With the departures of many core players, LSU must restock its roster heading into the 2020 baseball season.
The Tigers lost shortstop Josh Smith, third baseman Chris Reid, second baseman Brandt Broussard, right fielder Antoine Duplantis and center fielder Zach Watson, gutting the lineup.
Coach Paul Mainieri decided the Tigers will reduce the number of pitchers on the team, giving them more options as they replace the majority of the batting order.
Mainieri spoke with The Advocate on Tuesday morning. In the second part of the conversation, he previewed what to expect from the 2020 roster, and he revealed LSU had found two more infielders since the end of the season.
On Tuesday morning, LSU baseball coach Paul Mainieri discussed the 2019 season with The Advocate and gave a glimpse of what to expect next year.
The Advocate: Looking ahead to 2020, there's going to be a lot of new faces in the lineup. What's it going to be like finding all those pieces during preseason practice?
Paul Mainieri: You're always replacing some guys. (Saul) Garza was a first-year player. (Cade) Beloso was a first-year player. Every year, at a minimum you're going to have two or three new players in your lineup. Next year in might be six new players.
I feel confident in Garza's return. I feel confident in Beloso's return. I feel confident Daniel Cabrera's going to be the old Daniel Cabrera. We have other guys who have played. Now whether or not they'll be starting players will be determined by the competition they'll go through in the fall and into the spring.
We have a good class coming in, and we've added to that class in the last couple of weeks. I'm excited about those players we've just added. I can't tell you who they are at this point because we haven't gone through the signing process.
Last year we spent 20 of our 35 spots on pitchers, which meant we only had 15 position players. Of those 15 position players, we only had about eight of them even receiving scholarship money. You were limited with your pieces.
This year it's going to be a little bit more balanced with the 35 spots on the roster. ... We're not going to have 20 spots. It's going to be closer to 18 spots, maybe even 17 spots. Most of those pitchers are going to be veteran pitchers. That affords me the opportunity of going out and trying to get more quality in our position players.
It's virtually impossible for me to even guess what our lineup's going to look like next February on opening day because the competition is going to be so extreme this fall among the position players.
About an hour before a game in late March, Paul Mainieri found another reminder of his father, Demie. They had shown up often the previous two weeks.
The Advocate: You said a couple weeks ago, after Christian Cairo picked pro ball, you needed to find more infielders. Have you made progress with that? Do you like —
Mainieri: That's pretty much what I was talking about (with the players LSU recently added.)
The Advocate: Do you like who you've found and who you're bringing in?
Mainieri: I really like them. They're both, the two players we're going to get were both drafted. They were scheduled to go to other schools, but the schools they were scheduled to go to, the head coaches were fired, so they asked for their release from their national letters of intent. We've got a couple commitments from kids we think are going to be really good players.
The Advocate: When you look at next year's team, is the infield the area with the most question marks?
Mainieri: I would say so. You've basically lost your starting players at at least two positions, if not three.
Paul Mainieri dropped into his office chair.
The Advocate: What do you want to see over the summer from the infielders coming back?
Mainieri: This summer's a very important summer for them. Hal (Hughes) is going to be playing shortstop up in the Cape Cod League. Typically in the summer, the coach's strategy is not like it is during the season. They don't ask players to sacrifice bunt or take pitches to work walks, stuff that we would typically do when winning is the real goal.
I'm going to see how Hal hits this summer. I know what he can do defensively. He played a whole season at shortstop for us. I think his defense is adequate enough to be an everyday shortstop. But we need to get more offense.
I don't know if we're going to have a team where you can afford to have two or three players hitting .200 or less. We have to raise our offensive ability. We're losing Antoine. We're losing Josh Smith. We're losing Zach Watson. We're losing guys who are the majority of the offense.
I'm interested to see how Hal does this summer up there. I'm interested to see what improvements Gavin Dugas and Drew Bianco make.
I can tell you CJ Willis is off to a really good start where he is. He's played about half a dozen games, and he's hitting over .400. He's hit a home run. He's got several doubles. There was never any doubt in my mind about CJ's ability to hit. I just hope he improves his defense at first base or left field and that he plays the game with a little bit higher level of energy.
Freshman pitcher Cole Henry exited Saturday's game in the super regional with a nerve issue. He is expected to be OK for fall practice.
We've also recruited other kids. Cade Doughty is a young man out of Denham Springs who's in a collegiate summer league, and he's tearing it up already. He's hitting over .400 in the time that he's been there. He's a good-looking ballplayer. I'm excited about seeing him. I mentioned these other two infielders I believe we'll be signing, and they look to be high-quality players.
When we line up in the fall and we put all the infielders out there, it's going to be great competition. I don't think any of the returning players outside of Cade Beloso, Garza and Cabrera necessarily have an inside track on starting.
Probably of those three, Cabrera is the most secure in a starting position. Beloso's going to need to improve his defense at first base, but if Beloso does what he did this past year, he's an everyday player. It's a question of whether it will be designated hitter or first base.
If Garza can continue to play the way he did at the end, then he's going to have a good chance to catch a lot. But he can't be the only catcher. That's where these two freshmen, Alex Milazzo and Hayden Travinski, come in.
Milazzo's not playing this summer. He's here in summer school. He has a reputation of being a really great defensive catcher. Travinski is a little bit more raw in his catching skills. He's got great power, but he's struggling some in summer ball right now. He's striking out an awful lot. He's hit a couple home runs, but he's striking out an awful lot. There will be a big battle there for the starting job, but also for the backup job behind the plate.
Some of the new outfielders that are coming in are really excelling this summer in collegiate summer leagues as well. Wes Toups, Mitchell Sanford. We sent them away to play this summer, and they're playing really well. I'm excited about what they've done so far.
It's going to be an exciting fall because there's going to be so many question marks. We just have to make sure we have the pitchers healthy so we don't get into a situation like we did last year where we can only play a couple of intersquad scrimmages a week.
These kids need to play for us to find out who we can count on, and the only way you can play the games is if your pitchers are healthy enough to pitch.
In the days after losing a heartbreaking NCAA super regional to Florida State in two games, questions abound for the LSU baseball program.
The Advocate: How confident do you feel in what you might have from the pitching staff?
Mainieri: We lost some really great arms. Todd Peterson was an underrated guy for us. Zack Hess, people have a tendency to dwell on the outings that didn't go great, but he was a tremendously valuable pitcher for us. Those are big losses for us.
What (Devin) Fontenot did in the last game, and what Fontenot did really over a long period of time, gives us an awful lot of hope that he'll anchor that bullpen. Matthew Beck I thought made big strides this year, and I think he'll do some really great stuff. Of course Hilliard and Vietmeier had some really good moments as well.
The whole key is going to be those four starting pitchers: Jaden Hill, (Cole) Henry, (Landon) Marceaux, (Eric) Walker. Are they going to be healthy? Are they going to take their game up a notch? I think they're capable.
We're trying to build a team that not only can win in the regular season, in the Southeastern Conference, but also in Omaha. It all starts with the starting pitching and having a great bullpen.