The Gamecocks had a great defense last year, finishing the season with a .978 fielding percentage that was good for second in the SEC behind Florida. South Carolina was consistent in the field and, other than a couple of bad games, was not prone to making lots of errors or getting sloppy. The Gamecocks did lose a few of last season’s most reliable defenders, but between returning players and new talent Carolina has a chance to make the defense a strength of the team once again. Holbrook has emphasized the importance of having good defensive play this season to back up Carolina’s extremely talented pitching staff.
The Gamecocks return all three of their catchers from last year. Sophomore Chris Cullen got the majority of the starts behind the plate last season as a freshman and will likely be the main guy for Carolina again. Cullen was solid last season and will hopefully continue to improve now that he has a year of experience at the college level. John Jones started at catcher in about a quarter of last season’s games and can expect to get some starts again this year. The junior was also solid behind the plate last season and could push Cullen for more playing time depending on how much he has improved and how the lineup shakes out for the Gamecocks offensively. Hunter Taylor, another junior, is the final catcher on Carolina’s roster. He did not see a lot of playing time last season and was injured a few weeks ago, so he is not likely to be in the mix as much in the early part of the season.
The infield will look a bit different for the Gamecocks this season, as both Marcus Mooney and DC Arendas are gone. Several familiar faces from last season are returning to the infield, though there will be some shuffling around of positions. Jonah Bride, the junior that started at third nearly every game last season, is back and should provide some continuity. Junior Matt Williams hasn’t gotten a lot of playing time in his career at South Carolina and only made a handful of starts at first and second last year. But Holbrook has liked him at first in the offseason and favors the experience of older players, so he’ll be a strong contender to fill that first base spot on the Gamecocks defense. Sophomore LT Tolbert, who was the primary starter at first base last season, should be back in his more natural position in the middle infield. He could see playing time at shortstop, but is more likely to start at second. Madison Stokes, a junior who split the majority of his time last season between first and second, is also in the mix for the middle infield spots and is expected to start at shortstop. There are also several newcomers who have been in the mix during scrimmages and could push for playing time in the infield over the course of the season, including Chase DeMars, Justin Row, Christian Flint, Riley Hogan, and Joey Polak.
The two anchors of last year’s outfield, Gene Cone and Dom Thompson-Williams, are both gone this season. Fortunately, the Gamecocks have two of the other regular outfield players from the 2016 season returning, as both Alex Destino and TJ Hopkins are back. Hopkins played most of his time last season in right and center and will likely be a starter this season. Destino usually started in left if he wasn’t the designated hitter and is among several players that could play in left field. John Jones and freshman Carlos Cortes are two other players that Holbrook has mentioned could see some time in left. Danny Blair and Jacob Olson are also in the mix for a starting job in the outfield. Brandon McIlwain, who will focus more on baseball this season than he did last year, is also an outfielder that could see playing time.
Holbrook has said that he’s still working on his opening day lineup and that the starters will probably shift some throughout the first few games as the players make the most (or don’t) of their opportunities for playing time. He said that there are 11 to 12 deserving players as Opening Day approaches and that he may platoon a position or two. Holbrook has also said that he tends to prefer older players over newcomers if it comes down to a choice, so experience and offensive performance will both play a role as Carolina’s defensive starting lineup takes shape over the early part of the season.