The LSU Tigers enter the college baseball season in a familiar spot, a consensus Top 20 team. The roster, however, has a bit of an unfamiliar feel after last season's run to Omaha.
Head coach Paul Mainieri lived a coach's dream last season. Cole Freeman, Jared Poche', Kramer Robertson and Greg Deichmann were all drafted after the 2016 season, but agreed to return with the common goal of winning a national championship. It was a wild ride that saw them nearly fulfill their dream, falling to Florida in the finals.
“Last year was one of those things that doesn’t happen very often," Mainieri told NCAA.com. "We had four players decide not to take their opportunity to go into professional baseball and instead return to LSU for one more year. Certainly that made a big difference.”
Uniforms are starting to arrive!! Getting closer to Opening Day!! pic.twitter.com/LyGcfQOgDF— LSU BSB Equipment (@LSUBaseballEQ) January 9, 2018
Once again following the season, the same four were drafted; but this time, so was ace Alex Lange and starting catcher Michael Papierksi (as were injured reliever Doug Norman and JUCO-standout Hunter Kiel). That's a lot of big peices gone from the team that finished 2017 No. 2 in the land.
“What we have this year is much more typical in what we deal with every year in college baseball," Mainieri said. "You’re going to lose players due to the draft and graduation, so there’s always a lot of turnover, especially in schools in the SEC.”
Don't be mistaken, the Tigers do have some experienced returners from last year. Antoine Duplantis and Zach Watson are college baseball superstars. Both shined on the biggest stage, and are on the verge of All-American campaigns. Jake Slaughter and Josh Smith also return, but not to where they played last season. Slaughter made 40 starts as a freshman last year, primarily as the first baseman. With the return of Bryce Jordan -- who missed last season with injury, but Mainieri said is 100 percent for opening night -- Slaughter shifts to the hot corner. Smith -- coming off of an award-winning freshman campaign and big summer on the Cape -- will shift from third to short, replacing Robertson. Brandt Broussard -- a junior college transfer -- is an option at second after he hit .429 last season.
Replacing Papierksi behind the plate will be another JUCO transfer Hunter Feduccia. He swung a big bat for LSU-Eunice last year, hitting .394 with seven homers, but more importantly was the team's Defensive Player of the Year two years running. That will be invaluable with a new look pitching staff.
Starters Poche' and Lange are now big leaguers. Freshman breakout Eric Walker is on the shelf for 2018 after undergoing Tommy John surgery. While the names are familiar in the new rotation, the weekend rotation will have loftier expectations in 2018.
“Our weekend starting rotation is going to be Caleb Gilbert, Zack Hess and Todd Peterson," Mainieri said. "All three of those guys pitched significant innings for us.
“Gilbert is going to get the opening night start. The last time America saw him pitch he went into the eighth inning against Oregon State and pitched a tremendous ballgame for us. His second half of the season was outstanding, so I think Caleb is at the point that he’s ready to come into his own. Zack Hess is going to move from bullpen back to starter. He’s probably got a little bit of a better chance to be that dominating Friday night starter, but I just feel that Caleb deserves the opening night start. And Todd Peterson, he’s a guy that we had big hopes for last year, but then he had some physical ailments that prevented him from pitching in Omaha. Had he been healthy, he would have pitched Game 1 against Florida. I feel pretty confident that we’re going to have three good starting pitchers in the weekend rotation.”
Mainieri will have to look toward freshman to make an immediate imapct, but that's something he's long been used to. One does not find the success Mainieri has had at LSU by relying on upperclassman alone on an annual basis.
“I’m not one to make excuses, you’re always going to count on freshman," Mainieri said. "Given a choice between veteran players and first-year players, you take veteran players all the time. But the reality is you become accustomed to having first-year players. When you look back to last year, sure all those veteran players play pivotal roles, but so did some of the freshman.
“We have 32 active players on our roster. Seventeen of them are first-year players. You can’t hide the fact that over half of our roster is first-year guys. But when you look at the 15 guys that are returning, most of those players are very significant contributors. You can look at our lineup and say we lost four players from last year’s lineup. But that means we have five returning starters, plus we have back Bryce Jordan.”
One of the freshmen will make his presence felt in the bullpen. Ma'Khail Hilliard was dominant in high school and looks to continue overpowering hitters with a two-pitch combo in Baton Rouge.
“Ma’khail is one of those young pitchers as they gain the experience and get used to the bright lights of the SEC, they’ll continue to grow," Mainieri said. "I think Ma’Khail has the ability to be an outstanding pitcher. He’s got a good moving fastball, an excellent curveball, and he also pitched his high school to the state championship, so he’s used to the spotlight.”
Offensively, there are a few freshman that earned Mainieri's praise. None moreso than Daniel Cabrera, who Mainieri feels could be the next legend to be born at Alex Box Stadium.
“Daniel Cabrera is going to be the next in a long line of first-year players that come in and you can tell just got it right from the start," Mainieri said. "My first recruiting class we had DJ LeMahieu, and then when Alex Bregman came here as a freshman. You could tell he had it. Antoine Duplantis, when he came here as a freshman, you could just tell that he had that poise and that self confidence and the ability to go with it all. You see that with Daniel Cabrera as well. He’s going to be in there everyday, playing left field. He’s a one, two, or three-hole hitter for us down the road.”
Two other freshman -- infielder Hal Hughes and outfielder Nick Webre -- will likely play a pivotal role in the Tigers' 2018 plans. One will do it with his glove, while the other will look to show the SEC his big bat, and could challenge a returner like Beau Jordan for DH at bats.
“Hal is an excellent defensive shortstop that can really play anywhere in the infield," Mainieri said. "He needs to make some improvements with the bat to be an everyday player, but he gives us a great option. Nick Webre, he’s got lightning in his bat. He’s got power. I’m not saying Deichmann power quite yet, but let’s put it this way. He did hit one off the Intimidator in batting practice the other day. He’s going to be one of those players that will be tough to keep out of the lineup.”
That's simply the grind of the Southeastern Conference when it comes to college baseball. A program can't rest on the laurels of a strong season, because a dozen other SEC teams are reloading for a run of their own.
“It’s another typical year for the Southeastern Conference," Mainieri said. "You’re going to have eight to ten teams ranked in the top 30 teams in the country. I like to refer to the Southeastern Conference as the major leagues of college baseball. Even if you look at the team that finishes last in the SEC, you’re still looking at a team that’s going to have three or four future major leaguers. You can have a tough weekend, but you know the team that beat you can go out and lose next week. You’re just never really out of it in the SEC, and the teams that can keep their chin up are usually going to be the ones competing for the SEC championship.”
Mainieri knows the most important aspect of a successful program, however. He can go out anywhere and find a ball player to put the bat on the ball, or throw heat that lights up radar guns and scouts' eyes across the nation. But it's the culture that he's built, and the character he demands of his players that has made LSU the baseball insititution it has become. The character that made four teammates put their future MLB careers on hold, and leave a lasting impression on the 2018 team.
“I’ve always believed that some schools may have a good team and then not a good team for two or three years," Mainieri explained. "Those are good teams. When you’re consistent year in and year out, you have a good program. And when you have a good program that leadership torch gets passed from one group to another. When you have players in the program that followed Jared Poche’ or Greg Deichmann they understand what it means to be that leader and how important that part of the program is. And they take pride in what the program has done through the years, and they assume this awesome responsibility to continue the legacy and create their own. That’s what you hope. You hope you recruit high character guys throughout your program.”