Consider the most recent chapter of the LSU baseball team finally closed.
Star players Mason Katz, Raph Rhymes, Ryan Eades and JaCoby Jones all left for the next step of their careers — along with numerous other players — leaving coach Paul Mainieri to rebuild his squad in an attempt to replicate last season’s success.
“Putting together a new team every year is what we do in athletics,” Mainieri said. “I feel as if I’ve been handed a big pile of clay, and as the sculptor of that clay, it’s up to me to try to make something beautiful out of it.”
Replacing the departed starters will be a mixture of key bench players from last season — such as Jared Foster and Chris Chinea — and some of the 17 new players Mainieri has recruited.
Of those recruits, 10 are pitchers, which will give Mainieri and pitching coach Alan Dunn ample bodies to replace the five arms who left at the end of this season.
Though two of the top pitching prospects the Tigers signed chose the MLB, the Tigers have a couple of arms coming in who could compete for playing time in their first season.
Right-hander Parker Bugg was the only player who was selected in the MLB draft — he was taken in the 34th round — who decided to come to LSU. Bugg is a mammoth at 6-foot-6 with a low 90s fastball, but his “upside” is something Mainieri said he was most excited about.
“[Bugg] obviously has a tremendous ‘upside.’ He is a tall, slender right-handed pitcher from San Diego, California, who projects as a guy that can potentially come in and help us right away,” Mainieri said. “He has a good feel for pitching and uses an over-the-top low 90s fastball with a major downhill plane to be effective.”
Bugg suffered the same fate as another highly-touted freshman, Alex Bregman. Bugg broke his foot and missed the second half of his senior season, causing him to slip on MLB teams’ draft boards.
The Tigers also mined LSU-Eunice for a couple of starting caliber pitchers. Right-hander Brady Domangue and southpaw Zac Person were the Friday and Saturday starters respectively for LSU-E during the team’s run to becoming national runners-up in the 2012-13 season.
Domangue has a high 80s fastball with downward movement who broke the LSU-Eunice strikeout record during his career.
“[Domangue] is a guy who will work quickly and absolutely pound the strike zone with a sinking fastball that sits in the high 80s but can touch the low 90s. He also has a super breaking ball that he uses as a strikeout pitch,” Mainieri said. “Brady is fun to watch because of his outstanding mound demeanor along with a quick, but smooth delivery to home plate.
Person is a lefty with an average fastball and a wipeout slider, but Mainieri said his best attributes are his fast arm and good mechanics, which allow him to disguise his pitches and make hitters uncomfortable in the box.
The last pitcher who could see playing time during his first year is true freshman Jared Poché.
Poché was named to the first team All-State in both his junior and senior seasons, and according to Mainieri, told MLB teams not to draft him due to his desire to play for LSU. As a southpaw, his low 90s fastball and hard breaking curveball both project to be effective at the college level.
“[Poché’s] fastball consistently sits in the 90 mph range and he features a very hard 12 to six curveball that he can command,” Mainieri said. “This guy has a chance to be special, and I can’t wait to see the influence [pitching coach] Alan Dunn will have on him.”
As for replacing the departed hitters, junior college transfer Conner Hale leads the pack. Hale won conference player of the year at the State College of Florida while playing third base with a .366 batting average and 65 RBIs.
Hale’s ability to play third potentially allows senior Christian Ibarra to move to shortstop, with Bregman moving over to second base, solidifying the middle of the infield following the departure of Jones.
“Going into fall practice, we are going to have high standards for Conner to be a key newcomer for us,” Mainieri said. “He could emerge as a candidate to be a middle of the order hitter – which would help ease the pain of losing Katz and Rhymes.”
True freshman Jake Fraley is another high schooler coming in who could see playing time in his first season.
Fraley is a left-handed outfielder, who won the 2013 preseason Gatorade Player of the Year.
“As a high school player entering college, Jake is as close as it gets to the proverbial ‘five-tool player,’” Mainieri said. “Jake is a key component of this recruiting class, and we are ecstatic about seeing him take the field wearing the purple and gold.”
With this crop of talent coming in, Mainieri has all the tools needed to mold the clay of another successful LSU baseball team.
“The goal here every year is to win the national championship, and that’s what we’re going to try to do,” Mainieri said. “We have a strong core of players back from last year’s team combined with an excellent class of new recruits, and there’s going to be great competition during fall practice at every position.”