in the ace role, and he has the stuff to keep it going next season. There are plenty of options to fill the rest of the rotation, including Blake Cooper and, if they return, Cisco and Atwood.

A lot also depends on how well a few pitchers recover from injuries. Right-hander Jay Brown has battled arm problems for two seasons since he joined USC as a highly regarded junior-college prospect. If he is healthy, he is good enough to compete with Dyson for role of the staff ace.

Then there are Steven Neff and Brandon Miller, a pair of freshman left-handers who were shut down before the season started because of injuries. They also could be in the mix in 2009.

Health also is a big issue in the bullpen. Closer Curtis Johnson went down with an arm injury in February and took a medical redshirt. His return will give the Gamecocks a boost.

USC saw the value of powerful arms in each game against N.C. State, whose bullpen might carry it to Omaha. The Gamecocks don’t have any on the roster right now, save for Dyson, but Lee said the high school pitching recruits throw hard.

“That’s been our biggest thing that we’re going to try to do. We’re going to try to bring in those kind of arms,” Lee said.

WHO WILL BE THE LEADERS?

Before the regional, Tanner admitted he wished some of this year’s top players were a little more vocal. With all of them probably leaving, Lee thinks several players could start to talk more, such as Merrifield and Mack.

“It’s tough to do it when you’re a freshman,” Lee said. “I think next year we’ll start to see Whit take a little more ownership of the program.”

Some of the junior-college signees also have those characteristics, according to Lee.

“That was part of the reason I signed so many junior college guys, because I didn’t want next year’s team to be so young,” Tanner said.

Reach Emerson at (803) 771-8676.

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