By JAMES MORAN | Tiger Rag Associate Editor
What a difference a year makes.
Paul Mainieri spent Media Day 2016 explaining his plan to replace eight everyday starters — including the entire infield — from a team that mashed its way to Omaha. A daunting task loomed for the long-time coach at a place where ‘rebuild’ isn’t part of the vocabulary.
Friday’s 2017 edition took on a different tone to say the least. Mainieri returns eight starters, the one-two punch atop his starting rotation and a veteran closer en route to being voted a consensus top-five club in the preseason polls.
How could you tell? The first roster concern a reporter asked Mainieri about was LSU’s relative lack on infield depth behind its four starters.
“We have a chance, I think, to do something special this year,” Mainieri said. “Most years you’re losing a segment of your team. You’re losing either your pitching staff or your position players, and it’s just kind of the nature of college baseball.
“You don’t sign these players to long-term contracts, and so attrition plays its role. This happens to be one of those years, however …. where we’ve got a veteran presence on this team.”
It begins with what Mainieri is calling his ‘Fab Four,” the group of seniors who turned down professional contracts to return this season. That includes senior left-hander Jared Poche’, the double-play tandem of Kramer Robertson and Cole Freeman, and slugging right fielder Greg Deichmann.
Mainieri insisted he didn’t re-recruit any of the players to return for 2017. It’s a personal decision, he said. But since they decided to return, Mainieri is certainly happy to have a veteran backbone still hungry after being eliminated in the Baton Rouge Super Regional last summer.
There’s eight seniors on LSU’s roster this season, many of whom are poised to play central roles. That’s a sizeable jump from having two a season ago.
“My goal as a coach with the players is to make myself dispensable, that they don’t need me to stand over there and tell them how to do things,” Mainieri said. “I want to teach them how to practice and instill in them the motivation to want to be as good as they can be so that, if I’m not around, they’re still going to do the things that they need to do. When you have that, it can be magical because you have that kind of leadership among the team.”
Friday wasn’t all about the veterans, though. Mainieri expressed hope that a handful of impact freshmen will slide in amongst the returners and provide upgrades in a few places.
First there’s Josh Smith and Jake Slaughter, who begin the practice seasons installed as LSU’s starters at third and first base, respectively. Greg Deichmann, as previously reported, is now the full-time right fielder and Chris Reid is expected to take on a utility infield role.
There’s also new blood on the mound. Mainieri said a pair of rookies, Eric Walker and Zack Hess, are the leading candidates to slide in behind ace Alex Lange and Poche’ in the weekend rotation. Walker, Hess and Todd Peterson are all slated to compete for Sunday and midweek starts. (Click here to learn more on the freshmen trio)
According to players polled, the process of melding returners and newcomers into a cohesive club has been a smooth transition.
“It’s always good to have some veterans out there to help you out,” Smith said. “I’m also asking Kramer questions if I have a question. Him and Cole, they’re always good role models to me.”
“The rookies are doing a good job of picking the brains of the older guys,” Bryce Jordan added. “They’ve stepped up and done a good job.”
Optimism abounds from Alex Box Stadium with three Fridays to go until Opening Night.