When Clemson Athletic Director Dan Radakovich fired legendary head coach Jack Leggett on June 4th, 2015, he publicly set an extremely high standard for the program.
After all, over his 22 years leading Clemson all Leggett did was go 955-480-1 (.665) without a single losing season, appearing in a Regional every year but one while making six trips to the CWS.
"It came down to this, said Radakovich. "I think we can be better".
After 15-14 and 16-13 ACC records in '14 and '15, and going 0-4 in two Regionals, Leggett was let go. "We need to inject some new momentum and create optimism around our baseball program", said Radakovich.
Enter head coach Monte Lee, a life-long South Carolina resident. The energetic Spartanburg, SC native spent seven years as head coach at his alma mater, College of Charleston, earning a 276-145 record with four Regional appearances, including a Super in 2014.
Of the hiring, Radakovich said "I'm confident that his leadership will create renewed momentum and optimism for Clemson baseball. The relationships he's created through a lifetime of baseball in our state, along with his proven successes make him the right fit for our program".
Lee's first two seasons have been solid, if unspectacular.
In 2016, the Tigers finished 4th in the ACC Atlantic (16-14) before bowing out of the Fullerton Regional in just two games
Last year they finished 3rd in the division (17-13), lost both games in the ACC tournament yet found themselves hosting a Regional. There Vanderbilt denied Clemson a trip to Omaha by sweeping the last two games by scores of 6-0 and 8-0.
Seven 2017 MLB draft choices have departed, including all starting pitchers from a staff that led the nation with a 3.93 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Gone are LHP Charlie Barnes (4th round, Minnesota), LHP Pat Krall (28th round, Oakland) RHP Alex Eubanks (14th round, Texas) and LHP Tyler Jackson (FA, Seattle).
"The big question will be who goes Friday, Saturday and Sunday on opening weekend" said Lee in a recent interview.
One option is RHP Ryan Miller, who was a 31st round selection (Atlanta) last June. A year ago he threw only 11.2 IP in limited action after returning for Tommy John surgery. "He has a really good fastball, with command, hitting 91-93. He needs to develop his breaking ball a little more, but that's not unexpected coming off TJ surgery".
Sophomore Owen Griffith showed flashes last year. The right-hander yielded just a .151 BAA and 3 walks in 14.2 innings of relief work, striking out 14. "He has incredible stuff, Friday night type stuff" says Lee.
Freshman Spencer Strider was drafted in the 35th last June by Cleveland after being named Tennessee's Gatorade Player-of-the-Year. The powerfully built right-hander "is going to be really, really good. He had an outing this Fall when he faced 10 hitters and struck out nine. He throws a ton of strikes and is going to pitch in that 91-95 range".
LHP Jake Higginbotham made 7 starts in 2016 and was 3-0 with a 3.26 ERA in those outings before sitting out last year with an injury. "Higgy's got to be a factor", say Lee.
Physical junior RHP Brooks Crawford looks the part at 6'5", 220lb and was impressive in 17 relief appearances a year ago, earning a 1.23 ERA and 7/22 walk-to-strikeout ratio over 22 innings. He made 5 starts in The Cape for Hyannis, posting a 1.44 WHIP and 4.68 ERA in 25 innings pitched.
Lefty Mitchell Miller threw only 3.2 innings a year ago but flashed plus stuff in The Cape with Falmouth, tossing 21 innings with a 7/29 walk-to-strikeout ratio and 2.57 ERA.
Lee says "someone has to show us they can throw 5 innings. We have bullpen depth, many options, to bridge to our closer Ryley Gilliam".
Gilliam really blossomed last year over 35 high-leverage relief innings, posting a 2.57 ERA, .225 BAA and a 14/50 BB/K ratio while garnering 4 saves. The 5'10", 175lb fast-twitch righty is a premium athlete with an electric arm that follows an explosive drive off the windup.
Gilliam spent the summer with Team USA, notching 3 saves, touching 96 with his fastball and flashing a plus 12-6 curve that he could throw for strikes.
Another arm in the mix is sophomore lefty Jacob Hennessy. A year ago the nearby Moore, SC product whiffed 37 in 30.2 innings of relief work, the second most strikeouts from the pen behind Gilliam.
Offensively, the "biggest questions positionally are what are we going to do in CF and where do we play Seth", says Lee.
That's Seth, as in Beer. The power hitting lefty was the talk of college baseball in 2016 after the early enrollee slashed .369/.535/.700 while blasting 18 homers and driving in 70.
