It's now been two full weeks since Clemson’s baseball season abruptly concluded. Three seasons under the guidance of Monte Lee, three eliminations in the regional round, all of which the Tigers were hosts, and one where they were a national seed. Those results certainly warrant disappointment, but I'm not sure they warrant some of the reactions I saw from fans while scouring social media in the days following the final game of the season. So, in the famous words of one Todd Ellis, is Clemson Baseball “Cycling In or Cycling Out?”
One can actually argue that Monte and the rest of his staff have actually overachieved in each of his first three seasons on the job. Prior to the 2016 season, Lee’s first on the job, the Tigers were picked to finish 5th in the Atlantic by ACC Coaches, with some wondering if the programs streak of consecutive seasons of finishing over .500 might be in jeopardy. They went on to win 42 games, winning the ACC, and grabbed a #7 overall national seed. In 2017 they were picked to finish 3rd in the Atlantic, which is right where they finished, however they won 42 games and earned themselves a spot in the postseason tourney as one of the 16 regional hosts. This past season they were picked to finish 3rd in the division again, yet won it and finished the regular season tied with UNC for the top spot in the ACC, while winning 47 games. Whether the team overachieved in any or all three of those seasons would be up to each individual person and how they judge seasons, I am only maintaining that the argument can be made.
I have seen multiple fans claiming that all Clemson has managed to do was fire a legend in Jack Leggett, only to hire Monte Lee to come in and get the same results. I am not sure I follow that line of thinking, as Clemson had not even hosted a regional since 2011. I loved Jack, and hated the way his long tenure ended, but at the same time I also thought it was time. Whether one agrees with that or not, this is where we’re at.
Monte came in and took over a program that was in decline. In his first season on the recruiting trail, Monte landed a class that ranked 13th nationally (D1 Baseball), after neither of the two previous classes had finished in the Top 25. He followed that up with the 14th ranked class in 2017, and is looking to lock up another Top 15 class for 2018, quite possibly a Top 10 class, as it currently ranks #11 per Perfect Game (although it included three Top 100 players, two of which were lost to the MLB draft).
Getting back to this season, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that this staff was tasked with replacing the entire starting rotation from last season. There were all kinds of questions regarding how the weekend rotation would look. Jake Higginbotham was the only guy on the roster who had ever started a conference game, and he had only started three. All three came in 2016, as he sat out all of 2017 with an injury.
Along with very little experience, the staff was also littered with youth, as of the 17 pitchers listed on the roster for the 2018 season, 11 were underclassmen, with 7 being either true freshman or redshirt freshman. Guys like Mat Clark, Travis Marr, Spencer Strider, and Holt Jones. All guys that most believe have high ceilings and all got plenty of valuable experience over the course of the season, and that will pay huge dividends next year.
Assuming he takes that next step in his development, Strider is a guy I could see in the weekend rotation as early as next season. Under the tutelage of pitching coach Andrew See, I would fully expect that to happen. If you need an example of the affect See has on guys, look no further than Brooks Crawford. Crawford ended up being the ace of the staff down the stretch. Watching him from one start to the next, over the course of the season, the improvements he made were evident. He went from a guy struggling to get out of the 4th or 5th inning, due to high pitch counts, to a guy you could count on to deliver a quality start almost every time out. I can not overstate how fortunate we are that he will be back next year to anchor this staff as senior. Looking at all the talented, young arms on the roster, we should enjoy more pitching depth next season. Knowing See is in charge of their development gives me confidence that we will also see more quality depth next season.
One thing is certain, and that is the fact that this will be a much different looking lineup next season. Gone are Seth Beer and Chris Williams, as those two combined for 40 of the teams 98 HRs as well as 1\3 of the teams total RBI. Gone are Drew Wharton and Patrick Cromwell, along with their combined 14 HRs and 67 RBI, not to mention their superb work with the glove. Logan Davidson and Kyle Wilkie will be counted on to step up and lead this team, and Both proved that they are capable of doing so, but will now be more heavily relied upon.
Jordan Greene and Grayson Byrd will both be back in the infield. It is possible we see Sam Hall factor in somewhere on the infield as well. The big question here is who replaces Chris Williams at 1st. I would not be surprised at all to see the staff bring in a grad transfer to man that spot next season. If not, I am not sure who we see there. Drew Donothan and Justin Hawkins are options. In the outfield you would assume we see a healthy Kier Meredith, Bryce Teodosio, and one of the younger guys, or maybe even Hall if he does not factor into the plans on the infield.
This was a team that relied heavily on the long ball for run production this season. There was not a lot of small ball being played, as the Tigers hit 98 HRs on the season, good for second best in the country. Losing over 50% of the teams home runs, one would think next years team will not be able to be so reliant on the long balls. After posting a .261 team batting average, we’ll need to see an improvement in hitting in general. Maybe even a little more small ball at times. A healthy Meredith at the top of the order would go a long ways towards helping this team manufacture runs next season. We all saw what a difference having a healthy Meredith in the leadoff spot can make during the series against Notre Dame. It was a small sample size, but it was clear what kind of havoc he can create when healthy. It is a shame he had such horrible luck injury wise in his first season, but hopefully after a full offseason to recover, he can put all that behind him. This team will need him next year.
You never want to be known as one of only two teams to ever lose three straight regionals as the host team, however, that doesn’t mean that it’s all doom and gloom and that a complete overhaul of the program is needed. I like the direction this program is headed. I know some won’t agree, but at this point, you stay the course, as this staff has shown they can recruit at a high level. Beginning next season the roster will have been completely turned over, and the team will consist of all guys Monte Lee and this staff signed. I for one, am looking forward to where this program goes from here. I don’t think there is any question the program is on the upswing, despite the postseason disappointments, and that the Tigers are very much cycling in.