The LSU baseball team could not have rightly expected to be in this situation, yet here it is: donning gold jerseys three weeks before the 2017 opener were seniors Kramer Robertson, Jared Poché, Cole Freeman and junior Greg Deichmann.
All four were selected in the Major League Baseball draft last June, and all four decided to return. It was an unexpected windfall for coach Paul Mainieri, who happily bestowed upon the group a nickname.
“I’m going to call those guys my ‘Fab Four,’ ” Mainieri said. “Our team would … have a significantly different look to it if those four guys were not back.”
Certainly it would. Robertson, Freeman and Deichmann combined to hit .314 (223-for-711) last season while smacking 63 extra-base hits, stealing 45 bases, driving in 123 runs and scoring 152 of their own. They will likely man three of the top four spots in the lineup this year.
Poché might’ve been the least likely of the group to come back. He looked like he was a goner after the San Diego Padres selected him in the 14th round.
“I didn’t try to convince him to (stay),” Mainieri said. “I think those are decisions that everybody has to make on their own.”
The senior left-hander has been a fixture in LSU’s weekend rotation since his freshman season and he has a chance at becoming LSU’s career wins leader.
Pitching coach Alan Dunn fondly remembers his call from Poché after the Padres did not meet the pitcher's bonus request.
“That was probably one of my best summer night sleeps when I found out he was coming back. ... Getting him back was absolutely one of our best recruits of the summer,” Dunn said.
It was a rare feat for LSU to have four players to reject pro contracts, let alone four players of this caliber. So rare that it’s the first time in Mainieri’s tenure he’s had more than three players from one draft class say no to pro ball. Last year was only the third time in his tenure he’s had multiple players return after being drafted.
The closest Mainieri may have ever come to this was after the 2011 draft, when Raph Rhymes, Austin Nola and Tyler Hanover all decided to return for the 2012 season.
“Clearly I’ve never had four players of this impact come back,” Mainieri said. “It’s just so rare in college baseball.”
What makes it challenging is that seniors lose their leverage when negotiating professional contracts. A junior can tell an MLB team he is returning to school if the pot isn’t sweet enough. A college senior can either accept a deal or not play at all.
“In baseball, they have slot values, but they have no obligation to give you that full slot,” Mainieri said. “So if you don’t have the leverage to threaten to go back to school as a senior, you might get drafted in the fifth round and get a $10,000 signing bonus.”
For comparison’s sake, the slot value for the last pick in the fifth round last year was $315,600.
“They’re just throwing you a bone, so to speak,” Mainieri said. “It’s kind of sad, I think. But it discourages kids from coming back for their senior year. That’s what makes this year so remarkable.”
So why did LSU’s Fab Four, with the exception of Deichmann, push all their chips into the center of the table and decide to come back?
Robertson said he purposely set his price tag high going into the draft, because he was planning to return unless someone blew him away with a contract offer. Freeman said he did the same.
It boils down to one word.
“Omaha,” Robertson said. “That’s all I care about. That’s all I think about. We don’t want to talk about it too much now in January, but that’s the reason I came back, 100 percent.”
Poché echoed Robertson’s sentiments. He said he came to LSU to win a national championship, and he’s spent three years chasing that goal without attaining it.
Poché was the last of the four to announce his return. He saw what LSU had coming back and saw what might be his best opportunity. He’s hoping his gamble pays off with something more lasting than a signing bonus and a head start on a professional career.
“If we can make that happen, it’s definitely going to be one of the best decisions I ever made in my life,” Poché said.