CLEMSON — Asked to recall the last time he led such a young team, Jack Leggett paused prior to answering, mentally paging through the teams he has led in 20 seasons as a Division I coach.
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“There’s some newness and some question marks,” the Clemson coach said. “There’s no question about it.”
Clemson enters its 2013 season Friday against William & Mary with depressed expectations — unranked in national polls and picked to finish third in the Atlantic Division in the coaches’ preseason poll — due to the youth and unknowns populating the roster.
While former stars like Richie Shaffer, Spencer Kieboom and Kevin Brady will be in professional camps this spring, Clemson will be seeking answers.
The concerns mostly center on the everyday lineup. The Tigers, an NCAA tournament team a year ago, return only three everyday players in second baseman Steve Wilkerson, center fielder Thomas Brittle and first baseman Jon McGibbon. Not only will the lineup have a new look, but it also figures to have to produce runs in new ways with Shaffer among the departed players who combined for 36 of the team’s 44 home runs last season.
The loss of Shaffer cannot be understated.
Former South Carolina coach Ray Tanner called Shaffer, a first-round pick (Tampa Bay) in June, the best hitter in college baseball last season. Shaffer’s slugging percentage (.573) was more than 140 points better than the team’s second-best mark, that of the graduated Phil Pohl (.435). Shaffer’s team-best on-base percentage (.480) was nearly 100 points better than Brittle’s .384 OBP.
Who can hit in the middle of the Clemson lineup?
“McGibbon is a kid who has some power,” Leggett said, “and Shane Kennedy, an incoming JUCO kid, has a chance to help is the middle of the lineup. They are the kids with the most power.”
Clemson figures to become a team even more reliant on small ball. Some believe this team is better suited to such an approach as it welcomes an influx of athletic freshmen like outfielder Maleeke Gibson and shortstop Tyler Krieger, who are competing for starting roles.
Wilkerson or Krieger could start at short.
“Top to bottom it’s a great class, a lot of good pitching,” Wilkerson said of the freshmen. “They are pushing everyone.”
While 6-5 lefty freshman Zach Erwin and fellow rookie Clate Schmidt, who has touched 96 mph, figure to log innings early, the incoming player who has the highest upside is lefty Matthew Crownover, who has two player of the year honors in Georgia on his resume.
Perhaps only Tommy John surgery last March kept him from going straight to professional baseball as Crownover has rare velocity for a lefty, a fastball that has touched 94 mph. He was Baseball America’s No. 87 prep prospect prior to his surgery last year.
“He’s way ahead of where any other normal human being would be,” said Leggett of Crownover’s recovery.
Unlike on offense, there is an anchor to build around in starting pitcher Daniel Gossett.
The sophomore looked like a potential ace at the close of last season, when he was in line for a victory against South Carolina last June 2 in the Columbia Regional, leaving with the lead after throwing seven innings of four-hit ball, allowing two runs, three walks while striking out eight.
Gossett struck out 87 batters in 77 innings last season, finishing with a 6-3 record and 4.32 ERA. He figures to be the team’s Friday starter after top arms in Kevin Brady and Dominic Leone turned pro.
“They’ve been real hard on me on gaining weight, eating all I can,” said the 6-foot, 170-pound Gossett. “I’m working on my changeup, and it’s coming along well. It’s good to see because it was one of my missing links last year.”
Behind Gossett are experienced arms in weekend starter Kevin Pohle, relief ace Scott Firth and Matt Campbell.
But it is Gossett who must emerge as an ace, a new star for a new-look team.
“He was our No. 1 guy at the end of the year,” Leggett said. “He’s ready to go.”