As foregone conclusions go, the notion of LSU junior Mikie Mahtook leaving college baseball in the rearview mirror is an awfully sound assumption.
After all, the Tigers ultra-talented center fielder is projected as a first-round pick when the 2011 Major League Baseball draft gets started Monday.
The 50-round draft runs Monday through Wednesday.
For Mahtook, the ‘if’ of being picked isn’t a factor anymore. And the ‘when’ is more a matter of how soon.
Regarded as a five-tool player with a chance to play in the big leagues for an extended period, Mahtook is poised for a seven-figure signing bonus as a first-round draft pick.
No-brainer to go pro, right?
Maybe so. But for Mahtook and to a lesser degree shortstop Austin Nola, the abrupt ending to LSU’s 2011 season threw a new wrinkle in the decision-making process.
When the NCAA field was revealed last Monday and the Tigers weren’t included, Mahtook was asked if the bitter end to his junior season might give him more to think about after he’s drafted.
“Absolutely,” he said. “It’s tough. You don’t want your college career to end on this kind of note. It’s something that me and my family are going to have to assess when looking at our options and my future endeavors.
“Words can’t really cure what we’re feeling right now.”
Nola echoed that sentiment.
The Baton Rouge native and lifelong LSU fan already has a sizable and unique variable to weigh in his decision. His younger brother, Aaron, has signed with the Tigers, meaning the two could play together on the same team for the first time in their lives.
Aaron Nola is also projected as an early-round draft pick, though, and he may never wind up on campus.
“To me, the biggest thing Austin has to consider is whether his brother comes to school,” said former Tigers star Louis Coleman, who came back for his senior season in 2009 after being drafted in the 10th round by Washington. “That chance to play together would really be something special. If they’re on the field together in the third game of a super regional to go to Omaha, that would be a great moment and something they’d remember the rest of their lives.”
Coleman is one of three LSU seniors in the last four years who have come back with the chance to leave. Jared Bradford did so in 2007 and helped lead the Tigers to the 2008 CWS. Blake Dean returned in 2010 after playing on the championship team with Coleman.
With that legacy established, could Mahtook, Austin Nola or both continue the trend?
“I think Mikie is going to be given an opportunity to go into professional baseball this year that’s going to be hard for him to pass up,” LSU coach Paul Mainieri said. “He’s a first-round pick that’s going to have a signing bonus well into seven figures, and that’s going to be hard for any kid to turn down. I wouldn’t even want him to turn it down unless he was just so obsessed with coming back that he felt like there was some unfinished business. But I don’t think Mikie will feel that way. He’s won a national championship here, and he’s had a great career.
“He’s not going to disappoint me if he takes that opportunity. I love that kid, and I’ll support whatever decision he makes.”
More realistically, Austin Nola could be the next Tiger to come back as a senior cornerstone.
Though the former Catholic High star has proven to be one of the best defensive shortstops in the SEC for three years, his offensive statistics have wavered. He dropped from a .320 batting average as a sophomore to .296 this season, although a mini resurgence late in the season allowed him to increase his RBI total to 42, tied for third on the team.
Mainieri said he’d love to have Austin Nola back, and that seems like a strong possibility.
“Everybody knows how much I love the place and have for as long as I can remember,” Austin Nola said. “I always dreamed about playing four years here, and Aaron and I have talked a lot about finally playing together.”
For both Mahtook and Austin Nola, the decision will be a balance between how much money is on the table and what they’d be walking away from.
Dean was a 10th-round pick by Minnesota after his junior season. But the euphoria of back-to-back College World Series appearances and the national crown made him realize how much he wanted to stick around.
“I played there for three years, and I really loved my teammates, the fans, the atmosphere and I had gotten used to winning,” he said. “There were a lot of things that went into my decision, but I kept coming back to how much I cared about my teammates and coaches and wanted to finish it up.”
Added Coleman, “The chance to be with my teammates and coaches one more year was a big reason why I wanted to come back. You can’t put a price tag on friendship.”
While Mahtook and Nola are likely to be the first LSU players to get a call this week, several other juniors and incoming recruits are also potential draftees.
Juniors Matty Ott, Tyler Hanover, Trey Watkins and Tyler Jones are all likely to be drafted. Of that group, Jones is and Watkins are likely to leave regardless of draft slot.
Among the recruits besides the younger Nola, Jake Cave, Johnny Eierman, Trevor Story and Nick Goody have all been identified as draft targets.
Mainieri said this year’s draft could be the last before rule changes take effect that include specific “hard” slot money — players’ signing bonuses would have to stay in a certain range and lower draft picks would not get substantially more bonus money — and an earlier deadline for players to decide whether they’ll go pro or head to college.
“All we can do is wait and see,” Mainieri said. “This is always an exciting time for the players, but it’s stressful for coaches because it affects the next season so much.”
Southern has two possible draftees with pitcher Cody Hall and first baseman Frazier Hall likely to get their names called some time in the next three days.
Cody Hall was drafted last year in the 35ht round (1,063rd overall) by Detroit but opted to come back to school