Tigers seek right pieces to puzzle

Jason Stolz replaces Mike Freeman at second base.

CLEMSON -- The Clemson baseball team began practice Friday surprisingly hungry for a team that advanced all the way to the College World Series last June.

Maybe that's because the Tigers' trip to Omaha was over-shadowed by South Carolina's title. Maybe it was the questions: who can replace Kyle Parker's production? Who will replace the efficiency of lefty ace Casey Harman?

Despite several veterans to replace, the Tigers return the bulk of their roster this spring. With drafted players like Jeff Schaus and John Hinson returning, the national media is bullish on the Tigers. Baseball America ranked Clemson 10th in its preseason poll this week, and USA Today/ESPN has the Tigers ranked fifth. The ACC coaches also picked Clemson to win the conference Friday.

"We have some good kids coming back," Clemson coach Jack Leggett said. "We have some guys waiting to show what they can do. … We have some experience. We just have to put the right pieces of the puzzle on the field at the right time."

The process of finding those pieces began Friday.

Leggett said if the season started Friday, his starting infield would be Brad Miller at shortstop, Hinson at third, Jason Stolz replacing Mike Freeman at second and emerging slugger Richie Shaffer at first base.

"Schaus, Miller and Hinson are pure left-handed hitters who produce bushels of hard line drives," wrote Baseball America in its preview. "That trio, along with the much- improved (Chris) Epps, also excels at driving up pitch counts, helping Clemson rank third in the nation in walks last year. (Phil) Pohl, (Will) Lamb and Stolz also turned corners in the fall, and all have the tools to hit for average."

On the pitching side, Scott Weismann, Dominic Leone and Kevin Brady will likely lead the rotation. They are familiar names from last season, and the reasons for optimism according to Baseball America: "Weismann has better pure stuff (than Harman), with a 90-93 mph sinker and a good slider, and he has the experience and tenacity to anchor the rotation. Leone is another undersized bulldog with a 90-93 fastball and a quality breaking ball. Brady is bigger than either, and flashes a pair of plus pitches in his 90-94 fastball and 12-to-6 curve, but he must show better command and poise this spring."

Clemson begins its season on Feb. 18 at home against Eastern Michigan at 4 p.m.

Check out the Clemson blog at postandcourier.com/blogs/tiger_tracks and follow Travis Sawchik on Twitter (@travis_sawchik).