Cole Freeman was never far from Jake Fraley.
Whether they were taking batting practice in the cages or simply in their stretch lines, the junior college transfer watched Fraley and learned all he could from him. It was a habit Freeman practiced since LSU opened fall camp in late September until it closed in early November.
“When I got here, I tried to look at what he did,” Freeman said during fall practice. “I’m just kind of trying to pick up all the little things he does. Obviously, the dude can play. He showed that he’s one of the best outfielders in the nation. Anything I can learn from him, I want to try to pick up on it.”
Fraley had no shortage of eager pupils. As the only returning everyday player from last year’s College World Series squad, the junior outfielder mentored a roster littered with freshmen and transfers.
For the most part, Fraley wanted his play to set the standard for his teammates. Newcomers like Freeman witnessed Fraley’s intensity and work ethic on the field, but his leadership took another, more personal dimension.
“I want to let those guys know that I’m here for them if they need anything,” Fraley said during the fall. “When we’re in the dugout or the cages and it’s just us, I make sure that if they’re struggling with something to give them a little pat on the back. I know what it’s like. I’ve been through it all.”
Like a handful of Tigers will be this season, Fraley was thrown into the fire as a freshman. He hit .372 during his Freshman All-America campaign before becoming a mainstay in left field in 2015. Now he’s the leading contender to replace Andrew Stevenson, one of eight MLB draft picks on last year’s team, in centerfield.
That’s nothing new to Fraley, who played center fielder in high school and for the Chatham Anglers in the Cape Cod summer league. But switching positions wasn’t the biggest adjustment the junior faced this offseason.
Every now and then, he looked out at teammates and wondered: who are all these guys? It wasn’t a thought he dwelt on for long.
“I can’t let myself because last year was last year. All that’s in the past,” Fraley said. “As much as I would love to play with those guys again, these new guys are a great group of guys. They’re really talented. I love coming out here and playing on the field with them.”
Fraley embraced the youth and inexperience around him, and LSU coach Paul Mainieri called him the team’s leader “without question.” But Mainieri said Fraley has always been a leader and doesn’t need to do anything differently just because he’s one of the few veterans on the roster.
“He’s a leader just by example and the way he’s played,” Mainieri said early in fall camp. “That’s the best he can do for our team, just playing at a really high level.”
He did just that this fall while showing the new guys the ropes. Fraley’s name came up when Mainieri envisioned the middle of the order, and freshman infielder Trey Dawson said he was always giving out hitting tips to the younger players.
When Fraley wasn’t imparting his batting knowledge to his teammates, he was using it to frustrate one of the best pitchers in the country.
“He’s going to make you throw him his pitches. If you get behind in the count to him, even 1-1, he’s at the advantage,” sophomore right-hander Alex Lange said. “You’re going to have to make your perfect pitch to get him out. If you throw a mistake, he’s going to hit it.”
Back in June, Fraley was the young guy on the team. Now, only six months later, he’s the veteran expected to lead his fellow Tigers on and off the field, but he didn’t find the quick transition odd. It’s just the next chapter of his journey.
“Stepping into that veteran role is not weird at all,” Fraley said. “It’s one of those things I knew was going to come around eventually, and now I’m in that step of my time here at LSU.”
Perfect Game rankings
LSU may be a young squad heading into its season opener against Cincinnati on Feb. 19, but it’s still not wanting for big-league talent. Scouting service Perfect Game USA placed four Tigers on its list of top 150 college preseason prospects for the 2016 MLB Draft.
Fraley led the charge at No. 16, followed by junior southpaw Jared Poche’ at No. 30, junior right-hander Riley Smith at No. 105 and sophomore infielder Greg Deichmann at No. 131.
A Freshman All-American in 2014, Poche’ went 9-2 with a 3.05 ERA last season. Smith, a junior college transfer from San Jacinto College in Texas, was a JUCO All-American and a 31st-round MLB Draft pick in 2015. Deichmann went hitless in eight at-bats last year, but Mainieri was impressed with his strong showings in summer league and fall camp.