2008 Carolina Baseball Roster Now Set

Former recruiting Coordinator Jim Toman had such success with blue chip prospects that USC became extremely vulnerable to the MLB Draft. Draftees hold the option to sign pro contracts until mid-August. The top recruits get drafted highest, command the most money and then never attend college. With a lot riding on this class in particular, Gamecock Nation sweated it out until the eleventh hour.


Imagine shopping for a Ferrari, choosing expensive options in a calculated manner, only to have the dealer tell you it wouldn't be delivered for a few months. When the day arrives, the dealer proudly awaits your arrival, leaning up against your brand new – Mustang. With less luxurious options, a different color, however attractive, it's not nearly the lush vehicle you were expecting.

Not only is the recruiting class similar to the example above, but so is the junior class. Coaches usually have a good idea of who will return for their senior season and who won't. Unfortunately some painful surprises can come along that hurt the program. This season, the Gamecocks Head Coach Ray Tanner was "confident" Trent Kline would return for his senior season behind the plate.

In a post season press conference, Tanner said, "We have exit interviews with all the kids at the end of the season. All signs point to Trent Kline returning next year."

After being drafted in the 49th round by the San Francisco Giants (1440th pick), surely Kline would return. After all, not only was he drafted extremely late, but he was the Giants fifth catcher drafted. The catcher/designated hitter drafted by San Francisco before Kline was teammate Phil Disher.

Surely Kline would come back. Even Disher was returning as the team's designated hitter, and he was drafted roughly 100 picks earlier.

When the news broke this week that Kline signed with the Giants, the Gamecock staff was surprised, to say the least.

The Recruits

Though the class was rich with significant signees, Coaches Tanner, Toman, Calvi and Lee knew some would never step foot on campus. Hearing news that Kyle Greenwalt signed was no surprise. The same goes for 3B Austin Gallagher, who signed with the Dodgers.

A nice surprise came when power hitting LF Jose Rodriguez opted for college, as well as hard throwing lefty Will Casey. The Gamecocks also came away with Tyler Musselwhite, a 29th round selection of the Atlanta Braves.

Musselwhite is a 6'4" 205 pound JUCO righty with what former Coach Toman describes as "a really good breaking ball." He also brings something to the table that all College World Series teams have – a legitimate closer.

Jose Rodriguez brings his 6'2" 220 pound frame from just outside of Miami, Florida. Rodriguez may be the key to the class. Not that he's the most talented, but he can fill the most glaring void. Andrew Crisp's move to the infield opens up a hole. Trent Kline's departure opens up the fifth spot in the line-up. Lonnie Chisenhall's dismissal took away a potential monster bat. Rodriguez can fill all of those needs.

Toman raved about his raw power – something Head Coach Ray Tanner loves. If Rodriguez pans out the way he's projected to, the Gamecocks might hit more home runs than even 2007. With James Darnell, Justin Smoak, Phil Disher and Jose Rodriguez, one after the other, the Yardcocks should continue leaving the yard regularly.

Steven Neff is a 6'0" 185 pound in-state recruit who can play both ways. Drafted by the Pirates, Neff opted to go the college route first. When he isn't roaming the outfield, he's a poised LHP with control. With a fastball that's been clocked at 94 miles per hour, his other pitches can baffle hitters at times.

Neff played with the South Carolina Panthers in the summer to stay on top of his game. "I was happy with everything. I was. I throw a fastball, curve, change and a slider."

When the Gamecocks offered, Neff had no doubt. Recruited by multiple impressive programs such as Ole Miss, North Carolina, and others, he wouldn't even consider them. Not even entertaining North Carolina, who's gone to two consecutive World Series finals and who arguably has the best recruiting classes in the nation, speaks volumes about Neff.

Without selling the Ray Tanner Empire short, it can be understood why most would have to consider the light blue neighbors to the north when interested.

"I've always wanted to come here no matter what," says Neff. "And also, they offered me more of a scholarship than anybody else too."

The money always seems like the motivation with the "I want to be there" line as a nice buffer, but not in this case.

