With all the recent changes taking place for Southern Miss baseball, next year’s pitching staff will have a distinctly different look.
Pitching coach Michael Federico was officially announced Tuesday as the new head coach at Louisiana-Monroe and three pitchers coming off strong junior seasons are set to begin their professional career a year early: Left-handed ace Kirk McCarty (Indians), right-hander/third baseman Taylor Braley (Marlins) and righty Hayden Roberts (Rockies).
USM will also be without one of its top junior college signees, right-hander Kyle Keith, who has signed with the Texas Rangers.
Head coach Scott Berry shouldn’t have a problem finding a replacement for Federico, who proved to be an excellent recruiter. There is no obvious choice to succeed Federico, but there should be a long list of candidates hoping to join Berry’s staff coming off a 50-16 season. It helps that the man they’ll be replacing just got a job as a Division I head coach.
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In eight seasons as the pitching coach at USM, Federico always seemed to find someone to step up as a Friday night ace and fill out a quality pitching staff.
It will now be on someone else to do that.
Colt Smith is a strong candidate to be the ace after putting together a solid junior season split between the weekend rotation and the bullpen. The right-hander finished 6-2 with a 3.36 ERA in 23 appearances, including six starts. He had some bumpy outings in the postseason, but should be able to return to form for the 2018 campaign.
J.C. Keys was outstanding at times as a redshirt sophomore, finishing with a 3-3 mark and a 5.56 ERA in 16 appearances (eight starts). He seems like a likely Saturday or Sunday starter at the moment.
As for the third weekend starter, it’s anyone’s guess.
Redshirt sophomore Walker Powell, who missed the 2017 season after Tommy John surgery, has a chance to step in immediately if he is fully healthy. The 6-foot-7 right-hander was 4-3 with a 3.46 ERA in 18 appearances in 2016.
Freshman right-hander Alex Nelms, a Gulfport native, and sophomore lefty Stevie Powers will also be candidates to get starting assignments.
The bullpen has a chance to be almost exactly the same group with Nick Sandlin, Matt Wallner, Powers and Trent Driver leading the way.
Wallner, who was announced Monday as Baseball America’s Freshman of the Year, won’t be suiting up for the the U.S. Collegiate National Team against international competition after he wasn’t included on the 31-man roster on Tuesday.
Wallner appeared in a couple of games with the team against summer league squads, but the coaching staff was more interested in him as a pitcher than a hitter. Due to a hip injury that has yet to fully heal, Wallner decided he didn’t want to take the mound again until he has fully recovered.
Wallner also won’t be joining the Florence (S.C.) Red Wolves, a Coastal Plain League team, as originally planned. Nelms, Driver, left-hander Sean Tweedy and second baseman Storme Cooper are all Golden Eagles on the Florence roster.
With Wallner leading the way in the outfield, the USM lineup has a chance to be as dangerous as ever in 2018. Senior first baseman Dylan Burdeaux and Braley will be two big pieces to replace, but USM has plenty of players coming back from a deep bench.
Matthew Guidry, a rising sophomore second baseman, was outstanding at the plate in the second half of the season, batting .363 with four homers and 33 RBIs. Mason Irby, who hit .338, was the Eagles’ most consistent bat for much of the season and will again have a home near the top of the order and return to right field.
Shortstop Lee Marcus Boyd made a nice impact at the plate this season, batting .289 with four homers and 42 RBIs out of the nine hole.
Gulfport’s Daniel Keating is entering his senior year and will be looking to improve his stock for next year’s MLB Draft after batting .261 with 11 homers and 31 RBIs.
Three transfers, third baseman Luke Reynolds, outfielder Fred Franklin and infielder Erick Hoard, are all expected to be dangerous at the plate when they take the field for the first time at USM in 2018.
Wallner, who set USM freshman records with 19 homers and 63 RBIs, shouldn’t be lacking in support next season.