Five biggest questions facing Gamecocks baseball for 2014

nwhite@thestate.comJune 14, 2013 

Will South Carolina's Joey Pankake play at shortstop in 2014?

GERRY MELENDEZ — gmelendez@thestate.com

COMING SUNDAY | An exclusive Q&A with USC baseball coach Chad Holbrook: what he learned in his first season.

South Carolina’s baseball season ended one win shy of making a fourth consecutive trip to the College World Series. So instead of getting ready to play a game against N.C. State Sunday, the Gamecocks are heading in different directions for the summer.

So it’s time to start looking ahead at the 2014 season.

While USC lost nine solid seniors, it did not get hit hard in the MLB draft because many of its best players were not draft-eligible this season. With a strong class of newcomers arriving on campus in August, there’s optimism the Gamecocks will not fall short of their big goal next season – a return to Omaha.

Let’s break out the Windex and shine up the old crystal ball for a quick look into the future. Here are answers to five of the program’s bigger questions.

1. WHO WILL REPLACE TYLER WEBB AS THE CLOSER?

OK, this may be the toughest one to answer right now. Webb surpassed all the expectations taking over for record-setting Matt Price, as he set a career appearance record. There’s no clear-cut answer, but a pair of junior-college right-handers, Cody Mincey of Spartanburg Methodist and Preston Johnson of Chipola (Fla.) College, will get long looks. Canaan Cropper, an incoming freshman from Salisbury, Md., has the ability to close or start. And strong-armed shortstop Joey Pankake, who has yet to pitch in two seasons in college, might get an opportunity to showcase his ability on the mound, especially if he moves to a different everyday position next season.

2. WHAT IS THE STARTING ROTATION GOING TO LOOK LIKE?

It’s easy to go ahead and pencil two names in – left-handers Jordan Montgomery and Jack Wynkoop. Montgomery is almost certain to assume the role of staff ace after his complete-game shutout of UNC in the Super Regional. There will be quite a battle for the other starting roles with so many talented arms in the incoming freshman class – Cropper, right-handers Will Crowe (Pigeon Forge, Tenn.), Matt Vogel (Medford, N.Y.), Taylor Widener (South Aiken), Jackson Smith (Hartselle, Ala.) and Reed Scott (Roswell, Ga.) and left-hander John Parke (Greenville). Returning right-handers Curt Britt and Joel Seddon also will factor into the mix.

3. WILL JOEY PANKAKE PLAY SHORTSTOP FOR A THIRD SEASON?

After making 17 errors in each of his first two seasons – combined with a lack of range compared to predecessors Peter Mooney and Bobby Haney – Pankake likely will play a new position. He could move to third base, where he’s probably a better fit due to his frame and his bat. His big improvement offensively showed him to be more of a power-hitting corner guy, and a move there also will allow Holbrook to more easily insert him as a relief pitcher without having to shake up the middle of the infield from a defensive standpoint. Candidates to take over at short are returnee DC Arendas, freshman Jordan Gore of Conway and possibly a to-be-recruited junior-college transfer.

4. WILL TANNER ENGLISH BAT LEADOFF?

That was the plan this past season, but English never got comfortable before Holbrook bounced him back down to the No. 9 spot. If he resumes switch-hitting after his sore right shoulder heals, English is the best person to bat first with his bunting ability and raw speed. But he still must cut down on his strikeouts, keep the ball out of the air, and be ready to run at will when he gets on base. He showed in the Super Regional what kind of offensive talent that he can be when he doesn’t play tentatively. Defensively, he’s already proven to be comfortable using that speed in tracking fly balls from gap to gap, as his highlight reel of diving catches shows.

5. WHO ARE THE IMPACT NEWCOMERS IN THE REGULAR LINEUP?

There isn’t a need for many with a lot of key returning players, including Team USA catcher Grayson Greiner, second baseman Max Schrock, Pankake and English. Kyle Martin’s play in the NCAA tournament gives him a good chance to take over at first base. But a pair of top-notch newcomers will push returnees Graham Saiko and Connor Bright for starting outfield spots: JC left-fielder Elliott Caldwell of Spartanburg Methodist and incoming freshman right-fielder Brock Maxwell of Suwanee, Ga. Their arrival could move Saiko and Bright into utility roles if the two converted infielders don’t hang onto their jobs, or Caldwell could assume a utility role. Gore has the ability to play in the infield and or pitch, while fellow incoming freshman Logan Koch of Charlotte should serve as the backup to Greiner.

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