Last season, LSU coach Paul Mainieri had his fair share of rebuilding to carry out in the Tiger infield.
Two seniors and fan favorites, third baseman Tyler Hanover and shortstop Austin Nola, left after their senior seasons, leaving a gaping hole in the left side of the diamond in Alex Box Stadium. They filled the positions with a First Team All-Southeastern Conference third baseman in Christian Ibarra and the 2013 National Freshman of the Year in Alex Bregman at shortstop.
In 2014, Mainieri has a slightly different project on his hands.
Former Tiger second baseman JaCoby Jones was selected by Pittsburgh in the third round of the 2013 MLB draft, and former senior first baseman Mason Katz was selected by St. Louis in the fourth round, leaving the right side of the infield open for new faces to fill.
Mainieri had one main thought about the challenge ahead.
“Let’s hope it goes as well this year for the right side as it went for the left,” Mainieri said.
As in 2013, several players were brought into the organization to provide stability on the inner diamond.
Junior Conner Hale, who transferred from the State College of Florida, is expected to be the Opening Day starter at second base, a position he had never played prior to this season. Hale was named the Suncoast Conference Player of the Year and First Team All-Conference after he batted .366 with one home run, 18 doubles and 65 RBIs.
Hale said he’s up for the challenge of replacing Jones’ offensive presence at second.
“I’m just trying to bring consistent at-bats and try to get on base and help the team however I can, whether it’s driving in runs or coming up in the clutch moments,” Hale said.
Mainieri said he isn’t worried about Hale taking on a new role for the first time. He originally recruited Hale as a third baseman because he expected Ibarra to leave the program after being drafted by Pittsburgh in the 32nd round of the draft.
When Ibarra decided to return, Mainieri chose to flip Hale over to second base to give two freshman infielders, Danny Zardon and Kramer Robertson, the chance to ease into definite roles on the roster.
Zardon and Robertson, two out-of-state recruits, are expected to take over infield positions in the coming years, but Mainieri wants to see them have increased roles as the season moves along.
He said the duo reminds him of a trio of freshmen he coached five years ago.
“I keep thinking back to 2009 when [Mikie] Mahtook, Hanover and Nola didn’t start the season as freshmen, but at some point each of them got inserted, and they all provided such a spark for our team that we ended up winning a national championship,” Mainieri said.
Juniors Tyler Moore and Kade Scivicque and sophomore Chris Chinea will rotate between catcher and first base in 2014, with one possibly winning the official starting job later in the season.
Replacing Katz’s numbers at the plate from last season — a .370 batting average, 16 home runs and 70 RBIs — won’t come easy.
Moore said he’s looking forward to being a regular bat in the lineup, and he’s not worrying about transitioning between positions.
“It’s big to be a well-rounded player, so I’ve been working at both positions for some time now,” Moore said. “It shouldn’t be too big of a transition, and I’m excited to see what happens this year.”