Last year, I wrote a particular savage post about the baseball team which may have indicated that I thought last year’s offense was historically pitiful. However, I did close with the hopeful note that it was just Mainieri’s first year and I believe a coach gets a free pass in his first year. That still holds true, but now it’s time for Mainieri to produce.
The team is a preseason pick to finish 5th in the SEC West, but Manieiri openly talked about contending for Omaha. While I admire his gusto, the success of this team should be measured fairly modestly: making the SEC tournament and the NCAA tournament (strangely enough, making the NCAA’s may be the easier task). LSU opens the season ranked #25, so it’s not like the optimism is wholly unjustified. How can this team so quickly reverse is fortunes?
Well, for starters, by absolutely gutting the team. Tonight’s starting lineup will include four players who weren’t on the team last year and four sophomores. Mainieri has also announced that Chad Jones and Micah Gibbs, two more newcomers, will start a game in the Indiana series. The weekend rotation will have one newcomer, though tonight’s starter is Jared Bradford, who is on the Golden Spikes Award watch list, and Bradford was about the only bright spot last year. However, don’t think the pitching staff hasn’t been revamped. Verdugo’s been named the midweek starter, and Daniel Bradshaw was the Louisiana High School Pitcher of the Year and is the team’s new closer. Anthony Ranaudo, drafted in the 11th round, turned down the Rangers to pitch at LSU but is right now out with an injury. Someone is just keeping a rotation spot warm for him.
Also, of the returning players, almost all of them lack experience. Mike Hollander is the only 3-year letterman on the entire roster, and he starts off the season moved to a new position (3rd base) and batting last in the order. Normally I have a problem with giving a guy a slot just because of his age, but since this team is so bereft of true senior leadership, I’m okay with one spot for a guy for leadership instead of production. But the leash is short. After Hollander, there are only six other players on the roster with two years in the program (Haydel, Byrd, Coleman, Pontiff, McGhee, and Cain). Of those, only P Ryan Byrd is a starter, though Nicholas Ponitff should be in the outfield rotation while Coleman and Cain were pretty good in the pen last year (Cain was our most effective reliever and Coleman had a great K-BB ratio despite a high ERA). Everyone else on the team has one year or less in the program. Mainieri brought in 19 players in this recruiting class, named #1 in the country, including 12 freshmen.
How are they going to do? Well, we’ll find out pretty quickly. Of the 12 freshmen, 11 of them were named High School All-American. It really is a dream class, and one that LSU needs to produce right away. For this season, Mainieri needs the JUCO studs to step up right away. 1B Matt Clark, DH Matt Gaudet, and SP Jordan Brown are already starters. SP Ryan Verdugo is the midweek starter while INF Rene Escobar and SS Derek Helenihi were both JUCO All-Americans. Ryan Schimp and Mike Hollander better produce or else their seasoned veteran status won’t count for squat.
As bad as last year’s offense was, there is hope the returning starters can turn it around since, aside from Hollander, they were all freshmen. Schimpf and Jared Mitchell were freshmen thrown to wolves last year and looked like it. C Sean Ochinko was the second best freshman on the team last year, and he got better in the offseason, making the Cape Cod leagues All-Star Game. Of course, the best freshman was OF Blake Dean, who now takes up the mantle as LSU’s unquestioned best position player and leader. A huge mantle as a sophomore, but on this team, the sophomores are the veterans.
I’d expect a lot of the new players to have the same growing pains as last year’s freshmen, while the sophomores should now dramatically improved. While Omaha might be a pipe dream, there is the talent to make it if everything breaks right. The real goal for this team should be making the Super Regionals. That would be a great season, and would be a stepping stone to great things next season. But this team absolutely has no excuse to miss the tournament again. It’s a young team, so expect some inconsistent play, but this should be the most exciting LSU team since the Bertman era.
Bring on Indiana.