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A recap of LSU's fall baseball practice and a look ahead to the 2013 season.
Ed. Note: I figured this would be as good a time as any to introduce y'all to our newest contributor, Kris Brauner. I'm sure most of y'all are familiar with the great work he did over at Saturday Night Slant, and we are thrilled to have him in our lineup. Take it away Kris! -Billy
While everyone's attention this fall has been focused on the east side of Nicholson Drive, the baseball team has been across the street preparing for the 2013 season. The team recently wrapped up their fall practices and while some familiar faces return, the newcomers, especially in the outfield, have many excited. The fall is typically where the coaches find out what they've got for the upcoming season. Once the spring rolls around, they're really just fine tuning and trying to find the right mix.
The Tigers look to build upon last season's success, which included a 19-11 conference record and an outright SEC Championship. Despite that success, the sting of losing a Super Regional at Alex Box Stadium to Stony Brook serves as a potent motivator.
It's impossible to ignore some key losses from a year ago. Kevin Gausman, Nick Goody, Austin Nola, and Tyler Hanover are the most noteworthy. Can LSU sustain those losses and still achieve more as a team?
It's certainly possible...
LSU must replace the entire left side of their infield and would like to find some stability at first base. The only job that wasn't really up for grabs this fall was Ty Ross at catcher. Ross reportedly had a fantastic fall both offensively and defensively.
A number of guys auditioned at shortstop, namely Jacoby Jones and newcomer Alex Bregman, but it looks like the job will be Bregman's when the season starts. Bregman is the gem of the incoming class and if the fall is any indication, he's as good as advertised. He showed off a better than expected glove and his bat was everything it was supposed to be. It should be fun watching him play and just get better and better over the next few years. As a freshman, he may not match Austin Nola's production from last, but he should be solid at the very least.
That puts Jacoby Jones back at second base where he played most of his first two seasons. After a very strong freshman campaign in 2011, Jones tailed off considerably as a sophomore seeing his average drop 85 points. After a decent showing over the summer in the Cape Cod League, the hope is that Jones regains his freshman form and becomes a big contributor for LSU again. Reports from the fall were not terribly encouraging. He's still not comfortable at the plate.
Mason Katz, Tyler Moore, and JUCO newcomer Christian Ibarra all competed for the job at third base. In one of the biggest and most pleasant surprises of the fall, it looks like it's Ibarra that won the job...at least for now. And why not? If you're replacing Tyler Hanover, you might as well do it with another little guy. Ibarra is listed at just 5'7" 155. His glove is what ultimately put him over the top, but his bat wasn't too shabby either. He launched a home run in one of the Purple/Gold World Series games at the end of fall practice.
That probably leaves Mason Katz at first base with Tyler Moore as the designated hitter. Katz will look to cut down on his team leading 52 strikeouts and to step up even more as a team leader. Expect Moore to build upon his solid freshman season where he hit four homeruns in part time action.
The primary backup for Ty Ross will be true freshman Chris Chinea, who was pretty highly regarded out of high school. Chinea is outstanding defensively and has some good power in his bat. He spent some time getting acclimated to college pitching this fall but was starting to get the hang of things by the end. He hit a home run in the World Series. If he keeps improving, he could see some time at DH this year. Tyler Moore could also play catcher if needed.
Evan Powell could see time at first base, third base, or catcher while true freshman Geonte Jackson will provide depth in the middle infield and provide some speed on the base paths if needed.
We'll see the most new faces in the outfield. LSU needs to see significant improvement here, both offensively and defensively. While guys like Alex Edward, Arby Fields, and Jared Foster all had their moments a year ago, LSU simply needs to be have better production in the everyday lineup than those guys provided if they want to return to Omaha.
One guy who really doesn't need to improve is Raph Rhymes. After a record setting junior season, Rhymes is back. It will be tough to top last year's .431 batting average and .489 on base percentage, but I suspect Raph will give it a good go. He's your left fielder to start the season.
The other two outfield spots are completely up for grabs, and you've essentially got four players, three of which are newcomers, competing for those spots. All four guys bat from the left side and they've all got plus speed and athleticism, something the team sorely lacked last year.
If Ibarra wasn't the biggest surprise of fall camp, then it might have been true freshman Mark Laird. Laird was originally planning on playing football at LSU as a walk-on receiver but a spot opened up on the baseball roster, and Laird changed course. The 6'2" lefty is a superb athlete and has ton of speed and natural ability. He's the kind of guy that can be an absolute pest on the base paths. Laird was frequently a standout during scrimmages and at the conclusion of fall, he's the favorite to win the center field job.
Delgado transfer Sean McMullen may be the leader in right field though I suspect things are not settled. McMullen put up some impressive numbers at Delgado, hitting .452 with 5 HRs, 21 doubles and 9 triples. He's got a bit more pop in his bat than some of the other guys and that may ultimately win him a starting job.
