LSU baseball opened preseason practice Friday afternoon just as it does every season — with high expectations.
The Tigers are ranked No. 11 in the D1 Baseball poll and the Collegiate Baseball poll, while they are ranked No. 12 in the USA Today Coaches poll. LSU coach Paul Mainieri said there are more unknowns on this team concerning the positions players than there has been in the past.
“I’m excited about our team this year,” Mainieri said. “We have a lot of great kids and a lot of young kids and a veteran pitching staff. There are a lot of things that make us excited about this year. Our pitching staff is a veteran pitching staff. We have 16 pitchers on the team. We only have three new pitchers, so 13 guys are veterans. It just so happens the three new guys are left-handers.”
This season, LSU is looking to replace three key position players in outfielders Antoine Duplantis and Zach Watson and infielder Josh Smith. Mainieri said there was no way he could think to lay out a full starting lineup before the season opener.
Junior Daniel Cabrera is a formidable replacement for Duplantis in the outfield and even was awarded with being this season’s No. 8. Previous No. 8s have included Alex Bregman, Mikie Matook and Cole Freeman before Duplantis was handed it in 2019.
Mainieri said that Cabrera — who was named a D1 Baseball Preseason All-American — has no choice but to be a leader on this team now because of the lack of veteran position players.
“Daniel is the most talented one we have,” Mainieri explained. “I think he just knows the responsibility. I let the player who wears No. 8 decide on who to give it to. When Antoine (Duplantis) wanted to give it to Daniel Cabrera, I asked Daniel how he would feel about that because there is a responsibility of leadership. I was really happy with his response. He wanted the No. 8 and embraces that responsibility.”
The Tigers’ outfield will be manned by Cabrera in right field while the other two position battles play out. Freshman Wes Toups and sophomore Drew Bianco will battle in left field while freshman Mo Hampton and Giovanni DiGiacomo battle in center.
The infield has more veteran leadership than the outfield, with sophomores Cade Beloso and Drew Bianco both putting in time at first and junior Hal Hughes starting the season at shortstop.
Freshman Cade Doughty and sophomore Gavin Dugas — who missed his freshman season with an injury — will contribute on the left side of the infield.
“Yeah, there’s two different types of leaders,” Beloso said. “There are the guys who lead by example, Hal (Hughes) and Daniel (Cabrera) are those types of guys. They lead by example and they do a great job of it and there’s also some vocal guys. I think that’s where guys like me and Saul Garza and Drew Bianco are. We’re the vocal guys, we bring the juice.”
In contrast, LSU’s experienced pitching staff will hopefully be more stable and healthy in 2020.
Three pitchers — sophomore right-handers Jaden Hill, AJ Labas and Nick Storz — are all coming off of injury, while three newcomers add some left-handers to the bullpen for the Tigers.
Mainieri said that sophomore right-hander Cole Henry will be the Friday night starter and the second and third spots will be a battle between AJ Labas, Landon Marceaux and Eric Walker. Henry was also a D1 Baseball Preseason All-American selection.
“(Cole Henry) has the capability to be one of those special guys we have had around here,” Mainieri said. “I think he is going to continue to improve as the year goes on. I think you are talking about a kid that is potentially a first-round draft choice and an All-American caliber pitcher.”
Right-handers Ma’Khail Hilliard, Trent Vietmeier, Matthew Beck and Devin Fontenot will all come out of the bullpen this season and provide juice in late game situations.
“I feel like we have the same vibes around the dugout and clubhouse as last year,” Henry said. “I think everyone gets along really well. There are no bad eggs in this group, and there wasn’t last year either so both years I’ve been here, we’ve had great teams, great chemistry. I feel like everyone wants to play for each other and play for the university more than ourselves.”