"It all came together like a dream come true (when my favorite team) offered the best scholarship," said Neff.

Baseball players usually seem more like golfers. It's usually the basketball stars who get physical under the basket before exchanging words with the opponent. Football players are a breed even higher up on the chain of aggression. Baseball players usually seem much more laid back. Think Phil Mickelson in pinstripes.

Not Neff though; he's a fiery competitor who lets you know up front he has no problem coming inside to show the batter who's boss, but it doesn't end there.

"I want to be the best pitcher on the team. I want to be the best in the weight room. I want to be the best outside of practice," he says. "Whatever it takes."

"If it's a big time hitter coming up, I'll throw it inside. I'll throw it real close to him," he says; then, as though he's already taunting the SEC, "Let's see if he can hit it."

With a slider as the out pitch, a change up to compliment the blazing 94 mile per hour gas, Neff's curveball is just gravy.

Will Casey grew up a fan of Georgia Tech and Georgia baseball. The Kennesaw Mountain, Georgia lefty needs to add some bulk to his 6'1" 170 pound frame, but he's been clocked at 90 miles per hour and posses an above average change-up and breaking ball. Drafted by the Braves in the 38th round, he says he wanted to go to South Carolina, and the Braves had "little money left by the time they got to me."

Recruited by both Georgia schools he grew up admiring, Casey said, "I loved those places. I grew up dreaming of playing at Georgia Tech, but when it came down to it, it just didn't feel right. South Carolina just felt right." said Casey, "The coaches were just so down to earth. It's a great program with a great coach – it's everything."

Losing his catcher before they ever worked together, GamecockAnthem broke the news to a surprised Casey that Trent Kline signed with the Giants.

Seemingly taken aback, Casey stuttered before answering, "Oh did he really? I was… Um, I didn't think there was a chance he'd sign. Wow."

He says he's been working out every day this summer but adds, "I only threw for the first half of the summer. I threw like five games for my East Cobb (County) summer team but then stopped pitching. Just working out now, running and getting ready for fall ball."

His command is such that he doesn't necessarily rely on any particular out-pitch, "I'll just use whatever seems to be working best that day. If my fastball is really moving, I'll set it up with other pitches and work around that. If the curveball is really nasty or the change up or whatever, then I'll use that."

Like every freshman, Casey says his expectations are to be given the chance to compete for a spot. "Just to get playing time and contribute – that's my goal my freshman year."

Coach Tanner once said, "Every team at the College World Series has a legit closer. Look at the numbers. They all do."

Why doubt Tanner, right? When the Gamecocks went to Omaha in 2004, Chad Blackwell had 20 saves – good for second on the South Carolina all-time list in one season. In 2002 another trip to Omaha was made – this time with Blake Taylor and his 21 saves which still sits atop the Carolina single season record. In 2001 Lee Gronkiewicz saved the third most in a season, with 19. They did not make it to Omaha that year, but wound up taking the eventual runner-up, Stanford, to the brink in a third game Super Regional match-up.

When Tyler Musselwhite agreed to void his contract with the Braves, it was for one reason and one reason only, "I want to come to USC and be 25 for 25 in save chances."

With a 92 mile per hour fastball, effective change up and modest breaking pitches, he could be a prototypical closer.

At Chipola Junior College, Musselwhite was the man who got that ball in the ninth inning to preserve the win. He wants to do it again, but this time on a national stage. Musselwhite will be no stranger in the clubhouse either. He was a senior on the same high school team as Justin Smoak and Reese Havens. He's also played a little with the Crisp twins, Andrew and Adam.

The rest of the incoming class is also deserving of their individual accolades, but left un-drafted, they were of no concern last week. Big brother didn't steal them away.

The Letter winners

Thankfully, the Gamecocks have an All-SEC DH in promising young sophomore catcher Kyle Enders to compensate for the loss of Kline. The "what-ifs," should Enders have never come to South Carolina, are alarming.

