When the final out was recorded on Oct. 1, the 2017 Major League Baseball regular season had officially come to a close.
Baseball fans were disappointed they never got to see Giancarlo Stanton torch his 60th home run of the season in Game 162. Likewise, fans of the orange and black team in the Bay area probably cheered half-heartedly when familiar friend and 2012 World Series MVP Pablo Sandoval uncorked a walk-off home run that cost his team the No. 1 overall pick in the 2018 MLB Draft.
As the regular season wrapped up, 10 teams celebrated postseason berths, while the front offices and players of 20 others began to focus on the offseason to prepare to capture a division title or lay claim on a wild card spot next year. The past season saw many spectacular performances, highlights and moments from the game’s biggest and brightest stars, especially sensation Aaron Judge.
After the conclusion of Opening Day ceremonies on April 3, Giants pitcher Madison Bumgarner led the league in home runs, little-known Cincinnati Reds utility player Scooter Gennett became the 17th player to hit four home runs during an evening tilt with the St. Louis Cardinals and Marlins pitcher Edinson Volquez tossed a no-hitter against a formidable Diamondbacks lineup on a day he took the mound with a 1-7 record. Each of these, among many other memorable moments from the season, go to show the unpredictable nature of baseball.
It is likely the number of 2017 major leaguers hovers around 1,200, with each of the 30 teams’ 40-man rosters subject to change throughout the year. Among this myriad of players are a select seven former Gamecocks who once graced the field at Founder’s Park. More appear to be knocking on the big-league door with 10 former Gamecocks playing for Double-A and Triple-A teams.
Gamecocks in MLB
Jackie Bradley Jr. (2009-2011) — Boston Red Sox
Jackie Bradley Jr. is perhaps the most well-known Gamecock alumnus in the majors. It seemed like in every game this season he made a sensational catch near the warning track at Fenway Park, or gunned down a runner at home plate with his cannon of an arm. In recent years, and especially this past season, Bradley Jr. has established himself as one of the best defenders in both the American League and all of baseball. His name comes to mind when the Gold Glove discussion surfaces, and although his numbers at the plate weren’t what Bradley himself may have desired, he made up for it enough with his defense for Red Sox manager John Farrell, who penciled him into the Red Sox lineup regularly during the season.
As if baseball fans needed more convincing that Bradley Jr. is good, he made one highlight-worthy catch this season that will go down as a catch of the year candidate. In front of millions of Americans watching ESPN’s "Sunday Night Baseball," Bradley leaped and caught a potential Judge home run, flashing the leather over the outfield wall in front of the outfield bullpen at Fenway Park. Bradley’s impressive catch cemented his image as one of the best defenders in the league and is expected to be a fixture in the Red Sox outfield for years to come. The fact that he was able to win the center field job away from two other natural center fielders and plus defenders — Andrew Benintendi and Mookie Betts — speaks to his talent and suggests the Red Sox see him as their center fielder of the future.
Sam Dyson (2008-2010) — San Francisco Giants
The 2017 season was a time of change for Sam Dyson. The right-hander entered 2017 with the Texas Rangers’ closer job under his belt, but struggled with consistency and was not able to fulfill expectations. Through 17 brutal games in the Lone Star State, his earned run average reached an undesirable 10.80, and it was enough for the Rangers to ship him to the San Francisco Giants in a June 6 trade. The Giants saw opportunity for a bounce-back, and Dyson did not disappoint. Through a combination of his own progress and an injury to the incumbent closer, Dyson managed to obtain the closer role with his new club and compiled 14 saves down the stretch. His performance was a bright spot for a hapless Giants team, and Dyson’s resurrection with the new club sets him up for a shot to challenge fellow reliever Mark Melancon for the 2018 closer job.
Whit Merrifield (2008-2010) — Kansas City Royals
Any Gamecock baseball follower knows of Whit Merrifield’s walk-off single to give USC its first national championship against UCLA in the 2010 College World Series (with Jackie Bradley Jr. standing in the on-deck circle). Merrifield’s 2017 production at the plate does not reflect that of a ninth-round draft selection, but Merrifield is not the typical ninth-rounder. Reaching the majors in May 2016, Merrifield seemed poised for a utility role the following year — if he made the Royals’ Opening Day roster in 2017. He did not. Nonetheless, he made his 2017 debut only a few weeks after Opening Day and smacked a home run in the contest. From then on, Merrifield continued to provide value to the Royals offense. With Eric Hosmer, Lorenzo Cain and Mike Moustakas set to test the free agent waters this offseason, Merrifield will be standing pat with the Royals. If 2017 was the last year for the aforementioned core members of the Royals’ lineup, Merrifield will be called upon to fill their void and build off of his underrated season for Ned Yost’s team in 2018. More importantly, if Merrifield duplicates his previous season’s numbers at the plate in 2018, the former Gamecock will no longer be a well-kept secret for the American League central ball club.
