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LSU head coach Paul Mainieri signals to the bullpen for LSU pitcher Zack Hess (38) as he pulls LSU starting pitcher Jared Poche' (16) in the sixth inning during Game 2 of the College World Series finals between LSU and Florida, Tuesday, June 27, 2017, at TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha, Ne.

Advocate staff photo by HILARY SCHEINUK

LSU finished its 2017 season two wins shy of a national championship, but coach Paul Mainieri said that in no way is a predictor of success in 2018. 

The team that lines up on opening day in 2018 is going to look vastly different from the team that was one of the last two standing in 2017.

LSU's double-play tandem, its excellent defensive catcher, its cleanup hitter and its top two starting pitchers from this past season will be preparing for their first full season in professional baseball when LSU returns to Alex Box Stadium in February next year. 

Mainieri sat down with The Advocate to speak about the challenges of those in his position to reload every year for another title chase. 

You're replacing your double play tandem, your right fielder and cleanup hitter, your catcher and your weekend rotation …

Yeah, those are a lot of big holes to fill. That’s the reality of coaching college baseball. You lose guys to the pro draft before they finish (eligibility); they graduate and move on. You’re constantly having to fill holes. It’s why it’s scary when people think, "OK, you’re two games short of winning the national championship. Next year, we’ll find a way to win those two games." They think the season starts at that point, but it doesn’t; you’re back to square one.

But we’ve been preparing for this. We knew that Kramer (Robertson) and Cole (Freeman) were going to graduate after this year. We knew that (Michael Papierski) was probably going to sign. We knew that (Greg) Deichmann was probably going to sign. We knew that Alex Lange was most definitely going to sign. We’ve been preparing for it.

We took a blow in the draft this year with some recruits. I was hoping we were going to hang on to two of the three between Nate Pearson, Blayne Enlow and Nick Storz, but Pearson and Enlow both signed. We were hoping we would hold on to Andrew Bechtold, but he signed. I was hoping we would hold on to Daniel Cabrera or Jacob Pearson, and we did; we held on to Daniel Cabrera. You don’t know how the players are going to perform when they get here, but we obviously went out and recruited what we think to be some very talented players.

We got very fortunate to pick up a couple late signees; one of them committed to us when we were in Omaha, A.J. Labas. He was a 17th-round draft choice of the New York Mets. He had signed with North Florida, and when Smoke Laval got fired he asked for his release and received it. He signed with us and will be here this fall. Cameron Sanders did not sign professionally; we are happy about that. He’s got an electric arm, but he’s got some control issues. We’ll see if he can tighten it up.

We’ve picked up three late (commitments) after the draft that we think can help us (in 2018), and I’m ecstatic that Daniel Cabrera is going to come to school. He’s tearing it up in summer ball; he’s in the Cal Ripken league where (Jake) Slaughter went last year. He’s leading off (and) he hit two home runs already. The coach up there is just raving about him.

What would you consider the strength of next year’s roster?

I think our outfield is going to be outstanding. I know Deichmann will be a big loss; I don’t know that anybody is going to replace 19 home runs and perhaps not 73 RBIs, but we know Antoine (Duplantis) is an outstanding player, we know (Zach) Watson has developed into an outstanding player, and I’m so confident that between Cabrera, Beau Jordan and Brennan Breaux, we are deep and fine in the outfield.

The infield situation, I feel pretty confident that Josh (Smith) is going to slide over from third base to shortstop. He’s going to play short every day in the Cape Cod League this summer for Harwich. My guess is he’s going to show up this fall and look outstanding at short.

We still have second and third (base) to fill. My hope is that Jake Slaughter will emerge and take one of those two positions. I think the things he needs to work on, he will this summer. He’s really a great athlete, and if he can put it all together, I think he’ll be outstanding.

We signed a kid named Hal Hughes; he’s more of a defensive specialist. He’s a little light with the bat right now, but he’s got very good skills defensively, so at worst what we’ve got there is a utility infielder that can play defense. He’ll get better with the bat as he gets older and stronger.

I’m a little nervous about our infield, but not terribly nervous, if that makes sense. First base is going to be up for grabs. I would’ve never visualized Slaughter or Nick Coomes playing first base. But that’s the least of my concerns at first base. We’ll find somebody.

The two biggest concerns I have are the pitching staff and the catching corps. But we’re bringing in 11 new pitchers this year, and we’re bringing in three new catchers. So I think there is going to be really good, healthy competition amongst the pitching staff.

About that pitching staff: You are replacing a load of highly productive and experienced players. How do you see it lining up next season?

With (Zack) Hess and (Caleb) Gilbert, we pretty much know what we’re going to get out of those two guys.

We’re going to try Zack Hess as a starting pitcher; he’s actually going to go to Cape Cod and pitch three games with a maximum of 60 pitches. He really wanted to go. As coaches, we wanted to shut him down, but he insisted. We felt, under the right circumstances, he could get all of his side work between starts so they don’t use him out of the bullpen. If we limit him to 60 pitches in each of the three starts, it gives him a chance to work on his changeup against other competition, so I think it’s going to be a good thing for him. I want to give him every opportunity to be a starting pitcher, No. 1, because he’s one of the few guys coming back that we know we can count on, and secondly, I don’t know if any of the new guys are ready to step in like Alex Lange did when he was a freshman. I don’t know that, and until we get out there and see them, we won’t know.

Caleb Gilbert has proven he can be a guy that can be counted on in some capacity. I hope he can take a hold of a starter’s role as well. If the game he pitched against Oregon State is any indication, that will be a successful project. We’ll see.

