By JAMES MORAN | Tiger Rag Associate Editor
Paul Mainieri and his staff face the daunting task of replacing an entire weekend rotation and roughly half the everyday lineup that led the Tigers to the College World Series Finals this season.
On Wednesday the coach formally introduced the highly-routed signing class that’ll need to help fill in the holes around a young ascending core of returners.
And quite a large class it is. LSU welcomed 18 newcomers (12 high schoolers and six junior college) into the program, of which 11 are pitchers.
Still, the coach projected optimism that there won’t be a substantial drop-off in 2018 despite all the turnover and fresh faces.
“We lost some great ball players and it was a privilege to have them here,” Mainieri said. “But just as it’s always been in LSU tradition, as they move on to their professional careers, somebody will step in. It’s going to take a little bit of time, but I’m as optimistic as I’ve ever been about our next season.”
That’s not to say there’s not plenty of work to do. Mainieri ranked his concerns at this point in the summer as follows: finding enough pitching, catcher and either second or third base.
Developing pitching will obviously be the priority, particularly in light of the news that Eric Walker will miss the 2018 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery.
The rebuilding effort begins with Caleb Gilbert and Zack Hess, both of whom will be groomed as starters heading into the fall.
Gilbert has already been shut down for the summer. Hess is presently in Cape Cod working on developing his changeup and a starter’s routine. While it’d be “awesome” to see Hess continue as a dominant closer, Mainieri said he’s not sure that’s a “luxury” LSU can afford.
Nick Bush and Todd Peterson, two returning candidates for starting duties, both had their summer ball stints curtailed by shoulder discomfort, Mainieri said. He mentioned Peterson’s shoulder troubles — which kept him from starting in the CWS Finals — were the result of poor “body condition” for which he’s been prescribed a rigorous offseason workout play.
Right-hander Nick Storz, a 6-foot-6 hard-thrower from Brooklyn, and right-hander A.J. Labas, a late addition to the class after being drafted by the Mets, stand out as the highest-touted of the newcomers. JUCO signee Cam Sanders also has an “electric arm” if he can put it together, Mainieri added.
It’s far too early to tell much of anything about the new arms.
“The answer there is in numbers,” Mainieri said. “Hopefully we’re going to have some guys step it up.”
Shifting to behind the plate, Mainieri raved about the ball summer reports regarding the two leading candidates to replace Mike Papierski: freshman Mason Doolittle and LSU-Eunice transfer Hunter Feduccia.
However, the coach announced that Doolittle — an athletic 6-foot-4 Floridian who’s drawn some physical comparisons to Papierski — had his summer cut short after getting hit in the head by a 94 mph fastball. He’s expected to be fine for fall practices.
“We’re going to have a nice catching core,” Mainieri said. “Obviously that’s a concern of ours going into the season.”
As for the rest of the lineup, LSU returns two of three starting outfielders and have rising sophomore Josh Smith and Jake Slaughter to comprise half the infield.
Mainieri reaffirmed the plan is to play Smith at shortstop, where he’s presently playing every day in Cape Cod, and move Slaughter to either second or third base.
Whichever of those spots Slaughter doesn’t man will be a concern, Mainieri cedes. The potential candidates include “old reliable” Chris Reid and Brandt Broussard, another late addition to the class by way of Delgado.
Sophomore Rankin Woley will also fit into the mix once healthy. Mainieri announced he was having surgery on both arms to alleviate pressure on his nerves caused by muscle constriction. The first surgery took place Wednesday with the other arm to be operated on in two weeks.
First base also remains a question mark, though there are some veteran options. Nick Coomes will return by spring after missing most of, if not all of fall practice after undergoing hip surgery last week. Bryce Jordan will also see time there and should be “100 percent” recovered from last spring’s knee surgery by fall, Mainieri said.
As for the other vacancy, right field, Mainieri named blue chipper Daniel Cabrera, fellow freshman Nick Webre and veteran Beau Jordan as potential candidates.
LSU’s newly-unveiled roster lists two of the Tigers’ biggest signees as both pitcher and hitter. So what gives?
On Cabrera, a possible starter in the outfield, Mainieri said he’d be one of LSU’s best pitching signees were the lefty solely focused on the mound, but his primary focus has been as a position player.
