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Aaron Fitt | | November 20, 2019

LSU baseball could have nation's most talented pitching class in 2020

In 1989 LSU's Ben McDonald was baseball's best

BATON ROUGE, La. — The time has come for LSU to reap big rewards from bringing in college baseball’s best recruiting class in 2018. Despite losing their three top hitters from a year ago — second-round pick Josh Smith, third-rounder Zach Watson, and all-time LSU hit king Antoine Duplantis — the Tigers have a real chance to be better than last year’s 40-win super regional club, largely because their sophomore class is loaded with riches on the mound and breakout candidates in the lineup. And it’s their time to shine.

The strength of last year’s LSU club was a veteran lineup, which carried the team to a home regional despite injuries and growing pains on the mound. By contrast, the 2020 Tigers figure to be led by perhaps the nation’s most talented pitching staff.

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It starts with sophomore right-hander Cole Henry, who showed flashes of brilliance as a freshman, going 4-2, 3.39 with 72 strikeouts in 58.1 innings. He missed three weeks in the second half due to arm discomfort, but he feels great now, and his stuff has been electric early on this fall. In his second intrasquad outing last Monday, Henry ran his fastball up to 95 mph and sat comfortably at 91-94, but velocity has never been an issue for him. In fact, LSU pitching coach Alan Dunn said Henry largely pitched off his electric heater as a freshman, and he’s spending this fall working on refining his secondary pitches and figuring out how to use them most effectively.

That process is going very well. He flashed a plus curveball last Monday with tight downer break in the 74-78 range, and his sinking 83-86 changeup is rapidly becoming a legitimate weapon for him against righties as well as lefties. Dunn said he has shown the makings of three plus pitches, the kind of arsenal that could make him a top-of-the-draft prospect in 2021.

“I think obviously Cole Henry is going to be the big horse for us on Friday nights, and I think that gives us a chance against the top pitchers in our league. He’s just really scratching the surface of his potential — I think he’s really got a chance to be a special guy,” LSU coach Paul Mainieri said. “He threw an awful lot of good changeups today, and then he started to land some curveballs, and when you back all that up with a lively fastball, he’s very tough. He’s got to try to stay away from those 24-pitch innings so he can pitch deep into games, and as he continues to do that, I think he’ll really take off.”

Henry is one of three LSU pitchers in the 2018 recruiting class who ranked in the PBR 100 coming out of high school, and if all three of them take the expected jumps as sophomores, this staff should be dominant. The highest-ranked of the three was right-hander Jaden Hill (No. 44), who was outstanding in two starts as a freshman before a UCL strain sidelined him for the rest of the spring, dealing LSU’s Omaha hopes a major blow. Mainieri said the 6-foot-4 Hill has added about 20 pounds of muscle in the last year, and the ball is coming out of his hand great in bullpen sessions this fall. The Tigers expect him to get back on the mound in scrimmage action after fall break, so he’ll be ready before the start of the spring. And that’s an exciting notion.

“What Jaden’s done since he’s been here, he’s always thrown strikes,” Dunn said. “He’s a strike thrower, good feel for a changeup, we were really making strides with the slider, it was becoming a power, power pitch when he went down. So you saw the makings of juice, change, mound presence, poise, athleticism, quarterback, all the things that you want to see, he has. Now it’s about taking [the ball] and taking it and taking it. Big piece, big piece for us.”

Fellow sophomore righty Landon Marceaux (No. 47 on last year’s PBR 100) is another very big piece, obviously. Like Henry, Marceaux dealt with some arm soreness during his uneven freshman year, finishing 5-2, 4.66 in 58 innings. But he came on strong down the stretch — Dunn attributes his late success to the freshman learning to trust his stuff and not try to be too fine on every pitch. He has the stuff to dominate, and he should benefit from the experience and maturation he gained as a freshman. Like Henry, he’s taken a step forward this fall. “I like where he is right now,” Dunn said.

That trio of sophomores could blossom into a star-studded weekend rotation, but that outcome is by no means preordained. Fourth-year junior Eric Walker and redshirt sophomore AJ Labas both have starting experience, and both have looked terrific this fall, giving the Tigers five really good starting options.

Walker starred as a freshman in 2017, then missed all of 2018 while recovering from Tommy John surgery. He went 5-4, 5.48 in 72.1 innings last spring, but often times it takes two seasons for pitchers to get all the way back from TJ. This fall, Walker has looked like the Walker of old, a premium strike-thrower brimming with confidence. He can’t match the pure stuff of the three sophomores, but he can succeed in a big way with the stuff he’s got thanks to his advanced feel for pitching.

