It took one organized team activity for Antoine Duplantis to see that change had indeed occurred with the LSU baseball team.
It was not so much the new faces as it was the activity: LSU’s annual conditioning test.
Duplantis, suddenly, is a veteran on this LSU baseball team. He had been through the test a couple of times, and he knew it can be a telling gauge of a team’s veteran status. Teams with a lot coming back have no trouble with the conditioning test, because they have been through it before.
“This fall we had the worst conditioning test I’ve seen,” Duplantis said.
That was the initial test — the new players were overwhelmed. They rebounded quickly, Duplantis said, and everyone passed by the end of the first week. But it illustrated a point.
The LSU baseball team that took the field for its first full team practice of 2018 did not much resemble the one that finished the 2017 season as one of the last two teams standing in Omaha, Nebraska. Of the 32 active players on LSU’s roster, more than half — 17 — are new.
The usual forms of attrition — graduation, transfers and the Major League Baseball draft — exacted a heavy toll on the Tigers. So did injury. Sophomore pitcher Eric Walker, a standout in LSU’s rotation in 2017, will miss the entire season as he recovers from Tommy John surgery.
Eric Walker missed the team picture.
Included among the departed: the Tigers' double play tandem, one of the Southeastern Conference’s top power hitters, an excellent defensive catcher, the ace of the pitching staff and LSU’s all-time winningest pitcher.
This does not include the four high-profile signees that gave up their LSU roster spot in order to sign professionally, nor does it include two more promising freshmen — pitchers Nick Storz and A.J. Labas — who are behind schedule as they rehabilitate from injury.
“This is college baseball; you’re going to deal with this every year,” said LSU coach Paul Mainieri. “You’re going to lose guys to the draft early before they graduate; you’re going to have guys graduate.”
Because of LSU’s status as one of the preeminent programs in college baseball, re-stocking the roster is a constant challenge. The best players are on campus for only two or three years, so it is incumbent on the coaching staff to have adept replacements ready.
The challenge this season is that LSU is facing a high degree of turnover both on the mound and at the plate as it approaches its Feb. 16 season opener against Notre Dame at Alex Box Stadium.
The Tigers are replacing roughly 50 percent of their offensive production from last yer's team, with Cole Freeman, Greg Deichmann, Kramer Robertson and Michael Papierski responsible for the lion’s share of that.
Those four accounted for nearly 60 percent of LSU’s home run total.
Replacing the cornerstones in the LSU lineup does not concern Mainieri as much as the pitching staff, though.
“There’s where the anxiety can be created,” Mainieri said.
Of the 72 games played by LSU last season, 56 were started by pitchers who will not play in 2018. LSU only returns roughly a third of the innings pitched by last season’s team. Of the 17 new players, 11 are pitchers — 12 counting the expected two-way contribution of Daniel Cabrera.
The main question is a matter of roles.
LSU can find comfort in the 1-2 starting punch it currently has with right-handers Zack Hess and Caleb Gilbert, both of whom enjoyed brilliant finishes to strong 2017 campaigns. But beyond them, LSU must quickly define who is going to fit where.
LSU is one step closer to replacing its entire starting rotation.
“We’re still figuring that out, and we’re still going to be figuring it out three weeks from now, and we won’t really figure it out until they get on that mound,” said pitching coach Alan Dunn. “Then I’ll know who they are.
“… But that’s always the fun part, figuring out ‘Who is that guy?’ We’ll figure it out.”
LSU has been in this situation a couple of times before. In 2016, it had to replace roughly 85 percent of its offensive production from the 2015 College World Series team. In 2010, the Tigers had to replace their ace pitcher and about half the lineup from a national title team.
It’s also the third time in Mainieri’s tenure he has had to replace the entire weekend rotation from the previous season.
When Mainieri looks at it as a whole, he sees reason to be optimistic.
“I don’t feel like this is as big an overhaul as those years were,” Mainieri said. “… I’ve never been one to make excuses because you’re young, and I’m certainly not going to start now. We’ll overcome it.”
That initial struggle on the conditioning test turned into something different by the time the fall came to a close. He thought that first week was a sort of microcosm of the team's fall practices.
"At the beginning of the fall, things weren’t clicking, I guess," Duplantis said. "But at the end of the fall, we were looking like a team. We’ve got a lot of good players. I’m excited about the year."