(Photo seen here, MLB.com, Merrifield and Bradley Jr.)
At CBBSN, we remember some of the most successful teams in college baseball. Recapping where these teams’ best players are now, and how their careers progressed, is our homage to their success. In our first installment, we will revisit the University of South Carolina teams that won back-to-back National Titles at the beginning of the decade.
After dropping their first game of the 2010 College World Series to Oklahoma, South Carolina reeled off a stunning run, eliminating top-ranked Arizona State, rallying to beat Oklahoma in an elimination game rematch, and knocking off in-state rival Clemson twice in order to reach the championship round. There, they held UCLA to only two runs over two games en route to a championship-clinching sweep, marking their first National Championship in program history. Their second title was soon to follow, once again catching fire at the most important time, going 10-0 in tournament play, culminating in a sweep of division rival Florida for the title.
South Carolina’s magical postseason runs continued in 2012, as the Gamecocks once again knocked off Florida, before staving off elimination by winning two of three against Arkansas. They fell shy of a three-peat, however, scoring only two runs in two championship series games against Arizona.
Here is a look at some of the talent to grace their championship clubs.
Ray Tanner won Coach of the Year Awards in 2010 and 2011 in acknowledgment of his teams’ stellar postseason performances, capping off a decorated 16-year career as the head baseball coach. At the conclusion of the 2012 season, Tanner was promoted to Athletic Director at the university, a position that he appears poised to hold for quite some time after he recently agreed to a contract extension that should keep him in place until 2022. Now overseeing all of the university’s athletic programs, Tanner recently helped to orchestrate a construction program for a renovated football facility, and he is a sitting member of the NCAA Division I Baseball Committee.
Chad Holbrook was an assistant coach on the championship teams in Columbia, and he took over the Gamecock baseball program in 2012 upon Tanner’s promotion after being named Baseball America’s Assistant Coach of the Year in 2011. Holbrook’s tenure was decidedly less successful than Tanner’s was, as his teams made the NCAA tournament in only two of the next four years, including a massively disappointing 2017 season. Despite a preseason top five ranking from Baseball America, they were left on the outside looking in of the most recent tournament, and Holbrook resigned shortly thereafter. On July 20, he was named head coach at the College of Charleston, where he will attempt to revive a program that just slogged through its first losing season since 2001.
Blake Cooper was the top starting pitcher on the Gamecocks’ 2010 championship team, running a stellar 2.76 ERA over a team-leading 137 innings pitched. That year, he struck out 126 against only 39 walks as the clear staff ace, and he was entrusted with three starts in the College World Series. He took the ball for the CWS opener against Oklahoma, a rematch against the Sooners in an elimination game four days later, and the opening game of the championship series against UCLA. All told, Cooper tossed 18 2/3 innings over those three starts, allowing only five runs with a stellar 21:4 strikeout-walk ratio. Cooper’s final collegiate start was one of his best, as he tossed eight innings of one-run ball with 10 strikeouts in Game 1 of the Championship Series, out-pitching future #1 overall draft choice Gerrit Cole to help the Gamecocks grab the series lead. Despite his college accolades and his performance on college baseball’s biggest stage, Cooper was never well-regarded as a prospect, falling to the 12th round as a senior sign in that year’s draft and serving as a full-time reliever as a professional. After four years as a Diamondback farmhand, Cooper was traded to the Cubs in August 2014 in exchange for former top prospect Brett Jackson. Despite a solid 2015 season out of the bullpen for Triple-A Iowa in 2015, Cooper never managed to secure an MLB roster spot, and he retired shortly thereafter. After a year on the South Carolina staff as an assistant, Cooper was hired by the Citadel as pitching coach, where he will begin his tenure next season.
Despite being second on the 2010 team’s starting pitching depth chart behind Cooper, Sam Dyson was always viewed as the better prospect of the two, having been drafted twice prior to that season but declining to sign both times. Despite a somewhat shaky 2010 season, wherein he ran a 4.28 ERA in 103 innings pitched, Dyson was picked for a third time, now as a fourth-round draft choice of the Blue Jays. A torn labrum followed up by Tommy John surgery, kept Dyson from making his professional debut until 2012, yet he still managed to reach the MLB extremely quickly, making a two-appearance cameo as a September call-up that year. From 2014-2016, Dyson was one of baseball’s best relievers with the Marlins and Rangers, riding a power sinker to a ground ball rate well above 60% with an ERA of 2.45 over that span. A disastrous start to his 2017 season (13 earned runs allowed in 4 1/3 innings) led to his ouster from Texas, and, following a trade to San Francisco, he continued to struggle (albeit not to the previous extent), clouding his big-league future somewhat. At only 29 years old and one year removed from a strong season, however, it is not hard to imagine Dyson rebounding to reemerge as a key contributor in the Giants’ bullpen moving forward.
Despite serving almost exclusively as a reliever during the 2010 season, Michael Roth was given the ball for Game 2 of the Championship Series against UCLA. He was effective, allowing only one run over five solid innings, keeping South Carolina in the game long enough for them to eventually win in extra innings. That proved prophetic, as Roth would start the championship-clinching game for the 2011 season as well. With the loss of Cooper and Dyson in the 2010 draft, Roth was left as the staff ace for his junior year, and he excelled with a nation-low 1.06 ERA over 145 innings pitched. Roth finished his All-American season with a gem, allowing only two runs in 7 2/3 innings as South Carolina locked up its repeat. While Roth’s senior season was not quite as elite as the year prior was, he did manage to toss a team-leading 137 innings with an ERA of a still-stellar 2.45. As a soft-tossing left-handed pitcher, Roth was never viewed as a strong draft prospect despite his premier collegiate results, falling to the Angels in the ninth round after a 31st-round selection by the Indians the year before. Roth did manage to make the major leagues, no small feat for a ninth-round senior sign, although he has never found any success at the game’s highest level. After serving as a swing option for the Triple-A affiliates of the Giants and Rays in 2017 with pedestrian results, Roth is back on the open market, and he should secure a minor-league contract with a new organization for 2018.