“You know Eric’s not gonna blow you away with juice, he’s always relied on command. The fastball, even though it might say 90, plays a little better because it’s got great carry through the zone,” Dunn said. “Changeup was his pitch as a freshman. He limped away from the bats, in terms of you just never could square him up because of the command. Last year his stuff was down, so now if you miss, they had a better chance to get him because he didn’t have that same zip. He’s showing me that this fall. In his work week, his long throws, his flat grounds, the ball’s just got really good carry. I can just see it in his face: ‘That stuff that I felt last year, every little throw, am I hurt again? That’s gone.’ And it takes nothing but getting on the bump and doing that.”

Labas, meanwhile, redshirted in 2019 due to a shoulder injury, but his stuff has been better than ever this fall. He’s pumped strikes at 90-93 mph with good, late arm-side run, and Dunn said his slider “has taken two clicks up for me, got some really nice juice.” But his biggest strengths are his ability to fill up the strike zone with three pitches from the same slot, and his unwavering poise. It’s a combination that prompts Mainieri to make a flattering comparison.

“The guy who’s been better than anybody is AJ Labas. He probably has as good of control as Aaron Nola had when he was here, he’s a really good command guy,” Mainieri said.

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But the mound riches don’t stop with that dynamite top five. Junior right-hander Devin Fontenot really came into his own at the back of the bullpen down the stretch last year, highlighted by six innings of no-hit relief in the super regional against Florida State. He’s an athletic strike-thrower with a live fastball, and Dunn said his breaking ball has taken another step forward this fall. Though he’s shown he can still be effective in an extended outing, Fontenot figures to anchor the back of the bullpen in 2020, because he’s a good fit in that role and that’s an obvious need for this staff.

Fellow junior righty Ma’Khail Hilliard made 12 starts during his strong freshman year (going 9-5, 3.79), but his velocity dipped and his curveball lost power last spring, when he posted a 5.32 ERA. He looked as good as ever last Monday, attacking the zone with his old 86-89 mph fastball with vicious natural cut action, and showing a wipeout power curveball at 79-80. The Tigers shouldn’t have to depend upon him as a starter this year given all their other options, and he could really thrive in a swingman or setup role. He’s also put on about 15 pounds of strength, which has helped his velocity climb and could help him bounce back better to pitch multiple times in a given weekend.

The other key bridge guy figures to be junior righty Trent Vietmeier, who has also taken a big step forward after posting a 5.24 ERA in 25 relief appearances last spring. Dunn lauded his competitiveness and ability to attack with a fastball that sits around 90 and can bump 94 as well as a good cutter that became a weapon for him last spring. Vietmeier is working with Dunn to develop his changeup this fall to give him something softer to combat left-handed hitters.

“But I just love his demeanor, man,” Dunn said. “He’s gonna be that guy in the middle innings that will bridge the gap, be able to take the ball two or three days in a row. You need it. Just a valuable piece.”

Sophomore righty Chase Costello has a chance to be a useful middle relief piece as well, if he can do a better job putting himself in pitchers’ counts and finish hitters off more consistently. A physical three-quarters righty, Costello showed a heavy sinker at 89-91 and a decent 79-87 slider last Monday, but he was inefficient. And don’t forget about senior righty Matthew Beck, who was one of LSU’s top relievers a year ago (3-0, 2.05 in 44 innings). He won’t blow hitters away with velocity — he was 86-87 last Monday — but his big curveball is a weapon, and he knows how to use it.

So that’s 10 returning arms to lead this LSU staff, and newcomers Brandon Kaminer (a strike-throwing Junior College transfer who can bump 93 with advanced feel for his changeup and slide) and Jacob Hasty (who flashed 93-94 heat in high school last spring along with a putaway 12-to-6 curve) give the Tigers two much-needed reinforcements from the left side.

Depth was a weakness last year, but it will be a major strength in 2020.

“You’ve got to be able to have enough dudes, and I think that hurt us last year because with the guys that went down, trying to manage it, we just didn’t have enough guys,” Dunn said. “I tell these guys, man, you look up and down the line, you like it on paper, but I’ve never seen paper get anybody out. So we’ve got to take it through, but so far I’ve liked the focus that they’ve had, their attention to detail. That’s all you can ask for.”