As for the rest of the lettermen drafted, there were no surprises. Though Wynn Pelzer took the Padres down to the eleventh hour, it was no surprise he signed. Arik Hempy, Harris Honeycutt and Travis Jones signed almost immediately.

The two lettermen drafted but returning to Columbia are the aforementioned Phil Disher and blossoming OF/2B Andrew Crisp. Though Gamecock Nation shutters at the thought of no Travis Jones manning second base, they are actually in good hands with Andrew Crisp.

Crisp has surprising pop to go with a well respected work ethic. His speed, glove and improving bat will keep the Gamecock tradition of talented infielders very much alive.

2008 Projected Line-up

With the unexpected departure of Trent Kline, the 2008 Gamecocks may look a little different than most expected, but still just as dangerous. Barring injury or some miracle slump, it is also the final year Gamecock Nation will have to admire Justin Smoak and James Darnell. If both duplicate their 2007 campaigns, it'll be, "Adios corner infielders."

Both should be such high picks that there will be no chance of either returning. Rather than sulk, appreciate the awesome tradition they've helped continue here in Columbia.

A revamped starting rotation will probably offer the biggest change, and potentially the nastiest position battles.

Offense

C – Kyle Enders/ Phil Disher*
1B – Justin Smoak
2B – Andrew Crisp
3B – James Darnell
SS – Reese Havens **
RF – Harley Lail
CF – Ryan Wilkens, Jr. ***
LF – Jose Rodriguez
DH – Phil Disher


* Disher will spend most of his time as DH.
** Havens, who has been criticized in the past for his offense, was recently described by a coach in the Cape Cod League as "the best hitter in the league."
***JUCO transfer Ryan Wilkens will be given every opportunity to win the job.
ALSO – look out for true freshman Whit Merrifield.

Rotation

Friday – Mike Cisco Saturday – Jay Brown Sunday – Blake Cooper

Mid-Week Starter – Nick Godwin

North Augusta native Nick Godwin proved he was back from an injury last season as he compiled a 7-4 record with a 2.34 ERA in 12 starts over the summer for the Columbia Blowfish. Godwin was 1st among league pitchers in strikeouts with 81 and was 1st in starts.

Other Key Recruits

Keegan Linza, a RHP standing 6'5 225 from North Rowan HS in North Carolina also draws rave reviews from Coach Toman, "Keegan was in our camp a couple years ago, throwing 83 and 84 as a tenth grader. He's a guy that could be a sleeper in the class. He's coming on lately and has a pretty good slider, and he's so big, every bit of 6'5" 225, he looks like he might be an impact guy as a freshman as well."

Whit Merrifield, an INF/OF (6'0 165) from Davie County HS in North Carolina, can eventually be a leadoff type sparkplug for the Gamecocks per Coach Toman: "Whit is a second baseman, center fielder type, probably runs a 6.6, 6.7 sixty, good hitter, steals a lot of bases, and knows how to drag bunt. He's gonna' be a table setter for us."

Richard Royal, a 6'0 185 catcher from Terry Sanford HS in North Carolina, is a switch hitter with a great arm. Royal is an athletic catcher who stole 25 bases in high school. Royal could be one of the dangerous cogs in the line-up by 2009.

JUCO transfer Ryan Wilkins, Jr., 5'10 160 from Spartanburg Methodist, is a Centerfielder who can run. He's a leadoff guy that can hit to the gap. He runs a 6.7 in the sixty. One of the fastest players in his class, Coach Tanner is looking for him to fight for the job in centerfield next year.

Conclusion

With Jose Rodriguez and some rock solid pitching in this class, the Gamecocks might actually avoid any ill-fated consequences from the Lonnie Chisenhall and Nick Fuller disaster.

The upcoming season could be one of the Gamecocks best if Godwin and Brown stay healthy. A deep rotation, incredible pop, a solid core of bench players and just the right mix of JUCO transfers could have the Gamecocks as one of the favorites in Omaha next year. The one luxury they don't have, though, is the Godwin/Brown flexibility. Losing them last year wasn't detrimental. Next season it could be.


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