Through Monte Lee’s Clemson tenure, pitching depth had been the programs glaring weakness. There was no depth when he took over and it’s an area that can’t be replenished overnight. Despite that lack of depth, he guided his first three teams to the postseason as regional hosts. Having no quality pitching depth usually comes back to haunt you come regional play, and that is precisely what happened to all three of those teams
In 2019, Lee’s fourth year at the helm, all signs pointed to the team finally having a little depth. Brooks Crawford and Jacob Hennessy were both back after being part of the starting rotation in 2018. Sophomore Spencer Strider was expected to take over one of the top two spots in the weekend rotation. True freshmen Carter Raffield and Davis Sharpe were joining the team and were capable of winning weekend spots.
After fall ball, it was starting to look as if the two veterans, Crawford and Hennessy, would be the odd men out of the rotation. That the rotation would consist of two true freshman and a sophomore. For much of the season that’s exactly how it played out, just not the two true freshman and one sophomore that were originally penciled into those spots.
Raffield and Strider both had their seasons end before they ever got started. Raffield suffered a torn ligament in his elbow weeks before camp started and then Strider went down on the first day of camp with the same injury. Both underwent Tommy John surgeries, a procedure that takes at least a year to come back from. Just like that, the little bit of pitching depth was gone.
The staff had to scramble in an attempt to get the right three starters and ended up going with Crawford, Sharpe, and true freshman Justin Wrobleski. An injury to Crawford in the seasons third weekend and Wrobleski’s ineffectiveness through those same three weeks, forced the staff into having to reshuffle the rotation once more as ACC play opened up.
Sharpe was moved to Friday nights and Mat Clark was taken from the bullpen and placed into the Saturday slot. After performing well in relief early on, true freshman Keyshawn Askew was given a shot as the third starter on Sundays. Over the next five weeks, all seemed well. The Tigers swept UNC to open conference play, then dropped a home series to Notre Dame on St Patrick’s Day weekend. They then went on the road, taking two of three from Boston College and sweeping Va Tech, before coming back home to take two of three from Louisville.
Next up was a road trip to Tallahassee. Clemson was sitting at 25-8 overall and 11-4 in ACC play, and looked to be well on their way to competing for an ACC Title and hosting another regional. FSU had been struggling, sitting at just 19-13 overall and 7-8 in ACC play. However, as this baseball program has seen all to often over the years, Tallahassee was not very kind to them. The Tigers were swept, being outscored 28-8 in the process.
Next came a 20 inning, one run midweek loss to Georgia at home. The wheels had started to come off. After looking so impressive through the first half of the season, Davis Sharpe and Mat Clark both started to look human in that FSU series. Keyshawn Askew, for as good as he had looked at times, had shown he wasn’t quite ready for a such a large role just yet. After walking four of the eight batters he faced against the Seminoles, the staff was once again looking to find another weekend starter.
Crawford, Hennessy, Holt Jones, and Travis Marr all started games down the stretch. No matter what the staff tried, it just didn’t work. The Tigers just could not find that first half magic again during the second half of the season. No matter which button the coaching staff pushed, the desired results were not there. Clemson would end up 35-26 overall and 15-15 in ACC play.
Very similar to the starting pitching, the bullpen got off to a great start. Owen Griffith, Holt Jones, and Sam Weatherly anchored the middle relief and setup roles, while Carson Spiers held down the back end. It was a combination that worked well through the first half of the season. However, depending on basically four guys to hold down the bullpen for a full season just isn’t realistic. At a certain point, overuse becomes a problem as fatigue sets in. Add in starting pitchers rarely making it out of the fifth inning in the second half, and that's even more pressure on the relievers.
One can only wonder what kind of difference having Mat Clark out there with those guys would have made. Remember the role Ryan Miller played on the 2018 team out of the bullpen? That is the role many envisioned Clark playing in 2019. That do everything “fireman” role. With him out of the bullpen, and nobody else to fill that void, only Griffith, Jones, and Weatherly were left as the top arms to get to closer Carson Spiers.
All three eventually ran out of gas down the stretch. That left the staff having to rely on guys like Luke Sommerfield and Travis Marr more often, and while both had their moments, they were too inconsistent. Over the final third of the season, Jacob Hennessy was starting and making relief appearances in the same weekend. That alone speaks to the lack of pitching depth.
In our 2019 season preview we said,
Well, the freshman were not ready. As great as Sharpe was for much of the season, he seemed to hit that freshman wall in the second half. After the injuries to Strider and Raffield, this team needed multiple freshman to come in ready, and it turned out that none were. Not ready to go out and produce at this level for an entire season anyways. The team was able to make in into the postseason once again, but just as a #3 seed in Oxford. That's a far cry from hosting.
All is not lost, however. On paper, the program looks to be in great shape going forward from a pitching standpoint. Davis Sharpe is only going to get better as he goes into his sophomore season. The same goes for Mat Clark as he heads into his junior season. Spencer Strider and Carter Raffield will be back, although both will be brought along slowly in their recoveries.
After showing lots of promise as freshman, Jackson Lindley and Keyshawn Askew will be back. Both with a season of experience under their belts. Mack Anglin and Geoffery Gilbert are two highly touted freshman that will be in the mix, both guys many experts had headed straight for MLB. Both guys are capable of possibly competing for a starting role, or they could also be used to strengthen up the bullpen.
Holt Jones, Sam Weatherly, Justin Wrobleski, and Jacob Hennessy will all be back to round out the staff. Then there is the wildcard, DJ Uiagalelei. The five star phenom quarterback isn't just a stud on the football field. He also has a fastball that's already topping out in the mid 90’s and he's expected to be a part of this baseball team next season after enrolling early.
2020 will be a big year for Monte Lee and his staff, in particular pitching coach Andrew See. Four years in, some are starting to question the progress pitchers are making under his tutelage. All eyes will be on how well these young arms are developing. The talent is there, and the fans are more than eager to see that talent transition into results on the field.