Through injuries, transfers, graduation and the Major League Baseball draft, LSU lost 16 players from its 2017 College World Series team.
While it is never ideal to lose half of a roster that finished two wins shy of a national championship, it did leave a window open for newcomers to prove their worth this fall.
Three freshmen in particular have caught LSU coach Paul Mainieri’s eye in the first third of LSU’s fall practices: outfielder Daniel Cabrera and pitchers Devin Fontenot and Ma’Khail Hilliard.
Cabrera has shown Mainieri enough in nine days of fall practice for the coach to say it looks like he is “going to run away with the starting job in left field.”
The highly touted Parkview Baptist product has shown some power from the left side of the batter’s box, connecting on a pair of home runs in LSU’s scrimmages.
“He’ll be one of those unique freshmen — (D.J.) LeMahieu, (Alex) Bregman, (Antoine) Duplantis — right away they come in, and they’re able to play and they’re not overmatched and they’re not nervous and their ability takes over,” Mainieri said. “Cabrera is that kind of player, I don’t have any doubt about that.
LSU mainly recruited Cabrera’s bat, but he has also impressed the coaching staff with his ability on the mound. Mainieri has already thought of the possibility of putting Cabrera in the designated hitter spot while using him as a pitcher.
“He’s left-handed, he throws in the upper 80s, he throws a lot of strikes and has a really good changeup and breaking ball, and it would be foolish of us not to utilize that,” Mainieri said.
How much Cabrera gets to pitch is still up in the air though, because Mainieri said he does not want to “take anything away from having him be an every-day player.”
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Fontenot is a 6-1, 175-pound right-hander from The Woodlands, Texas.
Mainieri said most freshman pitchers see a dip in velocity during their first fall, a result of a more rigorous conditioning and throwing program than they are used to.
But that hasn’t been the case with Fontenot, who has shown an ability to command a low-90s fastball with movement. In a scrimmage Wednesday, Fontenot struck out four in three scoreless innings.
“I’m looking for people who can bring something extraordinary to the team,” Mainieri said. “Fontenot can; he’s a strike-throwing machine, he’s going to do it at 90-92, he’s going to do it on the knees, he’s got a nice little slider and changeup that he can go to, he’s pretty athletic and he’s quick to the plate.
“… If he keeps moving in the right direction, he’s going to be a guy that’s going to get some serious innings with us."
Hilliard was the Baton Rouge Metro Player of the Year at Central High School and has particularly impressed Mainieri with a curveball that can get college hitters out now.
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“Ma’Khail has a tremendous breaking ball,” Mainieri said. “I mean, Alex Lange-type breaking ball. He doesn’t throw as hard as Alex Lange, he doesn’t have the endurance that Alex Lange has, he’s not a big man at this point, he’s kind of skinny and wiry.”
Hilliard’s fastball regularly checks in around 88 mph, but Mainieri sees potential for him to add some strength to his 6-foot, 150-pound frame, resulting in better velocity to go along with his advanced breaking ball.
“In time, as he gets a little more beef on him, a little more physical strength, I think he can get into the 90s,” Mainieri said. “And matching it up with the curveball of his will be a really good thing.”