Hot take: the most impactful addition to the 2023 Tiger pitching staff will throw zero (0) pitches this season for LSU.
I’m talking of course of new pitching coach Wes Johnson who left the Minnesota Twins last June—a team that was leading the AL Central no less—to take the LSU pitching coach job. Johnson is inheriting the job from Jason Kelly, who left LSU to return back to Washington and be the head coach of the Huskies (Kelly served as U Dub’s pitching coach for seven seasons; prior to that he was at LSU and Arizona State).
I think Kelly did a...fine(ish) job last season. To me, Kelly got the most out of a staff that just wasn’t as good as we’ve seen LSU field in previous years. God bless Ma’Khail Hilliard but I always felt Mike was either a really overqualified Sunday starter or a decent Saturday starter; instead he turned into your Friday night guy and gave LSU his absolute best last season.
Things look to be different in 2023 because Johnson’s one of the best pitching coaches in the biz and Johnson made sure to hit to hit the transfer portal to bolster his staff.
Paul Skenes is LSU’s Friday night guy. Skenes came to LSU via the Air Force Academy and is as do-it-all a baseball player as it gets. Skenes started 15 games for the Falcons last season and posted a 2.96 ERA with 96 Ks in 85.2 innings. If that wasn’t enough he hit .314 with 10 doubles, 13 homers, and 36 RBI. All those numbers added up to him being named the 2022 John Olerud winner (best two-way player in the country). We know we’ll see Skenes pitch on Fridays, as for how often we’ll see him at the plate that remains to be seen. Maybe Skenes DH’s on Saturday and Sunday; maybe just midweek games. Either way, we should see a lot of Skenes both on the mound and in the batter’s box. Skenes is also a projected top-five pick in this summer’s draft.
While Skenes is the clear-cut Friday night guy, it’s not as obvious who fills out the rest of the weekend rotation. I would imagine UCLA transfer Thatcher Hurd likely gets first dibs at the Saturday spot. Hurd was off to an incredible start last season (2-0, 1.06 ERA, 48Ks/10BBs in 34 innings) but got shut down with a back injury akin to what former Tiger Josh Smith battled early in his LSU career. If Hurd’s right, a big if, LSU ought to have a really good 1-2 punch of Skenes and Hurd.
As for the Sunday starter and midweek, there’s all kinds of combinations Johnson can go with. Blake Money got his shot as the Friday night guy last year but it didn’t quite go as well as we would have hoped. Money went 2-4 with a 5.31 ERA in 12 starts. Maybe Ty Floyd makes the leap and harnesses all the potential he possesses. Floyd 5-4 with a 3.77 ERA in 16 appearances (10 starts).
If Johnson wants a lefty in the rotation he could look toward Javen Coleman assuming he’s healthy. Coleman had Tommy John surgery last spring.
“He’s progressing tremendously well. That was a big blow to last year’s team,” Johnson said on January 27. “Maybe you’ll see him play catch out there, and he looks pretty good. We don’t have to make a decision as to whether he’s in or not in until a few weeks from now, but my hope is if there’s a window, we’re going to go for it. We’ll do right by him.”
I’m also curious what Vanderbilt transfer Christian Little’s role is with the pitching staff in 2023. Coming out of high school, Little reclassified to the class of 2021 and was a key piece in Vandy’s run to Omaha that ‘21 season. Little was Vanderbilt’s midweek starter and even started twice in the College World Series, but got relegated to working out of the bullpen in 2022. Little’s a great talent (PerfectGame had him as a top-15 prospect coming out of high school) now it’s just a matter of seeing where he fits into the rotation.