For now the plan is for him to focus on playing the outfield as LSU takes a look at its other 11 new arms. However, the coach left the door open for developing Cabrera as a left-handed pitcher if need be.
“I have a sense that he’ll be far too valuable to focus only on pitching,” Mainieri said. “He can affect 70 games a year instead of 15. We’re going to put (his pitching) on hold and see what else we’ve got … If it gets to a point where it behooves us to develop him as a pitcher, we’ll probably go down that route.”
The other is Storz, who is primarily a pitcher, but has intriguing power from the right-hand side of the plate. He competed in a high school home run derby last summer.
LSU will give him some time as a designated hitter in the fall to see if that power can translate against college pitching, but his primary focus will remain on the mound.
“He’s a big man, and he can hit the ball a long ways,” the coach said. “I don’t know if he can hit 93 mph. I don’t know if he could hit himself, if you know what I mean … but what do we have to lose?”
There was a bit of joyous news to come out of the “shocking” elbow injury suffered by Walker, who likely would’ve been LSU’s Friday night starter in 2018.
Due to a new NCAA rule, LSU is able to medically redshirt Walker without counting his against the 35-man roster limit this season. This allowed Mainieri to bring on an extra arm that he was quite familiar with.
Mainieri extended the extra spot to right-handed pitcher Clay Moffitt, the son of LSU football strength and conditioning coach Tommy Moffitt. He’s plenty talented to earn a spot on the roster, Mainieri said, but the long-time coach generally doesn’t like to extend offers to sons of his friends and associated for fairly obvious reasons.
“Tears were shed in my office when I gave Clay the news,” Mainieri said.
He was the fourth and final late addition to the class, which Mainieri described as a credit to first-year recruiting coordinator Nolan Cain. Cain worked quickly to lock up Lamas, Broussard, lefty Brandon Nowak and Moffitt after LSU lost four signees to the MLB Draft.
2017 LSU Baseball Signees
No. Name Pos. B-T Ht. Wt. Cl. Exp. Hometown (High School/Previous School)
16 Brandt Broussard INF R-R 5-10 160 Jr. JC Baton Rouge, La. (University HS/Delgado CC)
2 Daniel Cabrera OF/LHP L-L 6-1 185 Fr. HS Baton Rouge, La. (Parkview Baptist HS)
11 Mason Doolittle C R-R 6-4 220 Fr. HS Jupiter, Fla. (Jupiter HS)
20 Braden Doughty C R-R 6-1 175 Fr. HS Denham Springs, La. (Denham Springs HS)
7 Hunter Feduccia C L-R 6-2 200 Jr. JC Lake Charles, La. (Barbe HS/LSU-Eunice)
28 Devin Fontenot RHP R-R 6-1 175 Fr. HS The Woodlands, Texas (The Woodlands HS)
46 Ma’Khail Hilliard RHP R-R 6-0 150 Fr. HS Central, La. (Central HS)
3 Hal Hughes INF R-R 5-11 165 Fr. HS Norman, Okla. (Norman North HS)
40 John Kodros LHP L-L 6-4 170 Fr. HS Coppell, Texas (Coppell HS)
26 AJ Labas RHP R-R 6-3 215 Fr. HS Fleming Island, Fla. (Trinity Christian HS)
35 Clay Moffitt RHP R-R 6-4 240 Jr. JC Baton Rouge, La. (Catholic HS/LSU-Eunice)
47 Brandon Nowak LHP L-L 6-4 190 Jr. JC Chicago, Ill. (Notre Dame Prep/Oakton CC)
32 Taylor Petersen LHP L-L 6-1 185 Jr. JC Gilbert, Ariz. (Highland HS/Chandler-Gilbert CC)
49 Cameron Sanders RHP R-R 6-2 170 Jr. JC Thibodaux, La. (E.D. White HS/NW Florida St.)
44 Matt Schroer RHP R-R 6-4 200 Fr. HS Phoenix, Ariz. (Arcadia HS)
21 Nick Storz RHP/DH R-R 6-6 255 Fr. HS Brooklyn, N.Y. (Poly Prep Country Day HS)
30 Trent Vietmeier RHP R-R 6-3 210 Fr. HS Pittsburgh, Pa. (Montour HS)
14 Nick Webre OF L-R 5-10 190 Fr. HS Youngsville, La. (Teurlings Catholic HS)