South Carolina baseball began its full-team practices for the spring on Friday, three weeks ahead of the Gamecocks’ season opener against Liberty on Feb. 15.
Head coach Mark Kingston, in his second year leading USC, faces a significant challenge in replacing 70 percent of last season’s at-bats and 62 percent of innings pitched.
The Gamecocks will enter the season unranked by Baseball America, D1Baseball or Collegiate Baseball, but still dealing with high expectations both within and outside the program. Here are some items likely to be at the top of Kingston’s to-do list for the preseason.
Figure out where to put Jacob Olson: Olson, one of the few everyday contributors from last season to return, has spent the vast majority of his two years with the Gamecocks in right field. But this past fall, he switched to third base, and Kingston has yet to say which position he wants him to play.
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The key to that decision may have less to do with Olson and more to do with those who would take his place if he played one spot over the other.
“I have 100 percent confidence he can play third base well for us. Now, we have to see how do the pieces around him fit,” Kingston said at his media day press conference on Wednesday.
If Olson plays third, freshman Brady Allen, who impressed Kingston in the fall, seems the most likely option to take right field, with Ian Jenkins or Jacob English as other possibilities. If Olson returns to the outfield, some combination of JUCO transfers Nick Neville and George Callil will likely take shortstop and third base.
Olson himself declined to say whether he had a personal preference for one or the other, only saying that he’ll play wherever there’s the greatest need for him. So over the next three weeks, his potential backups will likely draw increased scrutiny to see who could thrive the most, given the opportunity.
Find starters, or try something new: Kingston has been toying with the idea of radically changing the structure of his pitching staff since the fall. He’s considering seven guys for three spots and hoping a trio will distinguish themselves, not only as better than the rest but also capable of going six or seven innings every weekend.
Sophomore Carmen Mlodzinski seems locked in as the Friday night starter. Beyond that, things could get weird if none of the other contenders impress Kingston enough. Or he could just be messing with everyone to gain an edge and have no intention whatsoever of trying something unusual.
Judge the battle of the backstop: Senior Chris Cullen has lost weight, stayed healthy and feels as good as he has in a long while, he told reporters Wednesday, and the hope he and Kingston share is that he can emulate Hunter Taylor, last season’s senior catcher who slimmed down, felt great and produced a career year that proved vital to the Gamecocks’ late run to the postseason.
Taylor had to beat out Cullen first to make that happen, and this preseason, Cullen will have to ward off challenges from junior college transfer Luke Berryhill, who led the team in home runs in the fall, and freshman Wes Clarke, a former MLB draftee. Both are behind Cullen defensively, Kingston said, but Berryhill in particular impressed during fall ball with his bat and speed.
There’s a possibility Cullen could spend time at either of the corner infield spots, which he played at points last year, but he said Wednesday that he primarily considers himself a catcher, though he’d be willing to move if asked by the coaching staff.
Polish up Sightler: Freshman Josiah Sightler was Carolina’s highest MLB draft pick to make it onto campus, as the 12th-round selection turned down a hefty signing bonus to come to Columbia.
Now, he’s probably the rookie with the highest upside on the Gamecocks, and USC has a bit of a need at first base, meaning Sightler will probably get plenty of opportunities. The question now will be how soon Kingston can channel all that potential into a reliable option.
“He’s not a finished product. He’s not ready to be the All-American first baseman and carry us to Omaha, but he’s very talented,” Kingston said. “He has big-time power, is an extremely hard worker, and did a tremendous job in the classroom as a freshman, which shows the discipline necessary to do well in other areas of your life. He’s a guy we have high hopes for. He’s a hard worker, he’s a sponge in terms of learning what he needs to learn, and he’s always in the cages getting extra swings. It’s just a matter of time; how quickly that gets here is everybody’s guess. We’re hoping he’s a major part of this year’s team.”
Keep everyone healthy: This is the obvious goal for every coach in America, but the Gamecocks especially can’t afford to lose several players who had health concerns — outfielders T.J. Hopkins and Ian Jenkins and pitchers Ridge Chapman and Sawyer Bridges.
Hopkins in particular has struggled with injuries his entire career and suffered through a back ailment at the end of last season. When he’s healthy, he’s one of the better players in the SEC, Kingston said. The key throughout the fall was limiting his reps and working smarter, not harder. Now that the season is drawing near, the Gamecocks’ training staff and Hopkins will have to hold steady with that plan. It probably couldn’t hurt to bring the others along slowly as well.
Fan Appreciation Day
After Saturday’s scrimmage at 1:30 p.m., fans can meet the 2019 team and receive autographs on this year’s poster.
More key USC baseball dates
Feb. 9: Women’s clinic (details at SouthCarolinaBaseballCamps.com)
Feb. 15: Opening Day vs. Liberty, 4 p.m.
March 1-3: USC-Clemson series