LSU baseball roster possibly facing overload situation

LSU baseball coach Paul Mainieri's Tigers open the 2021 season vs. Air Force on Feb. 19 in Alex Box Stadium.

The trickle-down effect of the COVID-19 pandemic has become a daily constant.

For example, major league baseball owners have cut costs since there has been no revenue after coronavirus shut down all sports for the last two months.

It forced major league baseball to reduce its annual 40-round draft to just five rounds set for June 10-11, sending college baseball coaches like LSU’s Paul Mainieri back to the roster management drawing board.

“Drafting 150 players is going to be a lot different than drafting 1,200 players,” Mainieri said Tuesday night on Tiger Rag radio’s weekly show.

Mainieri said before the season he anticipated losing as many as eight players on the 2020 roster in the major league draft and as many as five of his incoming 17-man recruiting class.

Throw in graduating seniors Matthew Beck and Aaron George and also six LSU players off the 2020 roster who have entered the draft portal following candid conversations with Mainieri. Then, add back in a minimum 12 recruits expected to report and the LSU 2021 roster would be at 26, well under the NCAA maximum roster limit of 35.

But the coronavirus has flipped everything.

Because college baseball was cancelled after just a few weeks, the NCAA granted all seniors like Beck and George an extra year of eligibility.

And because it’s just a five-round draft, Mainieri believes that only outfielder Daniel Cabrera and pitcher Cole Henry (“If they are willing to meet his asking price,” Mainieri said) will be drafted as well as many as five of the Tigers’ signees.

So, with LSU’s current roster at 29 after those six transferring players, it means that Mainieri has a minimum of a 34-player roster once the smoke clears after the draft.

“If the NCAA does not give us some relief on the 35-man roster rule, then it’s going to create some very difficult conversations (with players),” Mainieri said.

He’s already had a few of those, especially with junior infielder Hal Hughes and fourth-year pitcher Eric Walker, a pair of former starters.

Hughes started 109 games and was an excellent infielder. But his .199 career batting average including .154 this season and the emergence of freshman shortstop Collier Cranford made Hughes expendable.

“I just explained to Hal his days of being the starting shortstop at LSU had probably come to an end, because Collier Cranford had passed him up,” Mainieri said. “We also had some other guys like Zach Arnold who was hurt all year and a couple of other guys that are in our recruiting class.

“I told Hal if he wanted to transfer, it was probably a good time to do it before there became a glut in that transfer portal. He went out, tested the waters, found out there was some interest and he ended up making a commitment to Rice.”

Walker gamely fought to re-gain his form as a freshman in 2017 when he was 8-2 with a 3.48 ERA as the Tigers’ No. 3 starter. He injured his throwing arm in the College World Series and underwent Tommy John surgery.

He was never the same, even after missing the 2018 season while rehabbing. Walker was 5-4 with a 5.47 ERA in 15 starts last year and had a 3.18 ERA in 5.2 innings in this shortened 2020 season.

“Eric was so great as a freshman, a freshman all-American,” Mainieri said. “By the time we went to the College World Series, he might have been pitching the best baseball of anybody on our starting rotation and that includes Alex Lange and Jared Poche.

“Then, he hurt his elbow and he never completely got back to what he was as a freshman. When a guy is not a real hard thrower like Eric, there’s such so little margin for error. So, if his command is a little bit off or he doesn’t have the movement on his fastball or command of his change-up and he drops three or four miles an hour, it’s a pretty big difference.”

Mainieri said Walker is graduating this month, so he can go to another school as a grad transfer and have immediate eligibility.

“We talked to Eric about where he fit in with the team,” Mainieri said. “He thought it would be in his best interest to try maybe go somewhere else where he’d get more of an opportunity to play. I just love the kid and everything he’s done for our program. It’s the best thing for him.”

Mainieri is hoping some of the summer collegiate leagues where underclassmen play after their college seasons end will open for play.

“We found landing spots for everybody (LSU players) as long as the leagues don’t continue close,” Mainieri said. “We’ll see what happens now that so many of the states are opening up. We’re just hoping our kids can get out and play some and get ready for fall practice after having such a long layoff.”

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Ron Higgins

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