Jordan Montgomery (2012-2014) — New York Yankees
The sole ballplayer on this list deployed by former coach Chad Holbrook (2013-2017), the 24-year-old southpaw and Sumter native made his Major League debut for the New York Yankees on April 12 this past season. After his debut, Montgomery was an off-and-on member of the Yankee pitching staff for the duration of the season, as he was sent to and from the minors on multiple occasions. Montgomery pleased Yankee fans when given the opportunity, and more often than not gave his team a chance to win on the days he took the hill. Montgomery’s 29 games as a starter and 3.88 ERA in his rookie year suggest he has the inside track to begin the 2018 season as the fourth or fifth starter in the Pinstripes’ starting rotation behind the likes of Luis Severino, Sonny Gray and Masahiro Tanaka.
Steve Pearce (2004-2005) — Toronto Blue Jays
Steve Pearce represents the longest tenured career in the big leagues among all active Gamecocks on this list, and for good reason. Pearce has been effective at the plate for each of the six organizations he has played for during his 11-year career. Although Pearce was not a starter for the Blue Jays in 2017, manager John Gibbons had him on the lineup card for 92 games as his left fielder, first baseman or designated hitter. That alone suggests Pearce is a valuable piece of a major league lineup.
Another thing the former Gamecock showed baseball fans last season is simply how fun baseball can be. Pearce ended two games in grand fashion during the closing days of July, belting two walk-off grand slams in the span of four days. Deservedly, Pearce’s heroics were a major talking point on ESPN and MLB Network for the days and weeks afterwards. The former Gamecock only hopes he can garner so much attention in his 12th contract season before he hits free agency after the upcoming 2018 campaign.
Justin Smoak (2006-2008) — Toronto Blue Jays
Those who drafted Toronto Blue Jay slugger Justin Smoak in fantasy baseball for the 2017 season deserve a nice pat on the back. In years past, Smoak was the off-and-on starting first baseman for the Texas Rangers and Seattle Mariners who never truly made the jump from average to great that many had hoped he would. However, with the 2017 regular season in the books, Smoak is now the respected hitter many envisioned he would be when he was selected with the 11th overall pick in the 2008 draft.
The change of scenery from the Northwest United States to north of the border was to the 30-year-old’s benefit, but perhaps Smoak’s breakout was also due to improvement at the plate. His .270 batting average last season marks the highest of his eight-year career. However, his batting average was certainly not the only statistic representative of a career high. He also recorded the most runs (85), hits (151), doubles (29), home runs (38) and runs batted in (90), and compiled a higher on-base percentage (.355) and slugging percentage (.529) than he had in any season prior. Any Blue Jays fan will appreciate Smoak’s season at the plate and will applaud how he admirably filled in for current Cleveland Indian Edwin Encarnacion, who departed in free agency from their club last offseason.
Smoak did many things well at the plate in 2017. Ultimately, the switch-hitting slugger was awarded with one honor that separates him from the rest of the other active Gamecocks in the MLB. By virtue of a fan vote, Smoak was named the starting first baseman for the American League in the 88th MLB All-Star Game.
An important thing Smoak did not garner in 2017 is a postseason appearance with his teammates. That event is likely to happen if he is able to duplicate the tremendous numbers he put up last season in 2018. Numerous clubs would be pleased with Smoak’s offensive numbers from 2017 and would gladly insert him as their starting first baseman for the 2018 campaign, but Toronto is the fortunate club that gets to do so.
Christian Walker (2010-2012)- Arizona Diamondbacks
Former Baltimore Orioles draft pick and current Arizona Diamondback Christian Walker’s career in the majors is brief up to this point, but his minor league career shows the 26-year-old’s potential to be a regular member of an MLB roster. In 2014, Walker was named the Orioles Minor League Player of the Year with a .288 batting average, .357 on-base percentage, 26 homers and 96 runs batted in between the organization's Double-A and Triple-A affiliates. Since then, Walker has spent time in the Braves, Reds and Diamondbacks organizations. This past year, Walker appeared in 11 games for Arizona, but only visited the batter’s box 12 times as a late-season call up. Regardless, he compiled three hits in those 12 at-bats, with two of them being homers. More telling is the fact that despite his limited time in the Majors with the Diamondbacks in 2017, Walker made Arizona’s postseason roster for the National League Division Series, in which he reached base in a pinch-hit at-bat.
With the seven aforementioned Gamecocks reaching their goals of playing in the Major Leagues, here are the next 10 who appear close to reaching their goal too.
University of South Carolina Players in Minor League Baseball
Grayson Greiner — Catcher, Toledo (Detroit Tigers)
Evan Marzilli — Centerfielder, Reno (Arizona Diamondbacks)
Peter Mooney — Shortstop, New Orleans (Miami Marlins)
Michael Roth — Left-handed pitcher, Durham (Tampa Bay Rays)
Tyler Webb — Left-handed pitcher, Colorado Springs (Milwaukee Brewers)
Kyle Martin — First baseman, Reading (Philadelphia Phillies)
Max Schrock — Second baseman, Midland (Oakland Athletics)
Joel Seddon — Right-handed pitcher, Midland (Oakland Athletics)
Taylor Widener — Right-handed pitcher, Trenton (New York Yankees)
Jack Wynkoop — Left-handed pitcher, Hartford (Colorado Rockies)