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2019 LSU Baseball Preview: The Hitters

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A freshman will step up, but which one?

NCAA Baseball: College World Series-LSU vs Oregon State
A senior star
Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to part two of the ATVS baseball preview! We already covered the pitching yesterday, so now let’s dive into the position players.

Last season, LSU scored 388 runs for a middle of the pack finish in SEC offenses. LSU ranked in the bottom five of the SEC in both on base percentage and slugging, and even more shocking, its 48 home runs ranked 10th in the SEC. That’s not your dad’s LSU baseball (OK, OK… my LSU baseball… I’m old, I get it). Mainieri was tasked in the offseason with revamping the offense to find more runs.

As always, the stat lines are AVG/OBP/SLG.

CATCHER

R/R Brook Mathis (So) JUCO transfer

R/R Saul Garza (So) JUCO transfer

R/R Braden Doughty (So) 000/571/000

Catcher was a problem last season, to put it mildly. There was no consistency either behind or at the plate from the position, so Mainieri completely remade the position, bringing in two JUCO transfers. But because nothing can be easy, Saul Garza promptly hurt his knee and required surgery. He will be eased back into the lineup and probably can’t do the tools of ignorance until mid-March, so right now, it is Mathis’ gig. Mathis comes in rated as more of a defensive specialist than a hitter, though he has some pop. Doughty is strictly a backup, though he has an outstandingly quirky stat line thanks to 3 at bats, 2 walks, and 2 HBP.

FIRST BASE/DH

L/L Cade Beloso (Fr)

R/R Drew Bianco (Fr)

L/R CJ Willis (Fr)

R/R Gavin Dugas (Fr)

Your guess is as good as mine. Mainieri hasn’t announced a starter, but he has handed whoever comes out of this four-man logjam the sixth slot in the batting order. Having options is good, but it does seem likely the position will struggle early in the year as the team finds out who can handle the position. I’m giving Beloso the leg up to win the job entirely because he’s the only one who throws lefty, making it easier for him to play the position in the field. OK, he’s also the Louisiana HS Gatorade Player of the Year. Bianco has gotten the most reps in fall practice, so he’s going to get a fair shot at the position. There’s also a chance either Willis or Bianco moves behind the plate if Mathis can’t handle the responsibilities at the plate.

In the short term, Saul Garza should man the DH position before he can take over at catcher, which will open up another lineup spot for the loser of the first base competition.

SECOND BASE

R/R Brandt Broussard (Sr) 260/333/306

R/R Gavin Dugas (Fr)

R/R Drew Bianco (Fr)

Broussard broke his thumb in the middle of last season, but due to a lack of options, he kept plugging away as his numbers continued to tank. He’s healthy now, so there’s a good chance his hitting numbers bounce back and he’s not nearly the offensive liability he was as the season wore on. He’s an above average defensive player and he has some of the best speed on the team. He has a skill set the team needs and he has earned the right to show he deserves to be the starter. Broussard took one for the team and his numbers suffered for it. He gets the chance to show he can get on at better rate when he’s totally healthy, though I doubt he’ll ever be a power threat.

Backing him up are the freshmen vying for the first base job. Dugas is a line drive hitter and also boasts plus speed, so he has the tools that profile for a second basemen. If he forces his way into the lineup, it will likely be here. Expect him to get some midweek reps at least to show what he can do.

THIRD BASE

R/R Hal Hughes (So) 221/292/289

L/R Chris Reid (Sr) 267/438/283

It’s been awhile since third base has been the LSU Vortex of Suck, turning usually productive players into hapless hitters, but 2018 threatened for a return. Hughes is one of the best infield defenders on the team but man, LSU cannot afford to carry that bat again. Slugging and getting on base under 300 is simply unacceptable in the SEC. If he can cut down on the strikeouts, he can boost those numbers to something the team can live with.

Chris Reid got a second life on the roster thanks to a slot opening up due to injury, and I would love for the literal last man on the roster to step up and make an impact. Reid is a veteran voice and a clutch bat, but he will likely be used primarily as a pinch hitter. If Hughes can’t carry the position, one of the freshmen will get the first look to get the starting job.

SHORTSTOP

L/R Josh Smith (Jr) 281/407/409 (2017)

All hail, our returning hero. Josh Smith earned 2017 All-Freshmen All-American honors and was rapidly becoming one of the team’s most dangerous players when injury struck and robbed him of his 2018 season. Smith is a guy who can do it all: hit for average, draw walks, steal bases, hit for power, even play defense. Hughes will back him up, and there is a chance Mainieri moves Hughes to short and Smith to third, but this is ultimately Smith’s position unless disaster strikes. He’s in there in permanent ink.

OUTFIELD

L/L Daniel Cabrera (So) 315/405/525

R/R Zach Watson (Jr) 308/366/479

L/L Antoine Duplantis (Sr) 328/381/443

L/L Giovanni DiGiacomo (Fr)

OK, there’s no real depth here, but just stare at that starting lineup. Going from left to right, Cabrera - Watson - Duplantis is one of the best outfields in the nation, much less the SEC. How often does a team have a senior as good as Duplantis? It defies logic he returned for one more college season, but I’m not complaining. Duplantis is an extreme contact hitter who uses his speed to turn outs in to singles and singles into doubles.

Cabrera is instructive on how our freshmen might develop this year. He came in as a tremendously hyped prospect and he spent most of the spring struggling at the plate before blossoming in April into the team’s best hitter. He went from pretty good to great as the season wore on.

Zach Watson honestly had a disappointing sophomore year, which speaks more to the levels of expectation than his performance. He arrived fully formed and he didn’t quite make the leap to staggeringly awesome. Of course, he could make that leap this year, but even if he never improves, he’s a terrific spray hitter with plus speed. He is also an elite defensive centerfielder. I’d love to see him add about 50 points to the OPS, but even if he doesn’t, he is an All-SEC centerfielder. If he does, he’s an All-American.

DiGiacomo should add elite speed as a potential pinch runner and a great glove as a late inning defensive sub.

Overall, this could be a great offense. The outfield is elite and there’s Josh Smith at shortstop to anchor the middle of the lineup. The question is which of the freshmen can step up into major roles, but the good news is that there are six freshmen for just three lineup slots, so it’s not like LSU needs all of them to produce right away. There’s huge upside with the lineup, though there is a chance that it could be the big four and little else outside of them.

Most likely, there will be some production issues at the bottom of the order from the catcher slot and Hal Hughes, but the rest of the order is productive and the middle of the order is elite. Paired with this pitching staff, this is a championship level offense.