While the 2016 season just ended, here is a way too early outlook at what to look for from the baseball program in Monte Lee's second year as head coach of the baseball Tigers.
This was an area where the Tigers really struggled this year. Luckily, the losses to graduation and/or the MLB Draft were relatively minimal and reinforcements are on the way. The only somewhat significant losses in this department are Clate Schmidt who graduated and was drafted by the Detroit Tigers in the 20th round and Alex Bostic who was drafted by the San Francisco Giants in the 10th round. Patrick Andrews, who was a fifth year senior this past season, was granted an extra year of eligibility but it is unknown at the moment as to whether or not he decided to use that extra year of eligibility. Coach Lee mentioned in his season ending press conference that they intend to keep LHP Charlie Barnes in the weekend rotation and plan to develop Pat Krall into a weekend starting pitcher as well. Pat Krall was by far our best pitcher this past year as he led the team in both saves and wins. With Barnes and Krall probably locking down the first two weekend spots, the last spot is a little up in the air. I'd think that Alex Eubanks would have the edge for the last weekend spot as he really came on down the stretch in a weekend role and played a significant role in the Tigers winning the ACC Tournament. Others expected to compete for the last weekend spot are rising sophomores Jake Higginbotham (who was the Sunday starter the first few weeks of the season), Brooks Crawford, and Riley Gilliam as well as JUCO transfer Jeremy Beasley. With the amount of incoming freshman and JUCO transfer, another year of experience from the young pitchers, as well as the influence of pitching coach Andrew See who did a solid job in getting what he could out of a young and inexperienced pitching staff I expect the pitching staff to take a significant step forward next year (they really have nowhere to go but up).
The most significant (and really the only) departure for the Tigers will be Chris Okey who was drafted by the Cincinnati Reds in the 2nd round of the 2016 MLB Draft and signed a contract for $2 million. Chris Williams who played mostly first and third base this past season is expected to be the starting catcher for the Tigers next season. Robert Jolly, who didn't log any playing time behind the plate this past year, is expected to return to serve as a left-handed hitting designated hitter and potential backup option behind the plate. Even though Okey was a warrior playing behind the plate this past season, it's a little interesting to wonder why Jolly got no time behind the plate. Kyle Wilkie, a highly regarded catching prospect out of Cumming, Georgia will also add depth behind the plate and be an option to be a starter behind the plate for the Tigers in the future.
The Tigers are likely losing their double play combination of second baseman Weston Wilson and shortstop Eli White to professional contracts after being drafted by the Brewers and A's respectively. Both were solid with the bat but inconsistent on the field. In an interview with SC Sportstalk, Coach Lee mentioned incoming freshman Logan Davidson, who was drafted by the Cininnati Reds in the 30th round but is expected to enroll at Clemson, as a player to look at as the starting shortstop next year. Davidson was the North Carolina Player of the Year and Lee said that Davidson has All-American potential as well as a future first round pick. As far as third base goes, Lee said that right now they expect incoming JUCO transfer Patrick Cromwell to be the guy at third base. Cromwell is a left-handed hitting third baseman from Santa Ana, California and while not a lot is known about him, Coach Lee seems very high on him if his expectation right now is for him to be "the guy" at third base. Lee also said that in the Fall they will move Seth Beer from right field to first base and see if that works out. While Beer possesses a good arm, his lack of speed fits better at first base. Beer fits the profile well of a power-hitting first baseman. The second base job is a little bit more up in the air right now. Grant Cox, who redshirted his freshman year due to an injury, could be an option at second base. Cox provides a lot of upside as a middle infielder. Grayson Byrd, transfer from LSU and the son of former MLB pitcher Paul Byrd, will also be in the mix for the second base job but could also log innings at shortstop. Byrd is a left-handed hitter who was a highly ranked recruit coming out of high school and will be eligible to play this coming year after sitting out the past season due to NCAA rules regarding transfers. This is just speculation but I think Byrd has the upper hand in the competition due to his defensive abilities as a shortstop and I also think his hitting abilities are more advanced than anyone in competition for the second base job.
The Tigers return there three starters from the outfield last year(Rohlman, Pinder, Beer). With that being said, expect to see as many as two of those three making position changes this year. Beer is expected to be the Tigers' first baseman next year. Rohlman could still be playing left field next year but it would not be a surprise to see him getting at-bats at DH next season to get more speed and range in the corner outfield spots. Pinder was solid in center field and is expected to remain the starter there next season. Monte Lee and Co. just recently added Weston Jackson, a graduate transfer from Presbyterian College who hit ten home runs for the Blue Hose this past year. Expect to see Jackson starting in one of the corner outfield spots. Jackson provides pop in the bat as well as solid outfield defense. There could also be some competition for another outfield spot if Rohlman moves back to DH next year. Look for KJ Bryant to possibly be a starter next year in the outfield. Bryant had a solid redshirt freshman year for the Tigers and provides speed and range to play great defense in any of the three outfield spots along with a strong arm.
Premature 2017 Lineup
-This is purely speculative. I put this together as a hypothetical lineup next year based on talent on the roster as well as from comments from Monte Lee's season ending press conference.
1. Chase Pinder- Center Field
2. Reed Rohlman- Designated Hitter
3. Chris Williams- Catcher
4. Seth Beer- First Base
5. Logan Davidson- Shortstop
6. Patrick Cromwell- Third Base
7. Weston Jackson- Left Field
8. Grayson Byrd- Second Base
9. K.J. Bryant- Right Field
Possible Weekend Rotation
Friday- Charlie Barnes
Saturday- Pat Krall
Sunday- Alex Eubanks
Early Thoughts on Next Year's Team
A lot could change over the next six months but I expect this team to continue to make strides under Monte Lee. Even with poor pitching and the worst defense in the ACC, the Tigers were able to win the ACC Tournament in Coach Lee's first year. If the defense makes stride and the young pitchers develop look for this team to be as good if not better next year as Coach Lee continues to work with this team.