Jackie Bradley, Jr.
The best position player on the early-decade Gamecocks, Jackie Bradley, Jr. hit a fantastic .368/.473/.587 in 2010 before winning the College World Series Most Outstanding Player award. A torn wrist tendon limited him to only 42 games in a disappointing 2011 season, although he did manage to return for the team’s tournament run. While a poor on-field performance and the injury may have somewhat negatively impacted his draft stock (he entered the year ranked by one outlet as the fifth-best player in college baseball), he was selected 40th overall that year by the Red Sox. He quickly flew through the minor leagues, reaching the majors by the end of the 2013 season. Despite some early-career growing pains, Bradley’s offensive game seemingly clicked at the end of 2015, and, when coupled with his elite defense in center field, enabled him to turn in a star-level 2016 season. While his bat regressed somewhat last season, Bradley still profiles as an eminently valuable player for Boston, a true plus defensive outfielder with adequate power and patience at the plate.
Christian Walker had a solid 2010 season in Columbia, hitting .327/.384/.518 that year. With Bradley underperforming in 2011, Walker elevated his game, slashing a team-best .358/.438/.554 to lead them to a second title. Walker was again the team’s best hitter in 2012, leading the national runner-up in all three triple slash categories. Not only was Walker a consistent offensive force year-round, but he elevated his play in the postseason. Walker tied Dustin Ackley for the most career College World Series hits (28), en route to being named the All-Tournament first baseman in all three seasons. Walker was a fourth-round draft choice by the Orioles in 2012, and, like Dyson and Bradley before him, he found himself in the majors just two years later. Somewhat superfluous on an Oriole roster loaded with right-handed power hitters, Walker bounced around the waiver wire prior to the 2017 season before finally settling in in Arizona. He slashed a fantastic .309/.382/.597 with 32 home runs to win the Pacific Coast League’s 2017 MVP award, and, while he may not have a clear path to playing time on a team with Paul Goldschmidt on the roster, his 2017 performance should afford an opportunity to contribute at the big-league level in 2018.
After leading the 2010 team in strikeouts in his junior season, Scott Wingo took off offensively in his senior season. His on-base percentage ticked up nearly 60 points in 2011, and he especially shined in the biggest moments of that season, picking up a walk-off hit in the tournament opener and a game-tying hit in the championship series opener. Wingo was awarded the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player award for his heroics, and the Dodgers selected him in the 11th round that year. Wingo’s strikeout problems, unfortunately, returned as a professional, and he topped out in High-A ball in 2014. After serving as a graduate assistant at North Greenville University while earning his Master’s degree, Wingo signed on at Jacksonville University as an assistant coach for the 2018 season.
Perhaps the most interesting post-collegiate career belongs to the man who had a championship-clinching walk-off hit in extra innings in 2010. After bouncing between the infield and the outfield in his three years in Columbia, Whit Merrifield was a ninth-round selection of the Royals in 2010. Despite tying Bradley for the team lead with 13 home runs that season, Merrifield served as more of a small-ball offensive player, easily leading the club in stolen bases and sacrifice bunts. That small-ball approach carried with Merrifield for the entirety of his minor-league career, which seemed not to be entirely promising as he recorded roughly average offensive numbers despite being older than average for the levels at which he played. Nor was he regarded extremely highly as a prospect, with Baseball America’s only mention of him prior to 2015 noting that he could potentially be a big-league utility player. Suffice it to say, very few would have expected Merrifield to make the major-league impact that he has, as he followed up a promising half-season debut in 2016 with a strong 2017, in which he slashed .288/.324/.460 with a surprising 19 home runs and an AL-best 34 stolen bases. Following his late-career breakout, Merrifield should get every opportunity to play every day at second base in Kansas City moving forward, where he and Salvador Perez may form the nucleus of the Royals’ position player core for the near future.
The early 2010’s South Carolina baseball program proved one of the more successful in recent history, with three consecutive national championship appearances and two national titles. Given their collegiate success, it should not be entirely surprising that many of those players (as well as their head coach) went on to have success in the years afterwards, although many of them were not regarded as slam-dunk prospects even after their collegiate careers, with Jackie Bradley, Jr. the only first-round draft choice of that group. Nevertheless, Sam Dyson and Whit Merrifield joined Bradley as good MLB players, while Michael Roth and Christian Walker both had strong minor-league track records en route to MLB playing time, and left-handed reliever Tyler Webb managed to crack the majors in 2017 for the Yankees and Brewers.
While not integral pieces of the 2012 club, freshmen Jordan Montgomery and Grayson Greiner saw some action as role players during that season, and Montgomery had a strong rookie season for New York in 2017, while Greiner was recently added to Detroit’s 40-man roster and may be in a position to make his MLB debut next season. All told, these teams have produced quite a few major league players, including four who have had demonstrable big-league success, in addition to a few college coaches and the school’s current athletic director. Just as they did in Omaha, this group has proved resilient and exceeded expectations in their post-collegiate careers on the whole, and their impact on the university and on baseball, both at the college and professional levels, should continue to persist for years to come.
Note: All stats are pulled from the university’s website.