Paul Mainieri can’t recall ever coaching a team as young as the one set to report for fall practice Sunday.
Sure, LSU’s baseball coach remembers regularly playing as many as three freshmen every now and again, but replacing eight everyday starters is a tall task. Mainieri, however, isn’t all that worried.
“I’m not overly concerned about playing young players,” Mainieri said last week. “I kind of laugh when I hear coaches around the country make an excuse about their team being so young. Well, what do you expect? You don’t get to sign the players for 10-year contracts. You’re gonna have turnover.”
Considering the massive turnover on LSU’s roster, Mainieri already has his priorities in order. The first position battle Mainieri wants resolved is at shortstop, and he said the rest of the infield will fall in place once that’s settled.
Juniors Kramer Robertson and Cole Freeman and freshman Trey Dawson will contend to replace All-American Alex Bregman at the position. Mainieri named those three players, along with sophomore Greg Deichmann and freshman O’Neal Lochridge, as the top five infielders going into fall ball.
“Those five guys are the candidates for all three positions,” Mainieri said. “But I’ve already narrowed down shortstop to three of the five. Once it gets narrowed down to two or to one, now that other guy or two guys will slide over to third or second. We’re going to utilize the best three of those five guys and then figure out who the utility infielders will be.”
A pair of two-man battles at other positions will play out during fall practice: sophomore Michael Papierski and junior Jordan Romero at catcher, and sophomore Bryce Jordan and junior Bryce Adams at first base.
Mainieri said junior Jake Fraley, the only returning everyday player, will move over from left field to center field. He also has high expectations for freshman outfielders Brennan Breaux and Antoine Duplantis.
So where do all these new faces fit in the batting order?
“The first thing you have to do is figure out who your best nine players are, and then figure out what the order may look like,” Mainieri said. “But there are certain guys that you go into it thinking, ‘These are potential middle-of-the-order guys. These are potential table-setters.’”
Mainieri said the Tigers’ pitching staff could be the deepest he has ever had at his disposal, but he wasn’t coy about its biggest area of need. One of his main goals during fall ball is to find a reliable third and fourth starting pitcher after inconsistency at those positions gave LSU nightmares last aseason.
He has no shortage of options. Sophomores Jake Godfrey and Doug Norman competed for those roles last year, and freshman Jake Latz is finally healthy after missing all of last season with an injury to his throwing elbow.
Sophomore Austin Bain will miss the fall because of offseason shoulder surgery, though Mainieri said he is confident he’ll be ready to go by the spring. Mainieri said he plans to extend his pitchers during fall scrimmages to see who can handle the demands of being a starter.
“Sometimes you can get a false positive in the fall because they’re only pitching an inning or two innings,” he said. “Whereas, if you get to throw four or five innings and the lineup turns over a couple of times, do they have the repertoire to get the same hitter out three times with their repertoire of pitches?”
Though the priority is to lock down starters behind sophomore Alex Lange and junior Jared Poché, the coach said developing a quality bullpen is also crucial. He praised the work of relievers Hunter Newman, Parker Bugg and Jesse Stallings and expects them to take their play to another level in 2016.
“The guys that are a year older seem to have a different aura about them,” he said. “They’re more mature, more confident and lead you to believe that they’re gonna be better.”
Mainieri was also high on four newcomers: senior John Valek, junior Riley Smith, and freshmen Caleb Gilbert and Cole McKay. With so many fresh faces on the roster, Mainieri and his staff have a twofold mission during fall ball: instilling the coaching philosophy while evaluating each player’s talent.
Fortunately for Mainieri, he knows how to spot the good ones.
“What is important to us as the coaching staff, we have to impart that on the players and make it important to them, as well,” Mainieri said. “The ones that can take the coaching and then apply it, plus they have the talent, they’re the ones that eventually emerge and become your everyday players.”