Change is the only constant in college baseball.
For most of Paul Mainieri's tenure, LSU has done a masterful job navigating that change, restocking the shelves with top-tier talent and consistently competing at a national level as the Major League Baseball draft takes away its best players and, in many cases, its best recruits.
The Tigers will face another difficult challenge this season: More than half the roster is composed of players who were not on the team a year ago. Here are five things to watch as LSU takes its first step toward the 2018 season when it opens fall practice Sunday.
1: What will happen with Zack Hess?
If you conducted a poll among LSU baseball fans, this might be the top question on their minds: Will sophomore right-hander Zack Hess start, or will he be in the same high-leverage relief role again? We probably won't have a final answer this fall, because much of it depends on the development of the other pitchers on the staff. Hess is a valuable piece; LSU just needs to figure out where he provides the most value. One thing to keep in mind: Hess came here in part because Mainieri promised him a chance to become a starting pitcher.
2: The most important replacement?
From last season’s team, LSU lost a first-round fireballer (Alex Lange), a slugger who hit 19 home runs (Greg Deichmann), its starting shortstop and emotional sparkplug (Kramer Robertson) and a guy who broke the school’s all-time wins record (Jared Poché). But the most difficult one to replace, in Mainieri’s eye, is catcher Michael Papierski, who did a tremendous job managing the pitching staff. That task now falls on newcomers Hunter Feduccia and Mason Doolittle. Mainieri said you don’t notice the impact of a great catcher until he’s gone, saying Feduccia and Doolittle “have as much pressure on them as any players we have.”
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3: Danny Two-Way?
One of the more interesting things to watch this fall will be how LSU handles freshman Daniel Cabrera, who has a shot to be the Tigers' first two-way player since Chad Jones in 2009. Though Cabrera came to LSU mainly because of his ability at the plate, he impressed pitching coach Alan Dunn in bullpen sessions. Cabrera will also work in left field and at first base, and Mainieri said he doesn’t want to take away from his opportunity to play every day. But after watching him throw from the left side on the mound, “my gut feeling is he could help us there,” Mainieri said.
4: Youth movement
LSU is going into this season with just two upperclassman pitchers who have faced Southeastern Conference hitters (Caleb Gilbert and Austin Bain). The pitching staff will include 11 newcomers (12 if Cabrera is counted in the mix), seven of whom are freshmen. That’s a lot of new clay for Dunn to mold. Two of the top newcomers, right-handers A.J. Labas (back) and Nick Storz (shoulder) have only recently started their throwing programs because of injury. LSU is in a unique situation of having almost no defined roles on its pitching staff coming into this season, meaning opportunity is knocking for the youngsters.
5: A name to watch out for.
Mainieri is excited to get a look at freshman outfielder Nick Webre, a Teurlings Catholic product who enjoyed an outstanding summer in the Prospect League (.348, 4 HRs, 26 RBIs, 17 SB). “He went off and had a really good summer, he’s a very aggressive hitter, he’s got a body full of life, he runs better than people think,” Mainieri said. The left-handed-hitting Webre (pronounced “web”) was named Louisiana’s Mr. Baseball as a junior. He will compete with Cabrera and Beau Jordan in left field and could also could also factor in the mix for playing time at first base.