Competition abounds in the lineup

As for the lineup, LSU clearly has big shoes to fill given the departures of Smith, Duplantis and Watson, but there are still a few accomplished pillars to build around. First and foremost is junior outfielder Daniel Cabrera (.284/.359/.516 with 12 HR last year), a hitting machine who has produced for two straight seasons at LSU. His ability to hit for average and power makes him a likely Day One draft pick next June, and his value could climb further now that he’s getting a shot to play center field — a development I didn’t expect, and neither did Mainieri. That is, until Cabrera played some center in the Cape Cod League and ran a 6.6-second 60-yard dash at the Cape’s scout day.

“His freshman year, I would have said that Daniel Cabrera was just a serviceable outfielder, not a great outfielder. Then when he joined the USA team that summer when I was managing the team, I just felt his defense took a big step forward late in his freshman year and that summer,” Mainieri said. “And I thought last year he played a really good left field. His routes to the ball, his jumps, his instincts really made a big step forward. So I was really confident he’d play right field for us and do a good job this year. Then as I watched all the outfielders in individual work, nobody had better jumps or routes than him. He’s actually been playing really well out there [in center], just been dealing with this quad strain.”

Sophomore Giovanni DiGiacomo fits the more traditional center field profile thanks to his blazing speed, and if he proves that his bat is SEC-ready, he could still wind up in center and push Cabrera to right. Mainieri said DiGiacomo has gotten off to a slow start this fall, and he simply needs to make contact more consistently to put his “world-class speed” to good use. If he figures that piece out, he can be a difference maker.

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Along with Cabrera, LSU’s lineup should be anchored by power hitters Saul Garza (.303/.358/.476) and Cade Beloso (.279/.339/.429, 10 HR). Garza started slow as a Junior College transfer last spring but got hot in the second half, and he has the physicality to hit for a lot more power now that he’s accustomed to SEC pitching. Mainieri said he’s also pleased with Garza’s receiving and blocking ability behind the plate; he has good leadership skills, and pitchers love to throw to him. Garza is out this fall after tearing a ligament in his thumb in the Cape, the latest in a string of bad-luck injuries for the junior. But he’ll be healthy by the spring and will be counted upon to do the bulk of the catching, though rifle-armed freshman Alex Milazzo (who dazzled with his catch-and-throw skills last Monday) and offense-oriented freshman Hayden Travinski give the Tigers good depth behind the plate. Travinski’s right-handed power potential could also make him a factor at DH.

Beloso, a stocky 6-foot, 227-pound masher, more than held his own as a freshman last spring and looks ready to make the jump to stardom as a sophomore. I heard one scout say last Monday that Beloso could have a 20-to-25-homer season at LSU before he’s done. He teams with Cabrera to give the Tigers two intimidating threats from the left side.

“I just think Cade Beloso’s ready to establish himself as one of the premier power hitters in our league,” Mainieri said. “He’s a hard working guy. First of all, his defense at first base has really improved from last year as a freshman. I don’t think coming out of high school he had much emphasis on his defense over at first, and at LSU we take a lot of pride in playing good defense across the field. Cade has made all the plays over there, so I’m happy about that. But obviously his main attribute is his power. He has a great attitude, he’s a competitor. I’d be very surprised if he doesn’t have just a huge year for us. I think he and Cabrera in the middle of the order, along with Garza, Drew Bianco, those guys, could give us a good middle of the order.”

Bianco was another high-profile member of that watershed 2018 recruiting class, and he looks primed for a breakout year after struggling in limited playing time as a freshman. LSU feels good about its infield depth, so Mainieri moved Bianco to left field this fall, and he seems to be taking to the position — he ended last Monday’s scrimmage by firing a strike to the plate for the final out. The son of Ole Miss coach Mike Bianco, Drew has shown the kind of aptitude you’d expect from a coach’s son, and he’s making big strides at the plate, where he could provide additional right-handed power.

“He’s already hit a couple home runs, and hit a lot of balls hard,” Mainieri said. “If he can hit enough to play left field, that would encourage me, because we wouldn’t have as many young guys playing every day. He’s got a little bit of an uppercut swing, that’s who he is, a power guy. He’s been working to hit more balls to the opposite field, he’s hit some balls hard there but they don’t leave the yard and the outfielders can track them down. When he pulls the ball and elevates them he can hit it a long way. But he’s worked really hard, got a lot of energy and enthusiasm. It would be a real boost for us if he hits and hits consistently.”

