South Carolina baseball coach Mark Kingston addressed the media on Wednesday at the end of the Gamecocks’ fall practices, touching on a broad range of topics including recruiting, injuries and alums of the program winning the World Series.
But for many USC fans, it’s all about the 2019 version of the Gamecocks — after advancing to the NCAA Super Regionals in his first season thanks to a second-half surge, Kingston faces a tall order in replicating that feat for the upcoming season. He has to replace seven regular contributors to his lineup, all three of his weekend starters and some key spots in the bullpen too. A full half of his fall roster was composed of newcomers, either freshmen or junior college transfers.
Fall practices didn’t answer all his questions about this team, Kingston said, but they did start to provide some clarity. Here are the main takeaways.
Carmen Mlodzinski, and then who pitches?
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With sophomore Logan Chapman undergoing Tommy John surgery, South Carolina will have a complete turnover in its weekend rotation, and right now, just about the only sure thing to fill one of those spots is sophomore righty Carmen Mlodzinski.
Mlodzinski put together a decent freshman campaign that didn’t always show up in the stats, starting seven midweek games and making 19 appearances en route to a 3-5 record and 5.52 ERA. His stuff, however, is such that he’s essentially a lock for the weekend, and almost certainly the Friday night guy. He’s added a cutter to his arsenal and hit the 91-94 mile per hour range in appearances this fall.
“He’s done a really nice job. He’s gotten better. He’s bigger, he’s stronger, he’s more physical. Because of all that, I think all of his stuff has taken an uptick,” Kingston said.
Beyond that, there’s probably 10 or so hurlers who could join Mlodzinski as starters. The problem is that none of them has distanced himself from the pack. Several candidates, such as junior Ridge Chapman and sophomore John Gilreath, also missed time this fall with injuries.
“We don’t have any more clarity on how we will use our pitchers,” Kingston said.
Until he does, Kingston won’t shut down the possibility of an unconventional approach, be it platooning starts or leaning heavily on his bullpen. The good news there is that Kingston feels more confident in the depth of his staff then he did last year.
“It’s just a matter of picking guys out of those roles and deciding who has the best chance to give you a little bit of length as a starter, so we’ve got a lot of guys that are in that 89-93 range with good control and a good secondary pitch. It’s just a matter of figuring out who’s ready, who’s the most mature, who can handle going through the lineup multiple times. That is still to be determined,” Kingston said.
Four freshman to watch
When asked to name any freshmen who could come in and play right away, Kingston said four names immediately came to mind: outfielder Brady Allen, first baseman/outfielder Josiah Sightler and pitchers Wesley Sweatt and Dylan Harley.
Allen certainly showcased pop throughout the fall, and Kingston said the coaching staff felt he performed the best of the rookie hitters. Sightler, meanwhile, remains an intriguing talent who needs to develop more. He was recruited as a pitcher, but an injury his senior year of high school forced him to play the field, and he displayed raw power at the plate and was still taken in the 12th round of the MLB draft.
All that potential, however, still needs to be polished, Kingston said.
On the mound, Sweatt was high school teammates with Gilreath in Rock Hill, and Harley is a former Winthrop commit who led the state in strikeouts as a senior.
“Pitching wise, I’d say Sweatt and Harley were the two guys that got the most people’s attention, especially their teammates. Those guys are going to have the chance to pitch a lot for us this year. Great stuff, mature kids and know how to win,” Kingston said.
On the field, five or so positions remain up for grabs, and the winner of one spot could cause a chain reaction at another. The key unknowns at this point appear to be at catcher and the left side of the infield.
Behind the plate, senior Chris Cullen was limited hitting this fall as coaches sought to preserve his health, and after being out for the starting job last year by Hunter Taylor, he’ll now have to hold off a strong challenge from JUCO transfer Luke Berryhill, who led the team in home runs and runners caught stealing this fall. He’s got speed to boot, and the way Kingston talked about him Wednesday strongly suggested that he’ll be involved in 2019 in one form or another.
“Chris obviously has the most experience at this level, so he’ll be given every opportunity to try to win that job come the spring, but Berryhill had a very strong fall, especially offensively,” Kingston said.
Should Berryhill win the catching job, Cullen spent some time at first in 2018 and could potentially slide into that slot, where there is also some uncertainty.
At shortstop and third base, junior college transfers Nick Neville and George Callil are strong candidates to mix and match there, but senior Jacob Olson spent lots of time at third after playing right field through most of his USC career, and sophomore Mason Streater also put together a strong fall.
“Gun to my head,” Kingston said, “I’d say it’s 50-50 at this point” whether Olson plays right field or third base in the spring. That decision would likely be the first domino in setting numerous spots.
Despite all the uncertainty mentioned above, there are some names that South Carolina fans can count on seeing once opening day rolls around, provided they stay healthy.
Neville and Callil are both “players who could help us” and it seems unlikely neither of them will get starting time. Olson, no matter where he ends up, will almost certainly play. Andrew Eyster, a hard-hitting outfielder and transfer, also is in position to start.
And if he can stay healthy, senior outfielder TJ Hopkins will likely be a star and leader on and off the field.
“He’s got elite speed, he’s got elite power, we just need to keep him on the field,” Kingston said. “And what we did this fall is got him just enough work to stay sharp and continue his progress, but not so much that you had to worry about him tweaking something or having a setback. He had a very strong fall on the field, but he also got rave reviews from his teammates, both returning players and the new guys, with how he is in the locker room and how he’s trying to be a leader.”
A potential All-American?
Kingston’s most effusive praise Wednesday went to sophomore second baseman Noah Campbell, who started 42 games last season and put together an outstanding summer in the Cape Cod League, so much so that Kingston said he could have been named MVP of the best summer collegiate league in the nation.
Kingston also said his staff thinks Campbell could hit around .350 while playing regularly in 2019, a mark only two South Carolina players have accomplished in the past five years.
“I expect him to be borderline All-American this year, I really do. His defense has come a long way, and I think he’s one of the better hitters in America,” Kingston said.