Here are five story lines for South Carolina baseball in 2018, in addition to the other big one: will Chad Holbrook be back?
1. What will coaching staff look like?
No decision has been made regarding Chad Holbrook’s future as the head coach, but even if Holbrook does return for his sixth season, it is hard to imagine the current coaching staff staying in place. It is unlikely that assistants Sammy Esposito and Jerry Meyers both return after USC missed the NCAA Tournament for the second time in three years. The future of Stuart Lake is also up in the air. The former Charleston Southern head coach took over as the hitting coach in the middle of the season after volunteer assistant Brian Buscher left the program.
2. Who is in the starting rotation?
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South Carolina must replace its Friday and Saturday starters in Clarke Schmidt and Wil Crowe, leaving Adam Hill as the only returner in the starting rotation. Cody Morris will likely have a chance to earn a spot in the weekend rotation after going 3-2 with a 3.66 ERA in 10 starts as a freshman in 2017. Returners Colby Lee and Graham Lawson could also get a shot to pitch on the weekend. Lee finished 2-1 with a 5.86 ERA, while Lawson went 2-0 with a 5.87 ERA. A newcomer could also get in the mix, most likely Logan Chapman, who recently was named the South Carolina Baseball Gatorade Player of the Year.
3. How many position players return?
USC should return the majority of its key offensive contributors, including Carlos Cortes, Jacob Olson, TJ Hopkins, Chris Cullen, Riley Hogan and Justin Row. Whether other position players return depends on the draft. Juniors Jonah Bride, Alex Destino and Madison Stokes are draft eligible, as is sophomore LT Tolbert because of his age. If Bride and Tolbert return, that will give South Carolina six players who hit better than .276 this year, including Cortes, Olson, Row, Tolbert, Bride and Cullen.
4. What will bullpen look like?
South Carolina struggled to close out games in 2017 and with an All-American closer in Tyler Johnson and proven veteran arms in Josh Reagan and Reed Scott. Those three will be gone, as will Colie Bowers and possibly John Parke. If Parke, a lefty, does return to school, he will have a chance to get outs at the end of games. Lee, Lawson and Chapman could also get a shot if they are not in the starting rotation. Newcomers Eddy Demurias, Carmen Mlodzinski and Ridge Chapman could also provide depth.
5. Who can make a jump?
Hopkins and Cullen were supposed to be two of the top players this year, but they were limited by injuries. If they can get healthy, they should be able to improve greatly from the numbers they put up in 2017. Freshman Riley Hogan was impressive at first base once he got consistent at-bats at the end of the year. The switch hitter should be a big part of the middle of the lineup in 2018. Danny Blair also impressed at the end of the season as he got more at-bats, and if he can improve this offseason, he could be a weapon at the top of the order with his speed.