Last year Beer "slumped", hitting "just" .298. He still crushed 16 homers despite seeing fewer good pitches and showed advanced plate discipline in walking 64 times to a .478 on-base percentage.
This past summer was his second with Team USA and he slashed a mediocre .232/.368/.304, raising a few eyebrows for scouts picturing Beer as a top-10 overall MLB draft pick.
While few doubt Beer can hit big-league pitching, his borderline athleticism has some scouts questioning where he'll play in professional ball. According to Lee, Beer has lost 15 pounds in an effort to improve his running and body control. "He's a tireless worker and extremely dedicated to making himself and the team better", say Lee.
Most project Beer as a 1st basemen or DH, while some think he can play LF at the next level. Perfect Game currently ranks him as the #61 prospect in the 2018 MLB draft.
Centerfield is wide open after the departure of Chase Pinder, who hit .305, led the team in runs scored and patrolled CF as well as anyone in the nation (zero errors in 136 chances). He was a 7th round selection by St. Louis.
One of the top recruits this year is the dynamic Kier Meredith, a 6.3 runner with natural CF skills (see this catch from high school). The lefty hitting Meredith is "an incredible talent" who can create havoc on the bases as a top-of-the-order menace.
However, this fall Meredith suffered an injury to his non-throwing shoulder and recently underwent surgery. His status for the beginning of the 2018 season remains uncertain.
Catcher/IB Chris Williams returns after being drafted in the 31st round by Tampa Bay. Out early in '17, his return sparked the Tigers and helped Beer see a few more pitches. The athletic 6'1", 220lb Williams is a force with the bat, hitting 14 homers a year ago, driving in 51 in just 185 at-bats. If his development continues, he'll make Beer even better and catalyze the Tiger offense.
Williams' season ended May 6th with a shoulder injury that required surgery. He's spending much of the fall at 1st base to minimize throwing with the belief he'll be back at full strength next February.
Shortstop is in the capable hands of sophomore Logan Davidson, who hit .286 last year, pounding 12 homers and driving in 41 while stealing 10/13 bags. He hit .206 in 126 Cape League at-bats with Falmouth last summer.
He's shown more power this fall, belting 7 homers. The next step for the 6'3" Davidson is with the glove, as he looks to reduce the 22 errors he committed a year ago.
Grayson Byrd returns after hitting .284 in 54 starts last year. According to Lee, Byrd is the most improved Tiger this fall and can play either 3rd base or 2nd, offering Lee some positional flexablity.
Junior Jordan Greene made 51 starts in '17, most of them at 2nd base. He's an above average fielder who hit .263 in 198 at-bats while stealing 5/7 bases.
Another versatile defender returns in the person of senior Robert Jolly. Last year he filled in admirably for Williams behind the plate and is proving to be a capable outfielder this fall. He hit .280 last year with 9 doubles in 109 at-bats.
Sophomore catcher Kyle Wilkie will see plenty of time this season after hitting about .350 this fall. He made 18 starts a year ago and walked more than he struck out in 51 at-bats.
2018 Outlook: Lee and third-year pitching coach Andrew See will earn their keep rebuilding a decimated pitching staff. And while there are some top-flight arms waiting to fill the void, in particular that of freshman Strider, most are unproven at the ACC level. We'll get an early indication of the Tiger pitching staff in the Palmetto Series vs South Carolina on March 2-4.
Offensively the Tigers will score plenty of runs, with Beer, Williams and Davidson leading the way. Greene, Bryd and Jolly are proven compliments. Assuming Meredith returns in good health, he appears to be an ideal replacement for Pinder, both in centerfield and at the top of the batting order.
By all accounts, the energetic and likable Lee was the right hire following the Leggett era. He's restored enthusiasm and excitement to a program some believed was growing stale. With recruiting coordinator Bradley LeCroy he landed Perfect Game's 10th ranked recruiting class that features MLB draftees Strider, Meredith and two-way Sam Weatherly.
And of course the Tigers will enjoy tremendous home field support, as they led the ACC in attendance yet again last year at Doug Kingsmore Stadium, one of the best venues in all of college baseball.
At the same time, it's now been 7 years since Clemson has reached the CWS. The ACC is tougher than ever with the recent addition of Louisville, who's won the Atlantic Division every year since joining the conference in 2015.
Despite having to replace almost 400 innings of starting pitching, a Regional appearance seems well within reach for the Tigers.
Radakovich, however, made it clear he expects more. We think he'll have to wait at least another year before booking a trip to Omaha.
2018 Tiger Schedule