A deep collection of supremely talented power arms should make LSU a serious contender once again in 2020, and the Tigers could make a run at the national title if their promising young lineup matures as hoped, making them a solid No. 11 ranking in D1Baseball.com's preseason top 25.
Below are a few facts to consider when breaking down the 2020 LSU club:
2019 record: 40-26.
Coach (record at school): Paul Mainieri (591-255-3 in 13 seasons.
Ballpark: Alex Box Stadium (10,300).
Postseason history: 32 regionals (active streak: 8), 18 CWS trips (last in 2017), 6 national titles (last in 2009).
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In this preview of LSU's 2020 season, we've graded the Tigers in each characteristic of the game: Hitting, power, speed, defense, starting pitching, bullpen and experience/intangibles. But before we begin, let's present our projected lineup for LSU in 2020.
LSU's projected lineup
|C||Saul Garza, Jr.||.303/.358/.476||5||27||0|
|1B||Cade Beloso, So.||.279/.339/.429||10||52||1|
|2B||Cade Doughty, Fr.||HS — Denham Springs, La.|
|3B||Zack Mathis, Jr.||Tr. — San Joaquin Delta (Calif.) CC|
|SS||Hal Hughes, Jr.||.174/.289/.188||0||11||2|
|LF||Drew Bianco, So.||.176/.348/.353||3||14||1|
|CF||Giovanni DiGiacomo, So.||.275/.376/.333||3||14||1|
|RF||Daniel Cabrera, Jr.||.284/.359/.516||12||50||1|
|DH||Gavin Dugas, So.||.186/.265/.233||0||6||1|
LSU's projected weekend rotation/closer
|SP #1||Cole Henry, So.||4-2||3.39||58.1||72||18||0|
|SP #2||Landon Marceaux, So.||5-2||4.66||58||43||20||0|
|SP #3||AJ Labas, R-So.||DNP — injured|
|Closer||Devin Fontenot, Jr.||5-4||3.71||51||54||25||7|
Grading the Tigers: Just as scouts grade prospects using the 20-80 scouting scale, we use a 20-80 scale to evaluate teams in our top 25. A score of 50 in each category is average, relative to a typical NCAA tournament team; 55 is slightly above-average; 60 is above-average (plus); 70 is well above-average (plus-plus); 80 is top of the scale, historically strong. Accordingly, 45 is fringe-average or slightly below-average; 40 is below-average; 30 is well below-average; and 20 is the extreme in that direction.
The Tigers lost the top three hitters (Josh Smith, Antoine Duplantis and Zach Watson) from a team that ranked sixth in the SEC in batting and scoring a year ago, and there could be some growing pains as a host of underclassmen get their feet wet as everyday players in the SEC for the first time. Still, LSU has a very nice core of accomplished returning bats to build around in Daniel Cabrera, Saul Garza and Cade Beloso, and the sophomore class is full of promising breakout candidates. Cabrera is a hitting machine who has produced for two straight seasons and is a strong bet to earn All-America honors and be selected on Day 1 of the draft. Garza came on very strong down the stretch last year, making a nice transition from the junior college ranks to the SEC. Beloso joins Cabrera to give LSU a second dangerous run producer from the left side; both of them and Garza need to show better control of the strike zone than they did a year ago, but there’s reason to expect them to do just that, and we anticipate their on-base numbers will spike this spring.
Outside of that trio, there’s plenty of competition for jobs around the diamond, and LSU coach Paul Mainieri believes that competition will bring out the best in his club. Three sophomore outfielders who look like picks to click are Drew Bianco, Giovanni DiGiacomo and Gavin Dugas. The speedy DiGiacomo profiles as a slashing leadoff man if he can cut down his strikeout rate and do a better job playing the short game, but his strong summer in the Cape Cod League (where he hit .308) is a positive sign for his development. Bianco worked hard in the fall to improve his ability to drive the ball to the opposite field, making him a tougher out than he was a year ago, though he still figures to swing and miss plenty. The 5-foot-10, 199-pound Dugas has real strength in his compact frame and was perhaps LSU’s most improved hitter in the fall. He and Bianco have shots to be steady right-handed run producers in the bottom half of the order, and their ability to help lengthen the lineup will be a big key.
Look for the junior college transfer Mathis to serve as a catalyst in one of the top two spots in the order after showing a disciplined approach and a good line-drive stroke from the left side in fall ball. Mainieri confidently predicted in October that the heady 5-8 Mathis “will be a real force for us.” The same could be true of blue-chip freshman Cade Doughty, who starred against older competition in the Ripken League last summer and has the strength and barrel awareness to be LSU’s next big offensive star. The light-hitting Hughes needs to take a step forward offensively to stick in the lineup, but the Tigers have more offensive alternatives in freshmen Zach Arnold and Collier Cranford, either of whom could become a significant factor as the season unfolds.
The Tigers ranked eighth in the SEC in slugging and home runs per game last year, and they lost three of their top power hitters in Smith, Duplantis and Watson. However, we expect LSU’s power output to be similar in 2020. Cabrera and Beloso have big-time left-handed juice, and either one of them could challenge for the SEC home run title now that they have another year of experience and strength gains under their belts. Garza also figures to at least double last year’s home run output if he can stay healthy for a full season after dealing with a string of bad-luck injuries. He offers clear double-digit homer potential from the right side and really excels at driving the ball the other way.
Bianco, who owns a natural uppercut stroke and loads of pull-side strength, led the team in homers in the fall and should provide additional right-handed pop this spring. Doughty and freshman outfield/DH candidate Mitchell Sanford also offer intriguing righty power to the pull side, and Dugas should bring occasional pop as well.
