COLUMBIA — It can’t happen again. Can’t.
Injuries were significant this year, and even the most demanding baseball fan knows that when 10 of a team’s 19 pitchers get hurt, there’s not a lot of success to be found in a four-game-per-week schedule. Those injuries were definitely the biggest reason why South Carolina stumbled to a 28-28 record, missing the postseason for the third time in five years.
But injuries or no, that streak can’t become four out of six in 2020.
Mark Kingston plans to avoid that by bringing in an influx of talent. Now that the Major League Baseball draft has concluded (seven Gamecocks, either current players or recruits, signed pro contracts), six more players entered the transfer portal and another, Sawyer Bridges, is giving up the game for medical reasons, he can start finalizing his 2020 roster.
Rather, he can start preaching the message that will be reiterated throughout summer workouts and six weeks of fall practice. Anyone can count that there are 23 players that could return from the 2019 team, and Kingston has a class of 16 recruits.
That’s 39 players for a 35-man roster. Every college baseball team often brings an overflow of talent to fall camp with the expected notion that some will transfer after fall practice.
At USC, Kingston is blunt.
“There’s going to be a lot of roles up for grabs. What happened this year will probably not earn much for next year, because truthfully, we don’t have a lot of guys who put up unbelievable numbers this year,” he said. “Next year’s going to be wide-open, with a lot of opportunities for a lot of people.”
There was no sugarcoating. He can’t be loyal to a majority of the players that went 28-28 when USC baseball, in the conversation as the best program in the sport just seven years ago, is floundering in postseason-less waters.
It’s hard to imagine that the 2020 Gamecocks won’t feature fireballing strikeout artist Brett Kerry, a consensus freshman All-American; or slugging catcher Luke Berryhill, who plans to turn down his draft position and return to USC.
But those are the only two who could be reasonably confident that they will be on the team, which leaves a whole lot of open spaces for a whole lot of talent that Kingston signed.
“This is a really good class, both in high school high-end players, and the JUCO class is the best collection of JUCO players in the country. I don’t think that can be even be debated,” Kingston said. “Lot of impact players coming in. I think we can all safely say there’s going to be significant improvement just from a numbers standpoint.”
Almost all of Kingston’s freshman class has already enrolled at USC. Many returnees and some recruits are playing summer ball.
Kingston made it clear that everyone’s on equal ground when it comes to making the team next year, yet it stands to reason he didn’t bring in graduate transfers Dallas Beaver (UCF) and Bryant Bowen (Southern Miss) to sit.
Ditto for many of the JUCO players.
Many of the freshmen were drafted in the lower rounds only because they told MLB teams to meet a certain signing bonus and the teams drafted more sign-able prospects instead. Opportunity, especially from a pitching standpoint, abounds during fall practice.
The Gamecocks did what they could last year, having to depend on pitchers who weren’t ready, and there were some bright spots. But Kingston can’t afford to wait for bright spots to become stars during next season.
He has to have his best 35 ready by February, and that’s going to mean making some hard decisions by December.
“You have to build it brick by brick, you have to continue to recruit well, you have to tweak things within your program you think are necessary and will help, and you just let them know that this is a program that’s been good for a long time and will be good for a long time,” Kingston said. “This year was a speedbump, obviously, but it doesn’t affect how good we’re going to be in the future.”
The talent will be on the field in the fall. It’s up to Kingston and his staff to raze the speedbump and get back on the speedway.