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BATON ROUGE, La. — LSU might be one of college baseball’s outliers when it comes to having a balance of returning players on the mound and in the offensive lineup. But that’s not necessarily bad news.
The Tigers are going to pitch at a high level in 2021. That much is true.
LSU welcomes back one of the most intriguing arms in our sport — and in terms of the Major League Baseball draft — in right-hander Jaden Hill, while Landon Marceaux had the best fall of anyone on the roster, and right-hander AJ Labas is back for another season and also had a strong fall.
The rest of the pitching staff is in good shape, too. Bullpen stalwarts such as Matthew Beck and Devin Fontenot, among others, are back, while the Tigers welcomed plenty of talented newcomers to the roster this fall.
The pitching staff is ready to roll.
What seems to be the most uncertain aspect of this team is the offensive lineup. For much of the fall, LSU coach Paul Mainieri, who only had three team meetings all fall because of COVID concerns, felt very good about the offense. The freshmen were clicking almost immediately, and several returning players had taken a step forward. Then the annual Purple & Gold Series arrived.
Mainieri still feels cautiously optimistic about the offense as the spring nears, but he’d be lying if he didn’t say the final series of the fall didn’t give him at least some pause.
“The Purple and Gold series kind of opened my eyes a little bit,” Mainieri said. “I was feeling pretty good about where we were going with our everyday lineup for much of the fall. But those three days were telling, I thought.
“We had some guys whom I thought were ready to go, but in the Fall World Series, they weren’t too great,” he added. “So, we’re in a situation right now where I’m not really sure where we are in terms of an everyday lineup.
“Pitching wise, I feel very, very good about where we are. We have as veteran of a pitching staff as you can ever expect to have. Even though we lost Cole Henry, we have Jaden Hill and Landon Marceaux was really, really good this fall. AJ Labas was really good this fall, too.”
LSU had some interesting things transpire this fall from a positional standpoint. Hard-hitting first baseman Cade Beloso trimmed down and moved from first base to left field, while true freshmen Tre Morgan and Dylan Crews looked like seasoned veterans in their first fall with the Tigers.
Mainieri’s offense will certainly be talented, but as he alluded to in our conversation, it also could be very young with potentially four freshmen in the everyday lineup.
“Tre Morgan is going to be a really, really good player for us,” Mainieri said. “And I look at a guy like Dylan Crews. For all the fanfare he had in high school, he’s come in here and become one of our hardest workers. That was really impressive to me.
“With that said, we have the potential of having four true freshmen in the lineup, and I’m not really sure you want that in this league,” he joked. “We’ll see how things go after the holidays and in the three weeks of practices leading up to the season.”
LSU has the look of a team that could contend for the SEC crown in the spring if some things go its way. The pitching staff will be elite, and the offense has plenty of potential even with the presence of much youth.
Let’s take an in-depth look at LSU’s fall workouts.
A cautiously optimistic offense
Mainieri’s hesitancy about the offense could end up being a case of being overly cautious. After all, some around the program view the offensive lineup as potentially the most talented they’ve had since 2017.
Let’s begin our dive into the offense by discussing the two most highly touted young players of the fall — outfielder Dylan Crews and first baseman Tre Morgan.
Crews, a 6-foot, 200-pounder, looked the part this fall. Physically, he reminded me of a college junior, and he plays like it at times, too. Crews does have some swing and miss in his bat, but he had a good fall and reminds some of former Florida outfielder and current big leaguer Harrison Bader. He has a physical presence in the box and has athleticism as well.
“You’d think a kid like him — someone who was one of the more highly touted players in the country, might have a little primadonna attitude to him or something, but not Dylan,” Mainieri said. “He’s the opposite of that. Few guys work as hard as he does. He plays hard and he’s really coachable. He showed glimpses of something you don’t see very often this fall. One day, he hit a home run a quarter of the way up the scoreboard, and he threw two or three guys out who were trying to stretch singles into doubles. He’s a freshman, so there are going to be some inconsistencies there at times. But I like his potential a lot.”