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The X-factor is freshman two-sport talent Maurice Hampton Jr., whose power/speed package remind the Tigers of fellow former LSU baseball/football standouts Jared Mitchell and Chad Jones. But it figures to take Hampton some time to adjust to college pitching after spending the fall with the football team.
LSU lost all three of its double-digit base stealers a year ago in Duplantis, Watson and Brandt Broussard, but this team is still well stocked with quality athletes who can run. Leading the way is DiGiacomo, whose “world-class speed” could make him a game-changer, as Mainieri put it. Bianco and Cabrera both run better than you might think based on their frames; Cabrera was clocked at 6.6 seconds in the 60-yard dash last summer and even saw action in center field in fall ball. Five-foot-9 freshman spark plug Wes Toups offers 6.5 speed off the bench, though he’ll also have a shot to compete for more regular playing time in LSU’s crowded outfield mix. Hampton is a burner too, and Cranford is another bona fide speed merchant in the freshman class.
The Tigers were a sound defensive unit a year ago, fielding .977, but the inexperience of most of the position player group creates some uncertainty heading into 2020. Still, the overall team athleticism should translate to another good defensive squad. Hughes is a premium defender at short, and if his bat doesn’t keep him in the lineup, Arnold showed easy defensive actions, good range and an accurate arm in the fall. Doughty has the tools to be a solid defender at second as he matures, and Beloso has worked hard to improve his defense at first base, which was an area of concern a year ago.
Mathis is an instinctive playmaker at the hot corner, and Garza has improved his receiving and blocking skills behind the plate — Maineiri said the pitchers love throwing to him. Garza has just an average arm and is still working to control the running game better, but LSU also has a marquee defensive talent behind the plate in freshman Alex Milazzo, who's Howitzer of an arm dazzled with his catch-and-throw skills in the fall. If DiGiacomo can hold down the job in center field (where his speed gives him superb range), LSU’s outfield should be strong because Cabrera has improved by leaps and bounds as a defender, and Bianco takes good routes and features a strong, accurate arm.
Starting Pitching: 65
LSU’s No. 1 ranked 2018 recruiting class was headlined by a slew of electric arms who gained valuable experience as freshmen last spring, and now we expect them to take huge leaps forward and become stars as sophomores. Leading the way is Cole Henry, who showed flashes of brilliance as a freshman but missed three weeks in the second half due to arm discomfort. He came back strong this fall, showing the makings of three legitimate plus pitches in his 91-96 fastball, tight downer curveball at 74-78, and sinking 83-86 changeup that is becoming a real weapon against righties as well as lefties. He has first-round potential as a draft-eligible sophomore this spring.
Fellow blue-chip sophomore Landon Marceaux had a more uneven freshman year, which was hampered by some arm soreness, but he came on strong down the stretch as he learned to trust his stuff and not try to be too fine. He attacks at 89-92 and touches 94 with a lively sinker that he can locate to all four quadrants, and he worked with pitching coach Alan Dunn to add a swing-and-miss 82-84 mph slider to his arsenal in the fall.
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The other two likely starters are older guys who have overcome more significant injuries in their careers: righties AJ Labas and Eric Walker. Labas redshirted in 2019 due to a shoulder injury, but his stuff was better than ever this fall, when he pumped strikes at 90-93 with two quality secondary pitches from the same slot. Mainieri even said his command and control compare with former LSU great Aaron Nola at the same age. 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 Tommy John. This fall, Walker looked more 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. His fastball has modest velocity but plays up because of its carry through the zone. Walker could give LSU one of the better midweek starters in the SEC.
The combination of two electric back-end anchors and exceptional pitching depth should give LSU one of the nation’s best bullpens this spring. 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 low-to-mid-90s fastball and good deception, and Dunn said his breaking ball has taken another step forward this fall. If he can be a little more consistent with his command, he could be one of the best closers in the country this spring.
Coming out of high school, righty Jaden Hill was actually the highest-ranked of LSU’s crop of blue-chip arms in that sophomore class, and he was outstanding in two starts as a freshman before a UCL strain sidelined him for the rest of the spring. Mainieri said the 6-foot-4 Hill added about 20 pounds of muscle in the last year, and the Tigers took it slowly with him in the fall, but by the end he was back on the mound and throwing 94-96 gas along with some very good sliders. He’s ultra-loose and athletic, has great mound presence, and even has feel for changeup; in short, the sky is his ceiling.
Junior righties Ma’Khail Hilliard and Trent Vietmeier plus senior righty Matthew Beck provide valuable veteran presence in the pen. 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 in the fall, 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.
2019 PitchingNinja College Sword of the Year. ⚔️🏆— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) December 14, 2019
Ma’Khail Hilliard pic.twitter.com/KJAAoSAhhX
Vietmeier 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. Beck was one of LSU’s top relievers a year ago (3-0, 2.05 in 44 innings). He won’t blow hitters away with his 86-88 fastball, but his big curveball is a weapon, and he knows how to use it.
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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 79-82 slider in the fall. 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 slider) 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.
This is a younger team that will rely heavily on unproven players, but there’s still a decent supply of veterans who played prominent roles on last year’s super regional club, led by juniors Cabrera and Garza plus sophomores Beloso, Henry and Marceaux. Beck and Walker both saw plenty of meaningful innings for an Omaha team in 2017, while Hilliard and Fontenot also have plenty of valuable experience under their belts, making the bullpen plenty seasoned.
And LSU is still LSU; just donning the purple and gold comes with a psychological boost, especially at Alex Box Stadium. It will surely take some time for roles to gel in the lineup, and Mainieri will experiment with lots of different lineup combinations, but he always seems to settle on the right combination by the time the postseason rolls around.