Sure, Paul Mainieri’s baseball team missed a golden opportunity to reach the College World Series this season. But if you’re an LSU fan and you’re already looking ahead to 2017, consider this: The Tigers will have much more experience next year than they had this spring. Cole Freeman and Kramer Robertson solidified the middle infield; Antoine Duplantis and Chris Reid showed plenty of poise as true freshmen; and Greg Deichmann developed into a pretty potent slugger.
Next, year you return eight of nine (everyday starters) instead of losing eight of nine. What’s the luxury in that as opposed to this season?
“Now, that doesn’t mean all eight of those guys are going to be starting players next year. We have a great recruiting class coming in, and we’re always striving to upgrade our team to be the best team we can be. The guys that played this year were the best guys for our team to play regularly this year. Next year is a whole new entity. And so when we start fall practice, the competition begins again.
“There are certain guys I would say are probably going to be everyday guys again, and you don’t have to use too much imagination to understand that. Some guys have earned that based upon their experience level, how they performed the year before and so forth. Some guys that may have started this past year, they’re in for the fight of their lives to be able to start again next year, because I know what we have coming in talent-wise. And those guys are going to be given a fair opportunity just like everyone else.
“So, I don’t think it’s as simple as saying, ‘Because we’re returning eight of nine players, that means we’re going to have all this experience on the field.’ Certainly experience is a major factor, and a lot of the guys will be back in the lineup, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there were a couple of freshmen who win jobs next year.”
Who are some of those freshmen you’re excited about?
“I’m excited about all of them. I’m not going to start identifying them right now. Once we get going in fall practice, then those players I’m excited about will prove their worth or they won’t do as well as I would have hoped. I’m not going to say specifically, but again, you can use your imagination.
“A couple of them are already playing in collegiate summer leagues as graduated seniors, and they’re doing well. Jake Slaughter’s already hit a couple home runs. Josh Smith is hitting close to .300 for his team. So that’s exciting.
“We’ve got eight freshmen and one junior college transfer here for summer school that aren’t out playing, but they’re working in the weight room and getting acquainted with academics. I’m excited about all the guys and excited to see how they can make us a better team.”
Your middle infield stays intact with Cole Freeman and Kramer Robertson. Is that a nucleus of sorts returning?
“Having those two guys back is huge, because I think both of them exemplify the scrappiness of our team from this previous year. And that’s not a trait I’d like to see our team lose going into next year. They’re both extremely tough, physically and mentally, and they played well. I think Cole ended up leading our team in batting average. Oh my gosh: If you would have asked me who would have led our team in hitting back in September (or) October, Cole Freeman would have probably been the last guy I would have mentioned. He hit, like, .230 in fall ball.
“But again, Andy Cannizaro did such a good job with Cole, keeping the ball out of the air, putting it on the ground, used his speed, got some bunt hits. Obviously he was a tremendous defensive player. Cole Freeman was just a phenomenal player for us this year, and I would expect him to be even better next year. He’s going to have a summer in Cape Cod, he knows who he is as a player, and now he has so much more experience. I’m excited about Cole going into next year.
“Obviously, Kramer, the story’s been well chronicled. His development as a player, as a shortstop and as a hitter — everyone can see that. But where he set himself apart was his leadership this year.”
Greg Deichmann had some inconsistencies , offensively and defensively, to begin the year before really becoming a force in the postseason . How good can he be next year?
“Watching Greg’s evolution as a hitter has been really amazing. It started last summer in the Northwoods League with 230 at-bats there, continued through fall practice and even as the spring progressed, there were awesome highs and pretty low lows as well. The thing that encouraged me the most was that he didn’t strike out nearly as much as I thought he would. He probably struck out half the amount of times I thought he would.
“His recognition of pitches was much better, his bat control was much better. I still think he gave away a lot of at-bats for different reasons, but when he puts it together and he’s a confident guy up there swinging the bat with the way we all know he can, he’s as big a threat as there probably is in the country. He’s going to be a force next year. If he keeps on the same route, you’re talking about this guy maybe being the best power hitter in the country, and obviously that vaults him to a top-level draft choice.
“I think he made a really good decision to come back for his sake, and it’s going to obviously help our team. ... I haven’t decided yet (defensively). I’m toying with the idea of trying him in a corner outfield spot, but I’m not 100 percent sure yet. The only way I could do that is if somebody else could step into the first base job and (Deichmann) would have to show he’s really good. But he is a good athlete. He runs a lot better than people think he does, and he’s got a good arm. He could end up being a really good outfielder, but I just haven’t ever seen him.”
When O’Neal Lochridge went down, how impressed were you with Chris Reid’s emergence at third?
“I don’t think we would have accomplished what we did this year without Chris Reid’s contributions. I was very concerned about third base, and Chris surpassed my expectations, honestly.
“I always thought Chris was a good ballplayer, but Chris has some limitations. He’s not a fleet-of-foot runner; he doesn’t have great power. But boy, he put the bat on the ball consistently, and for the most part, he played good defensively at third base. He showed a lot of poise. That was a big stage that we threw him into, and I thought he handled himself remarkably well.”
You gushed about Antoine Duplantis before the season. Did he give you everything you thought he would?
“He gave me everything I hoped he would. It’s hard to expect a freshman to come in and do the things Antoine did. He showed remarkable poise, had self-confidence, wasn’t in awe. Played very, very steady and at times very spectacular.
“Next fall, he’s going to be moved over to center field, and he and Brennan Breaux will compete for the starting center field job, and we’ll see how that plays out. We’ll see if he’s as good a center fielder as he was a right fielder. He did a great job with the bat, but I still think he can even be better. I think he can even be more consistent than he is as a hitter. I think if he could learn to bunt, it would add another skill to his repertoire that would make him even more dangerous.
“If he could get better jumps stealing bases, it could even add more as a threat. But if he never improved one bit, he’s still a good player. But I think he’s got a lot of improvements still to make and, if he does make that improvement, the sky’s the limit.”
With Parker Bugg, Riley Smith and Jesse Stallings signing, your bullpen will absorb the most attrition. Is that your biggest concern going into the fall?
“I think so. It’ll be a big question, but I really like the candidates. We’ll have Nick Bush back; we’ll have Russell Reynolds back; and of course, we’ll have Newman back. We’ll have (Austin) Bain back, who showed at times he was really good. We’ll see how Cole McKay has developed, whether he’ll be a starter or a potential arm out of the bullpen.
“But we brought in some guys this year that I’m really high on — some power arms and some guys with pitch-ability as well. I’m really excited about seeing these new pitchers. It might be as many as seven. Guys like Zach Hess and Todd Peterson, these guys are power arms that can run it up there. Hess was up to 97 (mph) this spring as a high school senior and pretty much pitched at 90-93. Could get to 94-95 when he needed it. Peterson is a 93-94 guy.
“Hunter Kiel, if he can command the strike zone, is another power arm. Guys like Eric Walker, this guy was the consummate winner, his strikeouts, his ERA were amazing. He can really pitch. Blair Frederick is a good left-handed arm. The two Louisiana kids, Matthew Beck and Will Reese — if they put it together, my goodness, we could have some special arms there.
“It’s a concern every year, your bullpen, because you can’t win in the SEC without a good bullpen. But we’ve got some arms. We’ve got the best pitching coach in the country (Alan Dunn) to work with them. They’re going to evolve and improve as time goes on. I’m excited about them.”