Starting his ninth year as LSU’s baseball coach, Paul Mainieri, in Part 2 of a Q&A with The Advocate, discusses one of his biggest concerns of the 2015 season: third base.
He also suggests freshman Michael Papierski could see immediate playing time at catcher and that first base and second base may have rotating players, like last year.
Finally, the coach reveals he has enough confidence in his young pitching staff that, to him, reaching Omaha is a realistic expectation.
The Advocate: In the fall, you said third base is an important position. You lost senior Christian Ibarra from last year. Where does that spot stand right now?
Mainieri: Danny Zardon is going to get the first shot at third base. I think he’s earned it. Had a pretty good summer in Cape Cod. Had a really outstanding fall practice until the very last weekend in the Purple vs. Gold World Series. He didn’t play very well.
But he’s going to get the first shot at it, and I hope he’ll be our third baseman all year. The key is — and I’ve told him — he’s never going to hit good enough that, if he doesn’t play great defense, he’ll be able to continue to be our starting third baseman. Defense is of premier importance.
Now, he’s capable of hitting .300 with 10 home runs and 50 RBIs. If he does that, he’ll be the all-conference third baseman, but if he hits .250 with five homers and 30 RBIs, he’s still capable of being our everyday third baseman if he plays great defense.
Losing Christian Ibarra is a concern for me in today’s day and age, with these bats, more bunting, more slow choppers in the infield. When you get a double-play opportunity, you have to make it. So the premium on defense, particularly on the left side of the infield, is at its highest level.
But I have a lot of confidence that Danny has the talent to do it and that if he emotionally, mentally can do it consistently every day, he’ll be our starting third baseman.
The Advocate: First base, catcher and designated hitter. They’re kind of all connected, right?
Mainieri: I’d throw second base in there as well.
If you look at the catcher position … once again, I think we’ve got three quality catchers. We lost Tyler Moore, but we’ve added Michael Papierski. I think Kade Scivicque is better now than he’s ever been. Chris Chinea is a seasoned veteran. We can put him behind the plate as well.
I think we’re going to give an opportunity for Chinea’s bat to be in the lineup every game, and if he produces the runs, he’ll start every game all year. It’s hard to say every game, but he’ll be a regular. But he has to produce the runs for us, has to provide power, has to drive in runs.
Kade Scivicque is a very calming influence for our team behind the plate. He’s a senior. I thought he caught really well toward the end of the year, came through with some big hits.
I also think Michael Papierski is a tremendous ballplayer. He’s ready to play for us right now, and if we didn’t have Scivicque and Chinea … When Ty Ross came here, we didn’t have a Kade Scivicque or a Chinea. We had to throw Ross in there right away. Ross was not as ready to play every day as Michael Papierski is and, yet, Ross had to play every day. Papierski is a good player. We’re going to work him in there. I don’t know how much or how we’re going to do it yet. It’ll play out. I’m very confident in all three of those guys behind the plate.
The key question will be, “Who do we want to DH compared to who do we want to play second base?” We could go with Kramer Robertson at second, move Hale over to first base, make Chinea the semi-full-time DH or we could leave Hale at second, play Chinea at first, and that opens the DH job for a Greg Deichmann, a Beau Jordan, somebody like that.
This is all assuming that Danny Zardon gets the job done at third base. If he doesn’t, I could always flip Hale over to third or try Deichmann at third base, and that could have an effect on these other guys.
It’s no different, really, than every other year. I don’t really want to identify nine guys as starting players.
What happens if a guy gets hurt or a guy doesn’t produce? It seems so traumatic to your team. I like to develop 11 or 12 guys, maybe even 13 guys, guys you could put in there anytime and feel as though you’re putting a starting player in there. The key for me in managing the team is to … keep everybody sharp and give them enough playing time.
The Advocate: In the outfield, you have Mark Laird and Andrew Stevenson. In left field, Jake Fraley returns, but he didn’t have the best fall. Where does that position stand?
Mainieri: I’m not overly concerned about Fraley’s fall. I think Fraley is a heck of a ball player, and I think he’s a great athlete and he’s going to do some remarkable things. I wouldn’t say that he’s as locked in to the everyday job as Stevenson and Laird. Stevenson and Laird will play every day.
Fraley will be determined by his production, but I have this weird feeling that a kid like Jared Foster, who struggled all year last year but is really such a super athlete — he might have concerned himself a little bit too much with the draft and some other things last year. There’s a little extra level of maturity this year. I could see a platoon potential situation.
I also really like Beau Jordan. I think Beau Jordan is going to be an everyday player at LSU. I’m not sure when. He’s just a gritty, hard-nosed, competitive kid, and I love him to death.
His brother, Bryce, is hanging in the periphery as well. And then, I think, Chris Sciambra gives us a very good utility outfielder who can play any of the positions. Whenever you stick Chris in there, he just does the job for you. He’s just been a great security blanket for our team. He’s been a real big contributor for us.
The Advocate: Given the youth of this team, especially at pitcher, what are realistic expectations?
Mainieri: Every year you’re going to have youth. It’s just a matter of which part. Next year the youth is going to be in our everyday lineup, and we’re going to have a veteran staff. You don’t hold onto players. They don’t sign 10-year contracts around here. They come and go.
Every year is a little bit different than the year before, and you just adapt to it. I’ve never been afraid to play freshmen. I’d rather play an inexperienced, more talented player than an experienced, not-as-talented player. If experience was the only factor, we would have never sent a man to the moon. You have to bite the bullet and jump in at some point.
When we played in Omaha two years ago, Bregman, Laird and Stevenson were all freshmen — a third of our starting lineup. This year’s team, if I can compare it to any team in my mind, is back when I coached at Notre Dame.
In 2002, we lost a pitcher like Aaron Nola from the year before. We lost some really key guys. And the next year, we had a veteran team, but we counted on freshman pitchers. We had three freshmen in our top four, and they pitched us to Omaha. They pitched us to Omaha. They hadn’t done that in 45 years, and we did it, really, with freshmen leading the way, with one pitcher that had a little bit of experience in there.
Our top two starters were freshmen. It gives me hope that it can be done with freshman pitchers. This group of freshman pitchers … they just give me a very confident feeling. It’s not just their ability. It’s the way they carry themselves. They’re very confident, very poised. They’re all very intelligent, and I know we’ve got the right pitching coach working with them. I know he’s going to get the best out of those kids.
I’m very confident that our lineup will be as good as anybody’s in the country. That doesn’t mean we’re going to score 10 runs a game. In today’s era of baseball, that just doesn’t happen.
It’s going to be a solid defensive team. I think we’ve got really good speed. Think we’ve got good hitters. It’s going to be a formidable lineup. And if these freshman pitchers and those veteran pitchers do the job, my expectation as always is to go to Omaha and play for the national championship. I don’t see why we should have any different goal this year.