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2018 LSU Baseball Preview: The Pitching

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Your guess is as good as mine. Literally.

2017 Division I Men's College World Series - Florida v LSU - Game 2 Photo by Jamie Schwaberow/NCAA Photos via Getty Images

Yesterday, we previewed the offense and hopefully, came away with some good feelings for our beloved Tigers this season. The lineup is deep, young, and talented.

Well, the worm turns as we move to look at the pitching staff. LSU loses all three of its weekend rotation starts from last plus its closer. So, um… how about that batting lineup? LSU was prepared to lose Alex Lange and Jared Poche’, but then was dealt a killer blow when Eric Walker needed Tommy John surgery after Omaha. In that moment, LSU lost its returning ace and likely Friday starter.

All is not completely lost, however. The pitching rotation is certainly going to take a step back, but it is entirely possible the offense takes a step forward, giving the pitchers time to find themselves and keep the team competitive. Still, Louis Coleman is not walking through that door.

ROTATION

Friday: Caleb Gilbert (Jr): 2.16 ERA, 58.1 IP, 67/12 K/BB
Saturday: Zack Hess (So): 3.12, 60.2 IP, 83/30 K/BB
Sunday: Todd Peterson (So): 4.19, 34.1 IP, 21/16 K/BB

Three righties make up the rotation. You don’t need a left-handed starter, but it would be nice to break things up a little bit. It’s not the biggest of deals in the world, but it does bother me from a matchup perspective. It just makes it a little bit easier for opposing teams to set a lineup against us.

Zack Hess was one of the breakout stars of the postseason, but he had a relatively heavy workload last season. Starters get around 100+ inning of work, so you can see Hess and Gilbert both took large roles in the pen. They also combined for 11 starts between them, so again, they have seen meaningful action and decent workloads. They know what it takes to start, so it’s not completely like starting from zero on the rotation.

Hess may be the big star from his postseason heroics, but I’d argue that Gilbert actually had the better year last season. He has an ERA a full point lower and while he does have a lower K-rate, he has a better K/BB ratio. Gilbert has multiple pitches in his arsenal, including a deceptive slider. Hess tops out at higher speeds on his fastball, but he doesn’t quite have the depth of pitches that Gilbert does.

The big question is the Sunday slot. Todd Peterson was every bit the hyped prospect Hess was coming out of high school, but he couldn’t put things together in his freshman year. His curve ball eventually couldn’t locate the zone, forcing him to rely on a fastballs, and hitters simply sat dead red on him. He’s an intimidating presence on the mound at 6’5”, 224 pounds, but he needs to turn that presence into performance.

RETURNING BULLPEN

*Nick Bush (So): 3.75, 24 IP, 22/19 K/BB
Matthew Beck (So): 3.65, 24.2 IP, 21/11 K/BB
Austin Bain (Sr): 4.74, 24.2 IP, 32/19 K/BB
Will Reese (So): 4.05, 6.2 IP, 7/4 K/BB

Nick Bush is the returning lefty arm, which gives him a lot of value coming out of the pen for an all-righty rotation. He needs to clean up that K/BB ratio, though. Another issue for Bush is that he relies on his curveball, which is less than ideal for coming into a runners on base situation. However, he did get some key outs in Omaha, and held Florida to one run over three innings. He could be poised for a breakout.

Bain is the veteran of the staff, which will likely get him a look in the pen, but he has not asserted himself as a key cog. He does have a pretty good strikeout rate, so he’s a guy who can come in and make batters miss, but the flipside is that he also gives up a lot of free passes. This might open the door for Beck, who doesn’t miss as many bats, but similarly doesn’t give up nearly as many free passes. Beck got a look as the midweek starter last year, and will likely take over that role again on a more expanded basis.

FRESH LEFTY ARMS

*John Kodros (Fr)
*Taylor Petersen (Jr)
*Brandon Nowak (Jr)
*Daniel Cabrera (Fr)

Kodros is already injured, so it is unlikely he’ll see the field this year unless things get desperate. Which, looking at the lack of depth of lefty arms, isn’t totally outside the realm of possibility. But Mainieri brought in two JUCO guys to fill out the situational roles in the pen. Petersen is the more heralded of the two, positing a 1.27 ERA in 35.1 innings. Even more encouraging, he struck out SIXTY-THREE batters, a K rate of almost two per inning. Now, he likely won’t be as dominant moving up to the SEC, but if he retains even half of that effectiveness, he’s a real candidate not just for situation relief, but the closer’s job.

And, yes, our star freshman leftfielder also pitches. He’s a guy who maxes out as a situational LOOGY, getting one out or pitching an inning at most. Besides, Mainieri is not going to want to risk not having his bat in the lineup. Cabrera is a guy who should get light duty during the season, but might be a secret weapon come the postseason as a late inning reliever.

FRESH RIGHTY ARMS

Nick Storz (Fr)
Devin Fontenot (Fr)
Ma’Khail Hilliard (Fr)
AJ Labas (Fr)
Clay Moffitt (Jr)
Cameron Sanders (Jr)
Trent Vietmeier (Fr)

Storz was another Top 100 prospect who somehow found his way to LSU thanks to signability concerns. He’s 6’6”, 255 pounds, making him a near prototype closer. The problem is that he had surgery to repair a bone spur. Storz should be ready for the start of the season, but it’s likely he will ease into the season.

That leaves AJ Labas as the top recruit to start the season in the bullpen. A 17th round pick by the Mets, Labas already has caught Mainieri’s eye, and I wouldn’t be shocked if he’s the opening day closer. Fontenot pitched well in spring practice and has likely earned a big role in the pen, along side Hilliard, who supposedly has the best curveball on the team.

Yes, Moffitt is the son of Tommy Moffitt. Cam Sanders is slated to be a midweek starter and he is likely the first guy to get a call if someone in the rotation fails. He was an 18th round pick and he’s another candidate for the closer’s job. But I think his demonstrated ability in JUCO to start might keep him as the emergency starter. Vietmeier was injured last season, and gets his first crack at playing time.

The bullpen roles are wide open. The team lost its closer and its bullpen ace is now in the rotation, so the first month of the season is an extended tryout for all of these guys to make their case. Even better for them, the starters will likely have shorter outings to preserve their arms, so there will be more chances to impress.

We know almost nothing about the bullpen at this point, and neither really do the coaches until we see how the new arms do throwing live ammo. There’s some potential there, but right now that’s all it is… potential. Until that turns into production, we could be in for a long early two months of the season as we figure things out.