By JAMES MORAN | Tiger Rag Associate Editor
- Taking Stock
Between replacing its entire weekend rotation and integrating 11 new arms into the program, LSU will be spending the fall simply figuring out what it has in the pitching department.
Paul Mainieri and Alan Dunn had prepared for the departures of rotation stalwarts Alex Lange and Jared Poche’, but losing Eric Walker to Tommy John Surgery dealt a serious and unforeseen blow.
Regardless of what takes place between now and the Purple and Gold World Series, set for November 7-10, the staff will remain a work in progress heading into the spring.
“Right now we’re not considering roles at all,” Mainieri said in an interview with Tiger Rag. “We just want to see who can do the absolutes that are necessary to be successful at this level.”
That means it’ll probably be a while before any real clarity emerges on the burning question of LSU’s 2018 season: what do you do with Zack Hess?
There aren’t enough superlatives to describe how good Hess was a reliever throughout the run to Omaha. His unhittable stuff and “Wild Thing” persona was the talk of the College World Series.
Hess went to Cape Cod this summer and spent time working on developing a starter’s routine and his changeup. He still must prove he can be economic enough to get deep into games while maintaining his electric stuff.
“What I’m hoping to see isn’t so much about what Hess does as what the other guys can do,” Mainieri said. “If you can find somebody that can be a really good end-of-the-game guy, or a couple of guys, it allows you to be more lengthy in the opportunity you give Hess to be a starter.
“If we can’t find anybody who can finish games, well we can find a starter and bounce Hess back to the bullpen. But I’m hoping Hess shows what it takes to be a Friday night starter in this league.”
Caleb Gilbert figures to be one of LSU’s top two starters after his dazzling postseason in a jack-of-all-trades role. Starting in Walker’s place, Gilbert fired 7.2 innings of two-hit ball to eliminate Oregon State in the College World Series semifinals.
“I think Gilbert has thrown the ball exceptionally well since he’s been back,” Mainieri said. “He just seems like a different cat. Two years under his belt, he’s now pitching some big games … We can for sure count on Hess and Gilbert to have big roles on our team.”
Two sophomore returners, right-hander Todd Peterson and lefty Nick Bush, could also be in line for larger roles, but both would have to earn that level of trust from the staff. Beyond that, expect to see a lot of new faces.
On the news front, freshmen A.J. Labas (back) and Nick Storz (shoulder) are a bit behind the rest of the staff in their throwing programs. Both are fine, Mainieri said, but they haven’t faced hitters yet, so he couldn’t offer much of a report.
Some newcomers have already impressed in early bullpen and batting practice sessions. More of that below.
Besides the starting rotation, LSU’s most pressing concern is behind the plate. Anyone who spent time around the program understood how much Mike Papierski’s defense and leadership meant to the 2017 club.
It’ll be either LSU-Eunice transfer Hunter Feduccia or freshman Mason Doolittle, Mainieri said, and the position could be a combination of both throughout the season.
“I don’t know that I’d even designate one of them the starter because we’re going to need both of them,” he said.
Feduccia had a strong summer playing for the Rockford (Ill.) Rivets. He was a Northwoods League All-Star, hitting .348 (64-for-184) with 18 doubles, one triple, 41 RBI and 43 runs scored. Doolittle has a strong 6-foot-4 frame and natural power at the plate.
“I think both of them have some similarities to Pap,” Mainieri said. “Feduccia isn’t a small kid, either. But catching is the No. 1 priority for us defensively to make sure we get that position playing at the level we need it to play.”
Freshman Braden Doughty is the third catcher on the roster. Bryce Jordan won’t catch this fall as he returns from knee surgery, which kept him out all last season. Nick Coomes, initially recruited as a catcher, will miss the fall after offseason surgery.
- Next Step Forward
LSU has about four or five locks for the opening day lineup in Josh Smith, who’ll move to shortstop, two returning starters in the outfield and the Jordan brother.
The staff hopes Jake Slaughter adds his name to that list by the time Feb. 16 rolls around.
Slaughter began his freshman season at first base before losing the job to Coomes and regaining it to some degree in the postseason. The talented infielder will begin the fall working at third base.
“He definitely has the ability to play third base defensively, hands wise and arm wise,” Mainieri said. “It’s just going to be a matter of consistency defensively and consistency with the bat. But I’m hoping he can be an everyday player for us.”
If Slaughter can stabilize the left side of the infield, that leaves the right side to fill. Second base would become a competition between junior Chris Reid, sophomore Rankin Woley, Delgado transfer Brandt Broussard and freshman Hal Hughes (more on him below).
First base and designated hitter, two offensive-intensive positions, would be filled by the best hitters who don’t win other positions with the Jordan brothers likely to get first dibs.
- The Left Stuff
Two of LSU’s three outfield spots are spoken for before the team hits the diamond this fall.
Zach Watson, coming off a Freshman All-America season, returns in center field. He’s got the potential for stardom now as a sophomore. Junior Antoine Duplantis will shift from left field over to right this season.
“I think we’re better off just letting those positions be manned by the same guys because they’re such difficult positions,” Mainieri said.
As for left field, the battle begins in earnest and will likely continue into the spring. Senior Beau Jordan, who hit .268 with four home runs and 29 RBI last season, will compete with highly-touted freshmen Daniel Cabrera and Nick Webre.
“We’ll let those guys compete in left field,” Mainieri said. “But we’ll also let them compete at first base and designated hitter in some sort of combination.”
The interesting wrinkle in this competition is Cabrera’s prospects of playing a role on the mound. The lefty could work his way into the pitching plans if he continues to throws strike at the rate he has in early bullpen sessions.
“I think he’s gotten a real good chance to be an everyday player, but through two bullpens, I’m telling you nothing but strikes at 88 mph with a good changeup and breaking ball,” Mainieri said. “So he looks like somebody that could fill a role for us.”
This factored in the decision to shift Duplantis from left field back to right, where he played as a freshman in 2016. It prevents the potential for having to move two guys.
Conceivably, even if Cabrera won the starting outfield job, he may sit or be the designated hitter on days when he may be used out of the bullpen. In that case Webre or Jordan would play left field.
- Three under-the-radar freshmen to know
RHP Ma’Khail Hilliard: “He throws a lot of strikes and he’s got a real confident demeanor out there on the mound. But he has a curveball; let me just put it this way: the RPM spin rate on a curveball, the highest in the Big Leagues is 3490. This kid threw a curveball the other day at 3410 spin rate that we’ve never seen on our machine. So he’s got the makings of a great out pitch. Perhaps as good, if not better than Alex Lange’s breaking ball, if you can believe that.”
RHP Devin Fontenot: “Fontenot reminds me an awful lot of Matty Ott as a freshman. He’s got a little bit of a deception in his delivery and he throws an awful lot of strikes at the knees. His slider looks like it has the potential to be a pretty good pitch, too.”
INF Hal Hughes: “He can really play shortstop. When you watch him take fungos, you’re pretty sure that he’s got what it takes. I want to see what we have there. But just as I told him, just because you’re playing shortstop in the scrimmages, it doesn’t mean you’re now competing for the starting job at second base.”