LSU had no competition for the starting position in left field, but a whole bunch of competition for the starting positions in center and right.
Reigning Southeastern Conference Player of the Year Raph Rhymes, who set a school record with a nation-leading .431 batting average last year, was certain to start in left field again before the Tigers even began preseason practice three weeks ago.
“I’d say Raph has left field pretty locked up,” first baseman Mason Katz deadpanned at Media Day.
But Katz’s move from right field to first base left two-thirds of the outfield open to competition among four similar players. The Tigers believe that competition demonstrated increased athleticism, defensive skill and depth in the outfield.
Sophomore Chris Sciambra of Catholic High School will start in center field and freshman Mark Laird from Monroe will start in right when LSU opens the season against Maryland on Friday night in Alex Box Stadium.
But two other newcomers — junior Sean McMullen from Delgado Community College and Andrew Stevenson of St. Thomas More High School — are still in the mix. Either could be the designated hitter, or a late-inning defensive replacement for Rhymes or start in the outfield later in the weekend. This competition isn’t over.
Coach Paul Mainieri used a variety of outfielders last season, especially after Sciambra was lost for the season due to a neck injury suffered at Auburn in the second Southeastern Conference series.
That was done in search of a reliable center fielder; this year’s juggling is expected to be done to try and keep several dependable players involved and sharp.
“You always start out thinking that you have too many players and wondering how you’re going to get all these guys enough playing time but it will all work out,” Mainieri said. “There will be a role for everybody.”
Sciambra wasn’t expected to be much of a factor as a freshman when last season began, but he had taken hold of the center field and leadoff spots before being injured when he crashed into the outfield wall chasing a fly ball.
Laird, who also was a wide receiver at Ouachita Christian High, was the Class 1A Player of the Year in baseball, Stevenson was an all-state player and McMullen was a junior college All-American.
“Anybody who is in there (in center and right) is really going to make a solid impact,” Katz said. “It’s really about going with the hot hand.
“That’s how it works. Coach Mainieri has always been really good about putting guys in that are hot. He’s done it his whole career. He knows when to make a move.”
Sciambra will bat leadoff followed by Laird in the opener, and Rhymes’ counterparts in the outfield are expected to continue to bat in the first two spots even as Mainieri experiments with different combinations. Rhymes will hit cleanup for a second consecutive season.
If one of the outfielders grabs the DH spot he will likely bat ninth, balancing the speed at the top of the order with more speed at the bottom.
“We’re all lefty hitters, we all have speed, we all can play outfield well,” said Laird, who’s considered the fastest player on the team.
Senior Alex Edward, who’s a candidate to be the DH against left-handers, and sophomore Jared Foster also provide depth in the outfield.
“I think we’ve got five or six guys that can really play center or right field,” Sciambra said. “I think any of us could play center or right any day of the week and we wouldn’t miss a beat.”
Mainieri said the collection of speedy left-handed hitters should help make the Tigers batting order more effective from one through nine.
“I like the idea that Chris Sciambra is back, fully healthy,” Mainieri said. “We could have three left-handed hitters that can run in the lineup at the same time. I can hardly hold in my enthusiasm about (the newcomers).
“They can flat out fly, they are excellent athletes, they are excellent outfielders, they are tough to strike out, and they can handle the bat and their speed is going to be a tremendous asset for us.”
The improved speed will not only be an asset in reaching base and running the bases, but also in tracking down fly balls in the outfield.
“They have a ton of speed out there,” said right-hander Ryan Eades, who will start against Maryland on Saturday afternoon. “There is a handful of guys. It is going to be hard to pick starters. Any guy you put out there can fly and cover a ton of ground. As a pitcher that’s a huge asset.”
There could be plenty of jockeying among the outfielders leading up to the SEC opener at Mississippi State on March 15.
“We all have one goal and that’s to get to Omaha (for the College World Series),” McMullen said. “I’m not going to come out here and say I need to be on the field. Whoever’s playing the best is going to play and we all bring our own tools and I’m just lucky to be part of a team that has so much talent.”
Rhymes said he’s excited about the new-look outfield.
“It’s been a lot of fun working with them,” Rhymes said, “and I’m looking forward to good things.”