Diamond notes: new-look Clemson baseball opens practice

CLEMSON -  I know you associate January 28th with the opening of college baseball camps, right? (no wonder Northern schools have no shot in the college game).

The last time you saw Clemson baseball play they Tigers had an elite middle-of-the-order presence in Richie Shaffer, who some scouts thought was the best college hitter in the game last spring. Shaffer was a first-round MLB pick by Tampa Bay following his junior season.

Clemson lost its most talented, and injury-prone arm, in Kevin Brady along with a solid weekend starter in Dominic Leone. Clemson also lost an elite catcher in Spencer Kieboom, who was an early-round pick as a junior.

Those losses are why Clemson was predicted to finish third in the Atlantic Division by the coaches in the preseason poll.

Clemson and coach Jack Leggett are going to miss Richie Shaffer, who signed for $1.71 million this summer with Tampa Bay

What you will see on opening day in a couple weeks is a much different Clemson team, an extremely young group that will be even more be based around speed, offensively, a team that might have more athleticism, but less power, and fewer proven arms.

“There’s some newness and some question marks, there’s no question about it,” Clemson coach Jack Leggett said. “I don’t know if I can say we’ve been this young in a long time but the young players we have on our team are special kids and hard workers, highly motivated. They’ve been practicing (in the fall) like they want to win. I don’t look at them being all that young.”

OPENING THOUGHTS …

I hope D.J. Reader sticks with the baseball team. It would be fun to see the 300-pound defensive tackle become a dual-sport athlete. Reader is serious about baseball. He loves the game. He’s a first baseman/pitcher. He has a couple weeks to make his case that he deserves a roster spot, otherwise he’ll be headed back to football full time.

Baseball’s such a skill-based game it’s tough to come in as rusty as Reader ,who was not able to participate in fall camp due to football.

“I haven’t seen 85 mph since I was a junior in high school,” Reader said.

Leggett is intrigued with Reader’s raw strength and aptitude.

“He makes quick adjustments,” Leggett staid. “A couple days ago we had the breaking ball machine out there and he had trouble making contact with it. The next day he got a little better contact, the next day a lot better contact, he’s one of those guys that seems to have good aptitude for learning. We’ll see where it goes. … we have to make some decisions about whether he has a future in baseball here or if he doesn’t, but right now we have a tremendously open mind about it.”

My understanding is if Reader is not a significant part of the baseball plans, he’ll be at football spring practice full-time. I have to think Leggett would like to keep him as one of his 35 players but is being a backup enough to keep away from football fulltime in the spring?

*Clemson is especially pleased with the depth of arms it has in its freshman class. Keep an eye on RHP Matthew Crownover who has made tremendous strides in coming back from Tommy John surgery in March.

“He’s so focused and so mentally strong …he’s something different than you normally see. I think he’ll be able to pitch for us early,” Leggett said.

Leggett also likes freshman LHP Zack Erwin who has a projectable frame at 6-4, 190 and has been exposed to good baseball growing up in the Atlanta suburbs.

*Clemson doesn’t have much pop. John McGibbon and JUCO transfer Shane Kennedy are Clemson’s top two power bats. Leggett wants more offense in the college game and he’s trying to garner support among coaches to begin using Minor League baseballs, which have a harder cores and lower seams than college balls. Leggett wants the home run back in the college game.

*Steve Wilkerson at 2B or SS, McGibbon and Thomas Brittle in CF are the only returning every day players in the lineup. Wilkerson looks bigger and stronger and ready to build off of his offensive breakout.

*As far as every day players among the freshmen, the team is raving about the athleticism of 5-9, 180-pound freshman Maleeke Giboson, and shortstop Tyler Krieger is competing for the opening day job. He has plus makeup and athleticism.

*Daniel Gossett is the staff ace provided he’s healthy, remember he had a strong close to last season. He’s been working on improving his changeup and functional strength

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