I think Nick Bush is pretty close to being a guy that we know what we’re going to get out of. He’s going away this summer; he’s going to be a starting pitcher as well. Hopefully he’ll continue to work on all his pitches and become the kind of guy that can be a starting pitcher. If not, we know we’ll have a good arm out of the bullpen.

I think the other guys, (Austin) Bain, (Matthew) Beck, (Will) Reese, (Blair) Frederick, they have to be more consistent. Their whole game needs to improve for them to be counted on next year.

Todd Peterson is somewhere in between that category of guys we can count on. He’s closer to Nick Bush’s status, maybe even a notch below Nick Bush. Todd, when he’s healthy and in shape, I think has shown he’s capable of being a real force for us. His problem is he got very out of shape as the season progressed. He was 25 pounds overweight, and because of that, I think it put a tremendous strain on his shoulder, and his rotator cuff muscle is weak. That’s why we shut him down. Really, he should’ve pitched that Monday game (in the College World Series finals) with Walker being hurt, but we couldn’t start him because his shoulder wasn’t feeling good. He and I had a very honest end-of-the-year meeting. He had to cancel out of going to pitch in Cape Cod because of the condition of his shoulder. So I’m going to expect him to show up back in Baton Rouge in August at about 210 pounds instead of 235 pounds. That’s the first step — the dedication to get himself in physical shape in order to be a guy we can count on.

Was there any thought to moving Watson to the infield?

There was a point of the year where I thought we might end up having to move him back to the infield, but in my opinion, he developed so well as a center fielder, he’s so vital and valuable to our team defensively, that I’m not going to change it. I’m going to leave him where he is. There is still room for improvement and I think he will improve, and I think as time goes on he’s going to be a real force out there. That would be a last resort, to have to move him back to the infield. I don’t really want to do that.

It’s a lot to replace, but when you look at the top of the lineup coming back, it looks really good.

You’ve got to add Bryce Jordan to that, too. It’s a better situation than we were in two years ago. Our pitching situation is more like our position-player situation was like two years ago. But one position we didn’t talk much about was catcher. Outside of your pitching staff, that’s the most vital position on the field. (Papierski’s) defense and leadership back there made him the unsung hero of our team. He probably never got the credit he deserved, just like Micah Gibbs didn’t when he was the catcher on our national championship team. Without those guys or someone performing at the level they performed, you’ve got no chance to get to Omaha; you’ve got no chance to play for a national championship.

Priority No. 1 is our pitching staff, rebuilding that and finding out who are the guys we can count on. Priority No. 2 is the catching position. We’ve got three guys we’re bringing in. One of them is Hunter Feduccia, a junior-college transfer from LSU-Eunice. He went to Barbe High School and played with the Jordan brothers there. He’s playing this summer in the Prospect League, and he’s doing very well. The second guy is Mason Doolittle, a freshman coming from Jupiter, Florida — the Palm Beach area. He’s actually playing in the Prospect League as well. Unfortunately he got hit in the head by a 94-mph pitch the other day. He had been doing very well — he had a walk-off grand slam, had a big two-run single in another game, he was throwing guys out — then he got hit in the head with a pitch and unfortunately got a concussion. The third guy I can’t discuss (because he is not yet enrolled).

Have you seen Bryce Jordan get back to work at all?

I haven’t seen Bryce since we’ve been back from Omaha, and obviously I didn’t see him the two weeks we were in Omaha. But he was swinging the bat before we left. I think he tried to push himself a little too hard and his hamstring started to bother him, so they had to slow him down a little bit. I’m hoping that by the end of the summer he might be healthy enough to get a few at-bats at a collegiate summer league over in Lafayette, with the Acadiana Cane Cutters. If he can’t, it’s no big deal; we’ll wait until fall ball. Hopefully he’ll regain the form he had before he was hurt, because I thought he was one of our best hitters going into this season.

How do you decide between Zack Hess the starter and Zack Hess the proven shutdown bullpen arm?

The first thing is, out of loyalty to the boy, when I recruited him I told him I was going to first look at him as a starting pitcher. Out of fairness to him, that helps him in the draft; it helps him if he can get to the big leagues as a starting pitcher. There are a lot of reasons there. Plus, it’s what’s best for our team. We need a Friday night starter. His stuff probably gives him the best chance of being that Alex Lange type of guy on a Friday night — Aaron Nola, Kevin Gausman.

Now, I don’t know if he’s going to be as good as a starter as he was as a reliever. Time will tell. Has his changeup improved? Can he throw more strikes so he can keep his pitch count down? Can he slow down the running game by being quicker to the plate? Can he field his position? — all of the things that, if you’re pitching for seven, eight, nine innings, become magnified. Can he do all those things and make the jump? That’s the first thing we’ve got to find out. Second of all, do we have other pitchers in Gilbert, Bush and those other 11 coming in, are there three guys in there that are capable of being starting pitchers for us? We don’t know that yet until we see them on a day-in, day-out basis.

We’re going to go into the year trying to develop (Hess) as a starting pitcher. ... Am I going to sit here and tell you he’s going to be the starting pitcher all spring, or is there going to be a point we’re going to move him back to the bullpen? I don’t have a crystal ball. He’s going to be a really good pitcher for us one way or the other. But the first thing I’ve got to do is be fair to him and loyal to him, and give him a chance to be a starter because he would like to be a starter and he thinks it would be the best thing for his career.

There might be a point where I sit down and talk with him and say, "You know what? The best thing for your career is to be in the bullpen because you’re about major league-ready to be a bullpen guy." I’ve heard some (comparisons) from scouts that are pretty significant when they’ve looked at what he did coming out of the bullpen. I’m talking about top relievers in the big leagues. I think that it will all play out as time goes on and we figure out what the best thing is for him, No. 1, and for our team, No. 2.

Follow Luke Johnson on Twitter, @ByLukeJohnson.