The most consistent freshman this fall was steady slugger Tre Morgan. Morgan, a 6-foot-1, 190-pounder, would’ve had a chance to get drafted high in a normal draft last summer. But with a five-round draft, he headed to school. Morgan has a slender frame from the left side, but possesses a sweet, easy stroke and finds holes all over the field. Though Morgan might not be overly physical right now, he’s someone you can buy stock in to be a power hitter in the near future. It’s in there. As an added bonus, he was so good defensively early this fall that LSU felt the need to keep him at first base and move veteran Cade Beloso — who has trimmed up — to left field. Mainieri said Morgan is a "magician" at first.
“Tre Morgan is going to be a really, really good player for us,” Mainieri said. “Morgan is such a difference maker at first base. I’ve coached baseball for 40 years and I can probably say that about three or four guys. He’s a magician over there, and it’s like having a shortstop at first base. In addition to that, he’s a freshman who’s likely going to hit in our three-hole because he’s so polished as a hitter. He uses all fields, is tough to strike out and he hit all of our best guys this fall. I think the power is going to come, too … tremendous power.”
The Tigers have plenty of other young players to watch, including spark plug lefthanded hitter Will Safford, Brody Drost and Jordan Thompson.
Safford is one of those dirtbag type of players that LSU fans will grow to love sooner rather than later. He’s a 5-foot-8, 165-pounder, who is a mix between former LSU standouts Tyler Hanover and Josh Smith. He can play a lot of positions for the Tigers, showed a consistent and mature offensive approach the day I saw him, and executes the small ball game well. Drost is a 6-foot-2, 210-pounder, who was a little inconsistent this fall, but who has potential to hit for power moving forward. As for Thompson, he’s a talented middle infielder who might be known more for his defense, but who also made significant strides offensively as fall workouts progressed.
“I kind of describe Safford as a lefthanded Tyler Hanover. He was a great little player for us, and like Tyler, Will is in a small package, but he’s hard-nosed and has a chance to be a very good player,” Mainieri said. “He can play a lot of different positions and he’s someone I kind of consider my kind of guy. He’s just a little gym rat type.”
“Drost has the potential to be a very good player. He had some really good at bats this fall and hit a couple of home runs but needs to be more consistent.”
The LSU outfield is fascinating to watch as the season nears.
We mentioned the move of Beloso from first base to left field. That might’ve surprised some earlier this fall, but Beloso, who previously had a husky 6-foot, 220-pound build, has trimmed up and is now more athletic. The Tigers think he’ll be more than serviceable out there, kind of fitting into the same mold as other guys who have moved out there like Raph Rhymes and Mason Katz.
“He had a great summer and he really worked hard on making himself much more athletic. He is what he is — he’s not a really tall guy, he’s not especially lean, but he got himself into much, much better shape,” Mainieri said. “I don’t think we’re expecting Cade to go out there and be a gold glover, but he can do it. It’s his draft-eligible year and I’d love to see him prove he can go out there and play.”
Ih center field, the Tigers will have one of the better defenders in the league in 6-foot-1, 172-pounder, Gio DiGiacomo. DiGiacomo has a wiry frame with some wiry strength in there at times, and he possesses solid speed. However, he needs to cut down on his swing and miss at the plate in the spring. If he can do that, the potential is there to be one of the SEC’s more well-rounded outfielders.
“If we can get Gio to be a bit more consistent offensively, that would really help us,” Mainieri said. “He’s got really good speed and he’s a great defender, he just needs to put it all together.”
Up the middle, the Tigers will have a strong defender in Collier Cranford. Cranford isn’t in the lineup to put up hefty offensive numbers, but he will be a rock defensively. He has a solid arm and is a vacuum defensively. Meanwhile, Cade Doughty will occupy the second base position in the spring. Doughty, a 6-foot-1, 186-pounder, got off to a slow start as a freshman, but still hit some balls hard and showed some promise at times. Mainieri and the coaching staff are confident he’s ready to take a huge step forward.
“He hit a lot of balls really hard last year, but they were right to people. He had a lot of bad luck, but he started to get hot when the season ended,” Mainieri said. “He went down to that summer league in South Florida and hit over .400. He continued that this fall — he used the whole field, sprayed the ball into the gaps and showed to be a clutch hitter. I think he has a chance to be one of the more consistent hitters in this league, and potentially hit well over .300.”
Three more guys to watch in the spring include Gavin Dugas, talented backstop Alex Milazzo and infielder Zach Arnold.
