There was a time this season when Paul Mainieri feared history was doomed to repeat itself for his program.
After winning the national championship in 2009, LSU got sent out west for a regional in 2010 before missing the NCAA Tournament all together in 2011. He feared that pattern could be happening again as LSU muddled through this season after reaching the College World Series Finals last summer.
Suffice to say the coach is feeling much more optimistic about 2019 after the strokes of good fortune that came and went with the 2018 MLB Draft.
“Everything could not have worked out better for us then it did,” Mainieri said. “The draft really could not have gone better for us. In all my years of coaching, this is probably the luckiest we’ve ever been with the draft.”
First off, LSU is set to return three veteran stars in Zack Hess, Zach Watson and Antoine Duplantis, all of which will be returning to school for 2019 after being picked late in the draft. That’s quite the windfall considering Mainieri expected all three to sign professionally before the season began.
“What a huge bonus that is for us,” Mainieri said. “It kind of reminds me of a few years ago when (Jared) Poche’, (Kramer) Robertson, (Greg) Deichmann and (Cole) Freeman decided to come back to school, and hopefully it’ll have the same kind of impact that those guys had on our program.”
Watson and Duplantis will re-join Daniel Cabrera as LSU now returns its entire starting outfield in 2019. Hess meanwhile is poised to return to the starting rotation as Mainieri shot down speculation that he could be moved back to the bullpen next season.
Hess could have been a third round pick, according to Mainieri, but turned down a signing bonus of $600,000 to come back for his junior season. The coach noted that Deichmann turned down that exact sum after his draft-eligible sophomore season and came back to make $1.75 million the next year.
“I think he is going to be one of the best pitchers in the SEC next year,” Mainieri said. “At this point, I would give you a resounding yes that he’ll be a starting pitcher.”
LSU will likely lose just four current players to the professional ranks: pitchers Nick Bush and Cam Sanders, infielder Jake Slaughter and catcher Hunter Feduccia. Mainieri said he advised all four players to sign after they were drafted.
Adding to his excitement, LSU is only losing two players for sure from a recruiting class that Mainieri feels has a chance to finish No. 1 in the nation.
Pitcher Levi Kelly will be signing with the Arizona Diamondbacks after being selected in the eighth round of the draft. That pick comes with an assigned slot value of $158,500.
“I very much expected that, and I’m not unhappy about it,” Mainieri said. “Levi was honestly sending some mixed messages to us all year long. What he said to us and what he said to scouts, which we heard through the grape vine, were two different things. So we weren’t really surprised … I wish him well and no bitterness at all toward him.”
Outfielder Elijah Cabell will also not be enrolling at LSU, though it is unclear where his next stop will be. LSU released him from his National Letter of Intent, meaning he’s free to sign with another college or with the Milwaukee Brewers, who drafted him in the 14th round.
The only uncertainty about LSU’s roster for next season at this point is prized shortstop Brice Turang, who was also selected by the Brewers, albeit it in the first round with the No. 21 overall pick.
Chances are Turang will eventually sign with the Brewers, but a source told Tiger Rag that the player and team hadn’t come to any agreement before Milwaukee drafted him.
LSU is holding out hope that Turang could still wind up on campus because the slot value of the pick ($3,013,600) is less than the asking price the California native set before the draft. He was considered a lock top-five prospect before what scouts considered to be a pedestrian senior season offensively.
“When he signed with us, I thought there was very little chance he’d be coming to school,” Mainieri said. “They only have $6 million to sign their first 10 draft picks, and that slot value of $3 million, quite frankly, is well below his asking price. I don’t know what’s going to happen. I talked to Brice twice since the draft, and he’s not sure what’s going to happen. There’s still a possibility he comes to school.”
Even if Turang signs, Mainieri feels the rest of the class ranks among the elite hauls in college baseball this season. He added that 10 of the players are already enrolled in summer school and that he planned on meeting with them as a group later this week.
Right-handed pitchers Landon Marceaux and Cole Henry both turned down signing bonuses in excess of $1 million, Mainieri shared. Jaden Hill, another power arm, set his asking price so high that apparently teams didn’t even bother fielding an offer.
Aside from the new arms, Mainieri was most excited about the potential for LSU to upgrade at the catcher position. C.J. Willis, Brock Mathis and Saul Garza all dealt with minor injuries this past season that lowered their respective draft stocks, which helped ensure they’d make it to campus.
“A lot of things worked in our favor this year, so our class is going to be intact,” Mainieri said. “Personally, I think it’s the No. 1 class in the country. I don’t know if it’s going to be rated that way, but I wouldn’t trade our class for anybody. And if Brice Turang ends up coming to school, it’ll be a class for the ages.”
Toward the end of the media session, Mainieri heaped praise on LSU recruiting coordinator Nolan Cain. Cain is in his second season in the position since Mainieri separated the jobs of recruiting coordinator and hitting coach, a decision that now appears to be paying major dividends.
“You can give 100 percent of the credit for this recruiting class to Nolan Cain,” Mainieri said. “Maybe 100 percent is too much, because Alan Dunn did a lot, too. But Nolan knows how to do it, man. He knows how to work with the advisers. He knows how to work with the summer ball coaches. He knows how to work with the scouts and be on top of everything.
“That guy has worked so hard, not just to put the class together, but to keep it as intact as he did … Nolan was tremendous over these last several months. So yes, I’m very happy with the recruiting coordinator for LSU baseball. He’s done a phenomenal job.”