Looking ahead to Clemson baseball’s 2016 prospects

Clemson's Chris Okey (25) and Reed Rohlman celebrate during a game against South Carolina played in Columbia in 2015. The Tigers won that best-of-three series and took two of three games against the Gamecocks last year.  (File/AP Photo/Mark Crammer)

CLEMSON – While decisions are made behind closed doors about the legendary skipper’s future, this is a reminder coaches coach and players play.

Clemson will try to end a five-year super regional drought in 2016, whether it’s Jack Leggett or someone else scribbling in the lineup card. In some ways (with a bat) there is room for optimism; elsewhere (with a glove) there is cause for panic.

The best hope for a brighter future lies within the young starting lineup, which featured just one senior and will return catcher Chris Okey, left fielder Reed Rohlman, infielders Eli White, Weston Wilson and Chase Pinder as well as – pending MLB Draft decisions – outfielder Steven Duggar and infielders Tyler Krieger and Andrew Cox.

Rohlman hit above .350, Rohlman and Okey had 58 and 57 RBIs, and Rohlman, Okey, Duggar and Krieger each had at least a dozen doubles. The Tigers were top-three in the ACC in runs scored and batting average, top-four in walks and slugging percentage and fifth in stolen bases.

The .288 batting average is the team’s highest in four years. Okey’s 12 home runs were the most for a Tiger since Richie Shaffer’s 13 jacks in 2011, and the Tigers’ 35 round-trippers were a vast improvement over 28 last year and 22 the year before.

On paper, Clemson should’ve been better than three games over .500; the Tigers were plus-83 in runs, 36 points better in the batting average column and a whopping 1.33 better in earned run average.

Defense didn’t help; Clemson’s 95 errors, 14 more than its collective opponents, led to the Tigers’ worst fielding percentage (95.9) in the ACC as well as the worst in the Leggett era.

Not helped by the leaky gloves, Clemson’s staff ERA ballooned above four (4.05) or the first time in five years – interesting, because the Tigers’ 4.69 ERA in 2010 was good enough for a decent run at the 2010 College World Series. (That team also scored 600 runs in 70 games.)

And the ERA might not be trending in the right direction, based on 2016 personnel.

Because of Matthew Crownover’s fine campaign, it wouldn’t be a shock to see the ACC Pitcher of the Year forego his senior year in favor of the MLB Entry Draft June 8. The Tigers’ Saturday starter this year, Zack Erwin, might also make the same decision after finishing 7-4 with a 3.04 ERA and 92 strikeouts.

If both Crownover and Erwin leave, the Tigers must develop starting pitching. It starts with rising senior Brody Koerner, who delighted the Tigers’ fan base with a complete-game shutout of South Carolina March 2 but stumbled to a 7.55 ERA and lost his hold on the Sunday starting gig to Jake Long, who is graduating.

Relievers Drew Moyer and Patrick Andrews would each be set to return from injury. If Crownover and Erwin leave, freshman Charlie Barnes would be the Tigers’ only returning pitcher who logged more than 10 1/3 innings and had an ERA below 3.97.

On the bright side in the record books, Crownover’s 108 strikeouts topped Daniel Leggett’s 2014 total by one punchout, and thus recording the most Ks for a Clemson hurler since Kris Benson struck out 204 batters during his 1996 National Player of the Year campaign.

Crownover’s 1.82 ERA also bested Gossett’s 1.93 clip, the program’s lowest earned run average for a starter since the 1970s.