Chris Sciambra returns after recovering from a neck injury suffered last year after colliding with the outfield wall. Sciambra was enjoying a pretty good freshman season and was just getting comfortable when he suffered his injury.
True freshman Andrew Stevenson is also competing for a spot. Stevenson may have been the furthest away from contributing at the plate, but he could very well be the guy who improves the most between now and the end of the regular season. I wouldn't count him out.
You've also got Jared Foster and Alex Edward, who could play just about anywhere on the field. Both guys have experience and they'll contribute at some point this year. Freshman Chase Rivett doesn't get mentioned as much as the other guys right now, but at this point last year, nobody thought much of Chris Sciambra either.
If the newcomers can't hold things down, Paul Maineri has some flexibility. He could always put Mason Katz back in the outfield, play Tyler Moore at first base and use someone like Chris Chinea or Alex Edward at DH.
Replacing Kevin Gausman and Nick Goody will be the most difficult task for Paul Maineri and Alan Dunn.
Aaron Nola looks to have a lock on the Friday starter spot as the team's ace. After a great freshman season going 7-4 with a 3.61 ERA, Nola looks to take the next step and become one of the league's top pitchers. If this fall is any indication, he's well on his way. Nola's velocity is reportedly up; touching the 93 mph range and his control is as good as ever. That says a lot considering he walked just seven batters in 89 innings last year.
Junior Ryan Eades is LSU's Saturday guy right now. Eades was outstanding for the first half of last season but really struggled towards the end of the year. He was clearly tired and not quite the same. It's easy to forget that Eades had arm surgery not too long ago but after taking the summer off, he appears rested and ready for an outstanding season. To be honest, LSU really needs a great season from Eades.
The third weekend spot is still up in the air. Lefties Chris Cotton and Brent Bonvillain are possibilities and I've heard great things about true freshman Russell Reynolds this fall. Cotton was SO valuable out of the bullpen last year (7-0, 1.59 ERA), you almost hate to take him out of that role. Kurt McCune is also an option here. Remember that McCune was LSU's Friday night guy for most of the 2011 season and was pretty darn good.
Joey Bourgeois shouldn't be counted out. After serving as a starter for most of 2010 and sitting out 2011, he was pretty damn good in 2012 out of the bullpen. Could he return to a starter's role?
Any one of McCune, Reynolds, or Bourgeois could be an option to start mid-week games too. Unfortunately, Joe Broussard, who filled that role last year, is out for 2013 with an injury.
Cody Glenn has a ton of talent but can't quite seem to put it all together. I know the staff would love to use the big lefty, but I'm not sure they trust him at this point. He was shaky again this fall.
In the pen, LSU needs to find their closer. Nick Goody's value on last year's team can't be overstated. Two years ago, and with Matty Ott struggling, LSU was a meager 4-7 in one-run games. Last year with Nick Goody, LSU improved to 17-8 in one-run games. That was the single biggest difference between not making a Regional and winning the conference as a national seed. So who will step up?
Junior Nick Rumbelow is the favorite right now. Rumbelow was third on the team with 29 appearances last year and showed closer's stuff by striking out 34 batters in 24.2 innings. But he also walked 14 batters and had a few "eeesh" type of outings that, as a closer, would cost you ball games.
Junior college transfer Will Lamarche is also an option. A big guy at 6'3" 220, Lamarche has ridiculous velocity, being clocked at over 95 mph several times. However, his control is.....well, it's a work in progress. Walks and hit batters are not a good thing when you're trying to close out a close game. Hopefully, we'll see that control improve and if so, Lamarche can be a big part of this LSU team.
Of the freshmen, Reynolds was the only one that made any real noise this fall. However, Mitchell Sewald, Hunter Newman, and Taylor Butler are ones to watch.
Overall, it's going to be tough for this team to be as strong on the mound as they were a year ago. Can they make up for it at the plate? While the overall numbers may not improve significantly, I see the potential for a much better team offensively. With athletic guys like Laird, McMullen, and Stevenson, you're going to see more infield hits, more doubles turn into triples, and less double plays. You'll also see a bit more stolen bases. Combined with a bit more pop from guys like Bregman and Moore, you can have a really nice balance in the lineup without any holes.
You should also see significantly improved defense in the outfield with fewer balls finding the ground.
Heading into the fall, I wanted to hear great things from Bregman and the newcomers in the outfield. Check.
I wanted to hear that Eades was looking strong. Check.
And I wanted to hear that some of the new pitchers could be counted on. To be determined on that one.
There is enough optimism from fall practice to believe that LSU will once again be in the thick of the SEC race and a contender for a national seed.
Pure speculation on a possible lineup for LSU in the spring:
CF Mark Laird
RF Sean McMullen
1B Mason Katz
LF Raph Rhymes
SS Alex Bregman
C Ty Ross
DH Tyler Moore
2B Jacoby Jones
3B Christian Ibarra