South Carolina's outfield rotation will include the following players in 2017: Carlos Cortes, a highly-rated ambidextrous freshman with a right-handed glove for the infield and a left-handed glove for the outfield; Brandon McIlwain, a dual-sport athlete who is also a dual-threat quarterback who started conference games as a freshman; Alex Destino, a preseason all-SEC slugger who has played the infield, outfield and pitched at South Carolina; and Danny Blair, a sophomore positioned to captain the outfield in center who is also one of the fastest pure runners on the team.
A wild demonstration of diverse skill sets will be on display between the foul poles at Founders Park this season — a bazaar of athleticism and versatility.
Still, sophomore outfielder TJ Hopkins may possess the loudest, deepest arsenal of abilities of anyone on the Gamecocks' roster. Hopkins is the unicorn of baseball talents — a genuine five-tool player who can impact the game with his speed, defense, arm strength, power and hitting ability.
"He [Hopkins] is a special talent. He can run, the ball flies off his bat, and he plays a great outfield," said coach Chad Holbrook. "I think he has the chance to be a high draft pick and an all-SEC type of performer."
"He's honestly one of the greatest athletes I've been around," Destino said."He is just a freak. He can jump and dunk a basketball and he can run on any ball you hit in centerfield."
Hopkins generates bat speed with quick-twitch athleticism that enables his wrists to whip through the zone. Still, his raw ability was exposed at times last season, with opposing pitchers taking advantage of his aggressive approach, often getting him to chase with spin and off-speed pitches.
Hopkins struck out in nearly 31 percent of his at-bats during his freshman campaign, but still managed to force his way into a crowded lineup, hitting .322 and slugging .405 with eight stolen bases.
"I said, 'TJ, you hit over .300 last year, you need to be excited,'" Destino said. "That being said, he did hit over .300 and I don't think he was playing the best baseball he's capable of. I mean, if he starts to get real smart in the batter's box, starts to bunt, starts to play the game a little bit, he is going to be real exciting to watch."
His unusual abilities mirror his on-field personality, at least from the perspective of his teammates.
"TJ is — and I say this nicely — one of the weirdest kids I have ever met, in the regard that it's almost like he doesn't take the sport seriously, but he does," Destino said.
"His offensive approach is better, he's not chasing pitches out of the strike-zone," Holbrook said. "He is just a much more confident player this year than he was at this time last year. He knows he belongs. Last year he hoped to belong."
Power is the one facet of Hopkins' game that is still developing. His natural hand speed lends itself to hard contact, but his skills translated more to gap-power than over-the-fence pop last season. Based off his fall and spring workouts and scrimmages, there is reason to believe that will be different in 2017.
"His bat — I don't know what he did this offseason, but he's got a lot of juice in that bat," Destino said. "Some juice that I think that he didn't really show as much as he wanted to last year, but I think that's something that's going to really come out this year."
Hopkins has gained close to 20 pounds working with South Carolina's strength and conditioning team this offseason. There also appears to be a little more loft in his swing, all though he doesn't appear to be selling out for power. Improved pitch selection should also enable him to maximize his power production.
The ceiling for Hopkins is sky-high, and while he is just a sophomore, he will have the second most at bats of any returning outfielder on the roster. If he can make a veteran leap, the freakish talent could materialize into a new level of performance.