After eight long months, baseball is finally back and for the first time since 2010 LSU heads into the college baseball season as the defending national champions.
The 2023 Tigers are my favorite team in history but as much as we don’t want to, we have to turn the page on the warm and fuzzy feelings that group gave us last summer in Omaha. The next item on the agenda? Try to go get No. 8.
Jay Johnson has himself an impossible task: how do you replace the single most dominant pitching season in program history (Paul Skenes) and arguably the greatest player in program history (Dylan Crews)? Those two question marks are giant problems on their own and if all that wasn’t enough, he’s also gotta replace his starting shortstop, second baseman, and first baseman.
Johnson may be down some of his big guns from last year’s team but at least he’s still got a tank. Tommy White is back for what will certainly be his final season of collegiate baseball. The star slugger is a projected top-10 pick in this summer’s draft. White’s bat has enough power to keep a small city’s lights on and the man followed up his 27-homer, 74-RBI freshman season at NC State with 25 homers and 105 RBIs last season.
LSU also has an underrated advantage of bringing back its top three options at catcher. Sophomore Brady Neal started 26 games, Alex Milazzo started 25, and Hayden Travinski started 20.
As an 18-year-old true freshman, Neal was LSU’s opening night catcher and if his back is fully healed up expect him to be the opening night catcher again. That back injury derailed Neal’s freshman season in early April and while his batting average wasn’t great, .209, he flashed some of the power that made him such a highly sought after high school prospect. Neal collected 14 hits last season, with a double, a triple, and three home runs. Two of those three homers came off future first round picks Chase Burns and Hagan Smith. Neal’s probably LSU’s most balanced option at catcher.
If Neal needs a day off, Milazzo is more than capable of handling the backstop. A tremendous defensive catcher, Milazzo is able to corral the wildest of pitches and he’s starting to become serviceable with his bat. In 2021 Milazzo hit an abysmal .135, but bumped that average all the way up to .289 last season. Milazzo is also working his way back from injury, as the senior had a pretty gruesome shin fracture in the championship game victory over Florida.
If Milazzo is the top defensive catcher and Neal is a little more balanced, Travinski is by far and away the best offensive option LSU’s got. When Travinski is hot there may not be a bigger bat in LSU’s lineup. He hit a career-best 10 home runs last year, including a dramatic go-ahead shot against Ole Miss...but those 10 homers came over a 23-game stretch. Does the bat have power? Absolutely, but it comes and goes. Still, Travinski’s bat is so good it would be a disservice to keep him out of the lineup and I think at minimum he’s LSU’s primary DH in 2024.
Let’s take a moment of silence to remember Tre’ Morgan’s wizardry at first base. Gone is his golden glove, in his place will likely be sophomore Jared “Bear” Jones. Jones earned freshman All-American honors last year after hitting .304 with 14 homers. He split time between first base (34 starts) and DH (14 starts) and hit an okay-ish .259 against SEC competition. Jones struggled with off-speed pitches and struck out an alarming 43 percent of the time. Does he get that same type of leeway in 2024 or will Jay Johnson’s hand be forced?
Replacing both pieces of your starting middle infield isn’t ideal, but LSU looked both inward and outward to fill the holes. Josh Pearson looks to be getting first crack at second base though he’s never played the position before at this level. Pearson’s not afraid of the big stage as 11 of his 31 hits came in the NCAA Tournament, including a two-run homer in the championship game against Florida. His average was significantly worse in 2023 than it was in 2022 though. As a true freshman he hit .299, but last year it dipped down to .226. Good on him for coming alive at the plate when it mattered most, but Pearson will need to get that average up to justify a spot in the lineup.
LSU’s losing a multi-year starter at shortstop, but they’ll be replacing Jordan Thompson with another multi-year starter: Michael Braswell. Braswell comes to LSU via South Carolina where he played in 105 games and made 91 starts over the past two seasons. The glove is pretty good, but Braswell leaves a lot to be desired from a power perspective. He’s got three homers for his career but Jay Johnson is as good an offensive coach that there is in the country. If there’s power in Braswell’s bat Johnson will tap into it.
VCU transfer Ben Nippolt is back for a second season in Baton Rouge and he’ll likely be the first option off the bench if LSU needs a defensive replacement at second, third, or even short. Nippolt’s bat just hasn’t been good enough to be more than a defensive sub, but if there is some kind of emergence at the plate then maybe he’ll give Jay Johnson something to think about.
I’m curious to see how much playing time true freshman Steven Milam gets in 2024. Milam was the No. 1 player coming out of New Mexico—coughAlex Bregman 2.0???cough—and the switch hitter projects as either a second baseman or shortstop. He’s a little on the small side right now, listed at 5’8” and 172, but if and when he fills out maybe he’s LSU starting shortstop in ‘25 or ‘26.
There’s two more exciting true freshmen that could get some work at first base, but more likely will get playing time in the outfield: Jake Brown and Ashton Larson. Brown was Louisiana’s highest ranked prospect, while Larson was Kansas’s No. 1 player. Both are more likely corner outfielders but their bats are both so good that it’d be worth giving either some time at first base if Jay Johnson’s in a roster tinkering kind of mood.