Dugas is a 5-foot-10, 198-pounder, who was off to a strong start in 2020 after hitting just .186 as a freshman. He was hitting .286 with an OPS of 1.019 in the shortened season, and Mainieri said he showed power again this fall with a couple of home runs. Meanwhile, Milazzo is much like Dugas in the sense that he got off to a slow start to his career, hitting .186 during the shortened season. However, the Tigers feel like he has premium power, and they think it’s a success if can hit around .250 and tap into that power potential, especially when you consider his defensive attributes. Milazzo has some definite potential from an offensive standpoint, while fellow catcher Hayden Travinski is a physical 6-foot-3, 220-pounder who has displayed better defensive skills since last season, but is a little light with the bat. As for Arnold, he’s a physical 6-foot-2, 210-pounder, who has a prototypical third base body. The Tigers like his offensive potential.
Stacked pitching staff
The LSU pitching staff is the source of unlimited optimism for good reason.
In essence, the Tigers are loaded on the mound, especially when it comes to the weekend rotation with the return of right-handers Jaden Hill, Landon Marceaux and AJ Labas.
Though Marceaux had the best fall of the three, Hill is the one everyone will be watching in the spring. Injury issues plagued him two years ago. But Hill, who is tough and athletic, was outstanding early last season, showing incredible stuff in a relief role against Texas at the Shriners College Classic. That performance has scouts salivating about him as the 2021 campaign nears.
Now the question is: Can Hill make a smooth transition to the weekend rotation?
We know that Hill can be a force out of the bullpen, but now comes the hard part of not only starting but holding his velocity and command through six or seven innings, if not more at times. In that regard, it was a mixed bag of results for the 6-foot-4, 233-pounder, this fall.
Sure, Hill showed his usual 97-98 mph heater at times, but he also had some outings where he was more 92-94 with the fastball with a solid slider and changeup. The biggest challenge for Hill moving forward is just making sure his arm is conditioned for a much heavier workload, as there were times during fall workouts where his command was inconsistent after the first few innings.
Is this cause for concern? Not really. But it’s worth noting that there will be some transition time for one of college baseball’s premier arms and pitching prospects.
“The biggest question for Jaden is will he have enough endurance to be a starting pitcher. His freshman year, he starts the first two weekends and then is shut down for the year, and then he throws great out of the bullpen against Texas for three innings. So, we were starting to stretch him out a little bit before the season was shutdown,” Mainieri said. “There were times this fall where getting him to five innings would cause a little arm fatigue, but he’s a strong and athletic guy and I have no doubt he’ll be ready to go and outstanding in the spring. He’s still kind of learning his way as a starting pitcher.”
While Hill is the supremely talented pitcher still learning the intricacies of being a starting pitcher, Marceaux, the 6-foot, 177-pounder, is the veteran who is very much a well-rounded pitcher at this point. Marceaux, who will get up to 91-92 (93) with his fastball at times, had an outstanding fall for the Tigers. Mainieri said his fastball life was good in the fall, while command of his outstanding changeup was excellent. Marceaux has evolved with his breaking ball, too. The curveball was previously of the 12-6 variety, but it’s now transformed into more of a slurvey offering with some sharp break. Marceaux threw around 17 innings in the fall and recorded approximately 28 strikeouts.
“He’s such a good strike thrower and he’s much more mature than he was at this point last year,” Mainieri said. “He may end up being our Friday night starter depending on how the start of the spring goes. Our guys couldn’t hit Landon in the fall — he threw a ton of strikes and the breaking ball was pretty nasty.”
Labas, a 6-foot-3, 223-pounder, will round out the weekend rotation. The talented right hander was off to a solid start last season, as he almost threw a no hitter against Oklahoma in a game that actually saw the Sooners throw a no-hitter. He carried that momentum into the fall with a crop of strong performances.
As experienced and good as the weekend rotation will be in the spring, it’s easy to be equally excited about the bullpen.
The Tigers have a ton of options out of the bullpen. For starters, they welcome back Devin Fontenot, Ma’Khail Hilliard, Trent Vietmeier and Matthew Beck, and all four have a plethora of experience.
Fontenot is a hard-nosed pitcher who comes out of the bullpen and throws bullets up to 94-95 mph at times. Hilliard is really intriguing right now because while his velocity was typically in the mid-to-upper 80s last year, he actually got up to 90-92 mph this fall. He will pitch primarily in the upper-80s, however. Vietmeier is another older arm who is making strides. He was mostly 88-90 mph with his fastball last year, but that velocity has seen an uptick to more 91-93 this fall. Meanwhile, Beck is a 6-foot-7, 233-pounder, who might not have an overpowering fastball, but possesses a big, quality curveball.
