Earlier this week, Jay Johnson handled the three most hectic days of the year for a college baseball coach from his desk inside Alex Box Stadium. Between recruiting visits, he wanted to be there throughout the Major League Baseball Draft as he remained in contact with his new assistant coaches and talked to players.
So it was at his desk that Johnson received a phone call around 6 p.m. Monday night from senior pitcher Devin Fontenot, who said he was coming back to school. Johnson remained there about an hour-and-a-half later, when senior pitcher Ma’Khail Hilliard told his new coach the same thing. And Johnson was at his desk once again the next day as junior outfielder Gavin Dugas delayed his professional career.
For LSU’s new baseball coach, bringing back those upperclassmen became the highlight of the draft. While LSU lost two current players and four recruits, it retained three players with significant experience, bolstering the roster next season.
“To get those guys to turn down some money to return to LSU was a big-time win,” Johnson said, “and I'm really excited about that.”
Johnson had made retaining Fontenot, Hilliard and Dugas “priority No. 1” as he evaluated the roster and planned for the draft. He spoke to Fontenot in his office around 11 p.m. the night before his official introduction, and he talked to all three players almost every day since he accepted the job.
As the draft began, Johnson continued to communicate with them, hoping all three would return to LSU next season. Fontenot and Hilliard made their decisions once the 10th round of the draft concluded Monday.
Johnson also spoke to Dugas that night, and though Dugas waited until the final round finished Tuesday afternoon, Johnson believed he would come back, too. Dugas officially did after going undrafted, giving LSU a left fielder who batted .295 and led the team with 19 home runs last season.
“When you have good teams and special teams, they often start with decisions like those guys made,” Johnson said. “I think it's going to have a massive effect on our team next year.”
LSU also lost players during the draft, as all premier college programs do. Junior right-handed pitchers Jaden Hill and Landon Marceaux were picked, and four recruits — right-handed pitcher Ben Kudrna, catcher Carter Jensen, left-handed pitcher Brock Selvidge and catcher Ian Moller — likely started their professional careers.
All six players went in the top-4 rounds, signaling they reached agreements with their respective teams. Fourth-year pitcher AJ Labas is also expected to sign as an undrafted free agent in the coming days.
“I don't think anything unexpected happened,” Johnson said. “If you would have given me the scenario that happened, I would have said, 'That's probably right.' The high school guys that we lost, we kind of anticipated losing based on the intel that I got.”
The players selected primarily affected LSU’s pitching staff, which was part of the reason bringing back Hilliard and Fontenot became so important. Hilliard re-established himself as an effective starter near the end of the season, recording a 3.13 ERA over eight starts, and Fontenot was LSU’s best relief pitcher. Next season, Fontenot will get a chance to start for the first time in his career.
“I'm going into the fall with a completely open mind,” Johnson said. “For me, roles with the pitching staff, I've never liked labeling guys a Friday guy or a Saturday guy or a reliever or a closer. For me, the entire pitching staff are 'out-getters.' Both of those guys had a lot of success last year and throughout their career in terms of getting outs and getting important outs.”
Now that the draft has ended, Johnson wants to further balance LSU’s mix of left and right-handed pitchers and “make sure we're covered defensively at certain spots,” an indication more transfers may join the team. However, he said, “I think the success of the team this next year is more about the improvement of the guys that are already in the program.”
At some point, Johnson will have to make cuts or players will need to transfer. As the roster stands now, LSU will have more players than the 40 allowed next season by the NCAA. Trying to view every player without a preconceived notion about their ability, Johnson plans to help them develop and then let competition determine spots.
All of that will come, but at least for now, Johnson has another year until he needs to worry about professional teams plucking away LSU’s players. Back at his desk, he can focus on finishing the roster, player development...
“And then obviously recruiting,” Johnson said. “There's a lot going on right now.”