LSU begins its six-week fall practice period this Sunday which will conclude with the annual Purple and Gold World Series in early November.
So begins a 2019 season that comes with sky-high expectations following a windfall from the MLB Draft. Stars Zack Hess, Zach Watson and Antoine Duplantis all returned for one more season in addition to LSU signing the nation’s No. 1 recruiting class, according to Baseball America.
All that talent means it won’t be quite the rebuilding job that Paul Mainieri and Co. faced a season ago, but there’s work to do this fall and questions that must be answered nonetheless.
Let’s run down the biggest storylines to monitor through the fall practice season.
- Welcomed Return
LSU is looking for a return to elite form from its pitching staff last season, and the return of Eric Walker will be a major step in the right direction.
Walker missed all of the 2018 season after undergoing Tommy John Surgery following the 2017 College World Series.
The right-hander from Texas was nothing short of a freshman phenom during that rookie campaign, solidifying a weekend rotation behind veterans Alex Lange and Jared Poche’. Walker posted an 8-2 record and a 3.48 ERA in 95.2 innings en route to earning multiple Freshman All-American honors.
LSU opted to give Walker the summer off to ensure he was 100 percent for fall practice, but the reviews have been rave regarding his form in bullpen sessions. Mainieri has said repeatedly that you wouldn’t know Walker had even had surgery from watching him throw in recent weeks.
Pitching coach Alan Dunn has been with Walker through every step of the recovery and rehabilitation process, and pitching in live scrimmages represent the next major hurdle in his return to the weekend rotation.
“First off I’m just so excited when I see Eric coming to the yard every day,” Dunn said. “That’s something I missed last year. He’s just such a presence on our pitching staff, and just having him in the mix with everything we’re doing as a pitching staff, it’s just great having him there.
“For him personally, I think he’s just getting his game back to where it was when we shut him down in Omaha in 2017. I’ve been pleased with the progress he’s made and how he’s feeling. His command has been outstanding in the bullpens, so I think he’s right there on the cusp of getting back to 100 percent.”
Assuming Walker is healthy and shows little signs of rust, he figures to slot into the rotation behind ace Zack Hess once the regular season rolls around.
- Back in the Mix?
Perhaps no storyline will be more critical to LSU’s success in 2019 than making sure Josh Smith is healthy enough to step back in at shortstop.
Smith missed all but six games last season due to a back injury, but Mainieri has been publicly optimistic that a summer of rest and treatment was enough for that ailing back to heal.
“Josh is 100 percent as far as I’m concerned and he’s concerned,” Mainieri said. “He’s not holding back at all. He’s done everything that everybody else has done during the individual workouts. He’s swinging the ball. He’s been fielding ground balls, throwing, running — he’s doing it all. So my anticipation is that Josh Smith’s injury is behind him and we’re counting on him being an every-day player for us.”
LSU has one of the best outfields in college baseball with Watson and Duplantis returning to play alongside blossoming star Daniel Cabrera. The pitching staff is deep and talented behind Hess and Walker.
If there’s a question mark about this roster, it’s the infield. A healthy and productive Smith would go a long way toward solidifying it.
- Positions of Concern
The top priority heading into any season is establishing enough pitching depth to compete at an elite level, but two positions stuck out in Mainieri’s mind as top concerns heading into the fall:
LSU struggled mightily to find consistency in terms of defense or offensive production behind the plate last season. Hunter Feduccia (48 games), Nick Coomes (16 games) and Bryce Jordan (two games) split time as the position.
Only Jordan remains on the roster this season as LSU signed a trio of new catchers to revamp the position heading into 2019. The competition to start behind the plate will begin in earnest this fall.
Saul Garza and Brock Mathis, two junior college signees, are the leading contenders to win the job. Garza hit .381 with 23 home runs at Howard Junior College last season while Mathis hit .270 with four home runs in an injury-shortened season at Northwest Florida State.
Ultra-talented freshman CJ Willis is the wild card at catcher. The Ruston native likely would have been a high draft pick were it not for a shoulder injury in high school, and that injury will limit him this spring. Willis has been cleared to hit and catch bullpen sessions, but he won’t throw until the spring.
“Willis is a month ahead of schedule with his hitting,” Mainieri said. “He’s hitting full speed now starting this week. He’ll play defensively at either left field or first base, but he can’t throw the ball at all.”
B) Third Base
The hot corner will be an open competition beginning this fall with an emphasis on defense, Mainieri said.
Freshman Drew Bianco and Gavin Dugas and Tulane transfer Michael Kirsch will all see time there in scrimmages with the odd man out playing second base on a given day.
“We’re going to watch them all fall and see if somebody is the all-around player that we need to have,” Mainieri said. “But if they can’t play defense adequately to our level, then they can’t play third base no matter how much they hit. We have to have a good defensive third baseman.”
If none of the newcomers are ready for the job, Mainieri has an ace in the hole in slick-fielding sophomore Hal Hughes. Hughes stepped in at shortstop in Smith’s place last season and the staff is optimistic he can develop into more of a hitter as he matures.
“Hal is a much-improved hitter,” Mainieri said. “He’s not going to hit with the same authority strength wise that some of the new guys might, but that’s how much emphasis I place on defense at third base.”