“We’re really glad to have Devin Fontenot back and. Hilliard was throwing harder with a nasty breaking ball in the fall,” Mainieri said. “Beck threw well in the fall and who I’d call our Mr. Reliable, while Trent really, really pitched well the final three or four times out this fall.”
LSU has a host of other talented arms to watch in the spring.
Two guys I’ll bring up since I saw them during the fall are junior college left-hander Brandon Kaminer and sophomore left-hander Jacob Hasty.
Kaminer is a 6-foot-2, 205-pounder, who clearly has a hard-nosed approach. He attacks hitters with a fastball in the 87-89 mph range with spin rates ranging 2300-2400, while his best offering is a nasty, tailing 79-81 mph slider. The slider was especially difficult for left-handed hitters to pick up. Hasty is a 6-foot-2, 219-pound, lefty who was intriguing in my look this fall. There’s no doubt there are some command issues with the talented sophomore, but there’s also significant upside. He has a durable looking frame and attacks hitters with an 88-91 mph fastball (spin rate: 2200-2300). Hasty also showed decent feel for a nasty 76-78 mph curveball that had spin rates around 2600-2700.
“Kaminer and Hasty — both of those guys had really big highs and really low lows,” Mainieri said. “Kaminer strikes out a lot of guys with that slider, but he also had his fair share of struggles at times. Hasty is trying to find the balance between being a fierce competitor and finding that calmness about him. He has terrific stuff when he’s in the zone, but sometimes he has trouble finding that zone. I think he’s one of those guys who could really see his confidence grow entering the spring.”
In terms of young arms, the first one mentioned by Mainieri was Pitkin, LA, product Garrett Edwards. Edwards is a 6-foot-5, 190-pounder, who sat 86-89 and up to 90 mph with his fastball and around 81-83 mph with his slider the day I saw him. But Mainieri loves his versatility as a former Mr. Basketball in the State of Louisiana. Will Helmers, another Louisiana product, also did some good things this fall. He’s a 6-foot-4, 195-pounder, who was up to 90 mph with his fastball with solid stuff. But here’s the interesting thing about Helmers: He might actually help the Tigers out at the plate. Remember Austin Bain, who went from pitcher to suddenly leading the SEC in doubles? Helmers could follow a similar path according to Mainieri. He said Helmers doesn’t exactly have a beautiful plate approach, but said he puts a hard bat on the ball when he does hit. As a pitcher, Helmers will sit 88-92 mph with his fastball, along with a changeup and breaking ball. He consistently commands three pitches in the zone.
Two more young arms to watch include Ty Floyd and Blake Money.
Floyd was a highly touted player out of high school and likely would’ve had a tough time getting to school in a normal MLB draft year. But MLB’s loss is LSU’s gain in this instance. Floyd is a 6-foot-2, 190-pounder, who is intriguing to say the least. He was up to 94-95 mph with his fastball and blowing hitters away in high school. But this fall, he was more 89-92 mph with the offering. LSU’s coaches are pretty sure Floyd’s velocity will get back to normal in the spring, but it’s worth noting that pitching coach Alan Dunn also has been helping him develop his two secondary offerings. Sure, the Tigers are okay with the idea of Floyd coming out of the bullpen with potentially mid 90s heat, but he needs more to his arsenal in the SEC. As for Money, he’s a massive 6-foot-7, 245-pounder, who reminds some around the program of former LSU standout righty Todd Peterson. He has arm strength, and the changeup is a go-to offering. The big key for Money in the spring is the continued development of the slider.
Last but not least, file away the names of Javen Coleman and Alex Brady.
Coleman is a 6-foot-2, 185-pound, freshman who has some intrigue. He’s upper 80s with his fastball, and will touch 90-91 mph at times. He has a quality changeup and slider from the left side and can record strikeouts. The big key with Coleman is showing better command in the spring. As for Brady, he’s a smallish 5-foot-9, 209-pound, lefty, who will sit in the mid-to-upper 80s with his fastball, but who has a bugs bunny changeup he attacks hitters with. He had a strong fall and could contribute some innings as well.