CLEMSON - Reloading or rebuilding?
In 2013 the Clemson baseball team can make a case either way.
Jack Leggett has brought in 16 highly sought after freshmen, so it certainly looks like the team is increasing its firepower.
Then again 16 first-year guys make for a lot of inexperience, so perhaps there’s plenty of on-the-job training ahead.
Leggett isn’t interested in either label. As far as he’s concerned, the team is recharging.
“There’s some newness on the field, there’s no question about it,” said Leggett, who oversaw his team’s second practice of the new season on Monday at Doug Kingsmore Stadium. “We have some kids who are going to have to step up. But the young players we have on this team are special kids. We’ll just have some work to do on experience.”
The roster also features 10 sophomores to go with just four seniors and nine juniors, but Leggett is confident this team can and will compete at a high level.
In a preseason vote among the league’s coaches Clemson has been picked third in the Atlantic Division of the ACC. Leggett says he normally ignores prognostications – good or bad – but hopes his team uses the prediction to its advantage.
“I go into every season expecting us to finish 56-0,” Leggett said. “I expect us to win every game when we step on the field. But maybe by being picked where we are the kids will play with a little chip on their shoulder. We might be a better team because of it.”
Leggett likes speed and playing small ball, and the makeup of this team fits those styles quite well.
Three returning hit leaders from 2012 are second baseman Steve Wilkerson (.295 batting average and 31 runs batted in last season), center fielder Thomas Brittle (.298, 36 RBI) and first baseman Jon McGibbon (.233, 33 RBI).
“I feel good about our sticks this year,” Wilkerson said. “I think our style will be to hit line drives and get runners on base.”
McGibbon said he and his teammates will be more than happy to manufacture runs this spring – as long as Clemson has the most runs on the scoreboard at the end of the game.
“Obviously it does affect us losing some power hitters like Richie (Shaffer) and Phil (Pohl) off the team,” McGibbon said. “But we’re not necessarily concerned about hitting for power. We’ll run and hit the ball hard and get around the bases.
“I think a lot of freshmen are going to step in and help us win.”
One of those freshmen is outfielder Maleeke Gibson, a speedster out of Thomas Sumter Academy.
“Every team needs speed and agility and that’s what this team has got,” Gibson said. “Whether it’s bunting or whatever I want to get on base, and try to make every bullet in my arsenal better.”
The pitching staff includes veterans such as sophomore Daniel Gossett and seniors Scott Firth, Kevin Pohle and Jonathan Meyer, all right-handers.
Gossett, who struck out 87 batters as a freshman, is the projected Friday starter.
“Last year my greatest ally was talking to the older guys,” Gossett said. “Now that I have experience I can help some of the younger guys. And I’m excited about this team. I think we’ll have a great bullpen.”
Firth has the top earned run average of Clemson’s returning hurlers at 2.09.
“I’m not really sure whether I’ll be in the weekend rotation or the bullpen, but it doesn’t matter to me,” Firth said. “I just want to do as well as possible and help the team win.”
Winning will have to come against a tough slate of teams.
The Tigers will face five schools ranked in the Baseball America Top 25 – No. 1 North Carolina, No. 7 South Carolina, No. 8 North Carolina State, No. 16 Georgia Tech and No. 20 Florida State.
Leggett said his players – young and older – are excited about the challenge.
“The game has changed a little but it still comes down to you have to bunt, run the bases and pitch well to win,” he said. “We have good speed and we have to play with no fear and reckless abandon. If we keep our pitchers healthy, we’ll be in good shape.”