Others in the corner outfield mix include sophomore Gavin Dugas and freshmen Wes Toups, Mitchell Sanford and Maurice Hampton Jr. Dugas, a compact 5-foot-10, 199-pounder, came in as an infielder but is getting some run in the outfield this fall, partly to give Mainieri the option to get his right-handed bat in the lineup at a variety of positions. He looked good at the plate last Monday, hitting a double down the left-field line off Hilliard and singling up the middle off Costello.

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Toups and Sanford both have feel to hit from the left side. The 6-foot-2 Sanford also has some pull-side pop, above-average speed and a plus arm, while the 5-9 Toups is a 6.5 runner with a plus arm and a nice line-drive, all-fields approach at the plate. Hampton is the X-factor, a two-sport talent who has spent the fall with the football team. His speed/power combination reminds the Tigers of former two-sport talents Jared Mitchell and Chad Jones.

“When he comes with us in January, there’s another potential center fielder and right-handed hitter,” Mainieri said. “He’ll be as good an athlete as we’ve had on the team. When a guy is good enough to be a defensive back at LSU, you know you’ve got a good athlete coming out on your team. And Mo’s got some good instincts out there. Mo’s excited about joining the baseball team this spring, and we’re excited about having him. We’ll see how quickly he adapts to college pitching.”

Assuming Beloso plays first, LSU has five infielders likely vying for three starting jobs, and Mainieri said he likes all five of them. The only returnee of that bunch is Hal Hughes, a defensive whiz at shortstop who needs to take a step forward offensively after hitting .174 in 149 at-bats last year. He could be pushed for the starting shortstop job by freshman Zach Arnold, who has a knack for finding the barrel and has shown easy defensive actions, good range and an accurate arm. He missed some time early this fall with a strained back. Fellow freshman Collier Cranford hasn’t been able to throw this fall while working his way back from Tommy John surgery, but he’s still fielded balls during scrimmages and looked good doing it.

Cranford, whom Mainieri called “a very underrated kid,” also ripped a double down the left-field line in last Monday’s scrimmage. He’s a speed merchant whose athleticism plays at shortstop.

Junior College transfer Zack Mathis appears well on his way to securing an everyday job, either at third base or second. He’s made a stronger impression on Mainieri than any of the other newcomers so far this fall, showing a disciplined approach that fits well at the top of the lineup and a good line-drive stroke from the left side. He hit a ball to the warning track in center field and delivered a two-run liner single to center in a scrimmage. A late addition to this class after de-committing from Cal State Northridge upon the Matadors’ coaching change this summer, the 5-foot-8 Mathis looks like a steal for the Tigers.

“Really I think a lot of our lineup will be hard to predict. One thing that is not hard to predict is I think Zack Mathis will be a real force for us,” Mainieri said. “[Last Sunday] he hit a home run just short of the intimidator, off a 92 mph fastball from AJ Labas, so it wasn’t like it was just off some meatball pitcher. He ambushed that first pitch fastball, it was a bomb. Next time up he hit a changeup to the opposite field, left field corner. He’s a good defensive player, I think he’s gonna hit. I feel much more confident with our everyday lineup knowing that Mathis is with us.”

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The fifth infielder competing for one of those three everyday slots is freshman Cade Doughty, who hit .346 against older competition in the Cal Ripken League this summer. A physical right-handed hitter who's solid across the board, Doughty features a gap-to-gap approach and should grow into an impact power as he matures. He got off to a slow start this fall, and Mainieri said the Tigers are trying to figure out what his best position will be, but his strong arm should be an asset.

So there are a lot of moving parts for LSU, and it’s going to take some time to figure out which combinations work best. But this lineup has plenty of potential.

“We have a lot of guys that we’re waiting to blossom, and if they do, we’ll have some really good players. We’ll see how it plays out,” Mainieri said. “Some years you almost know your whole starting lineup before the fall begins. This year is unique for us because we’ve got so much competition. I know Beloso’s gonna play first, Garza — when he’s healthy — will catch, Cabrera will be somewhere in the outfield. Everything else is kind of up for grabs, although Mathis has started to emerge, I think he’ll be out there somewhere, at second or third.

“The excitement of just molding a team is what I just love, figuring out where the pieces fit together. That’s a lot of fun for me.”

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