In Part II of Paul Mainieri’s post-fall interview with The Advocate, the LSU coach discussed the many options he has to replace the eight departed members of a starting lineup that carried last season’s Tigers to the College World Series.
Mainieri was high on both sophomore Mike Papierski and junior Jake Fraley, who had what the coach called the best fall of his career. Mainieri also proclaimed speedy freshman Antoine Duplantis a budding SEC star.
Still, Mainieri has decisions to make and positions to evaluate before February, but he liked what he saw from the crop of new talent in their six-week introduction to LSU.
Here is Part I of our interview with Mainieri, which focused exclusively on the LSU pitching staff.
Q: All the talk coming into the fall was about these young guys trying to replace eight of nine in your starting lineup. Were you impressed with how they matured through the six weeks of fall?
“It was a lot of ebb and flow throughout the fall. There were spurts where some guys looked really good, other guys were struggling. And then other spurts where the guys who were struggling looked really good and the guys that had been looking good started to struggle a little bit. There’s a few things that have emerged that I think we can count on, or at least going to give it the first shot to count on as we get started. And then there’s other things that will still be in flux when we get started in the spring. Remember, we’ll have three full weeks of practice as a team plus a week and a half of individual work (in the spring) – we do some simulated games and so forth – so a lot can change in terms of the personnel we’re going to count on to start the season during that period of time.
Things that I think we can feel strongly about is I do think Michael Papierski emerged as a clear-cut No. 1 guy (at catcher), but I also think Jordan Romero is going to be a good other option because Papierski can’t catch 56 games. So whether he catches two-thirds or three-quarters, I’m not exactly sure, but the games that Jordan Romero or the second catcher would catch, and I say ‘or the second catcher’ because we didn’t get to see Bryce Jordan catch at all this fall because of the injury. But those games are going to be important as well, so we need to have a good second catcher, but I do think Papierski has shown the propensity to be more of a force at the plate. We knew he was a good defensive catcher, I think he’s emerging as a leader on our team.
We knew Jake Fraley was going to be a good everyday player, but he went out and had the best fall he’s had in his three years here, so that gives us a lot of optimism that he’s going to take his game to another level.
Really excited about what Greg Deichmann showed this fall. There’s no secret that we need to find some guys to hit in the heart of the order and be run producers for us. Deichmann has shown that he’s got the capability of doing that. Statistically, he had the best stats of the fall. He hit the ball with authority, his swing looked a lot simpler, he’s not swinging and missing as often and he’s having some quality at-bats. And on top of everything else, he’s shown he an play a pretty good defensive second base or first base for us. So we have a little bit of an option there and I don’t think he’s a liability defensively at all — he did a nice job at both of those positions. But the bottom line with Deichmann is, can he swing the bat during the spring season the way that he did during the fall? If he does, it’s going to make us a pretty good team. If he doesn’t, we’re going to have to reevaluate the situation, but I feel strongly that he is going to do that.
I think that Antoine Duplantis has emerged as a potential star in our league. He turned out to be everything I thought he was going to be when we recruited him. He brings the best qualities of both (Mark) Laird and (Andrew) Stevenson. Laird came here with very good hand-eye coordination (and) a very simple swing that would make consistent contact — Duplantis has that. Stevenson came here with some physicalness where he could drive the ball, much more than Laird and Duplantis has that. He also steals bases and we think he’s an outstanding outfielder. I think you have a budding superstar in Duplantis.
I think Beau Jordan has shown he’s capable of being a middle of the order hitter for us, whether it’s in left field as a designated hitter. A lot like Deichmann, I think he deserves a chance to prove he can be a middle of the order guy who’s a run producer for us. I think Kramer Robertson, especially in the last three games (of the Purple-Gold World Series) showed that he could be a force for us. He hadn’t shown that kind of pop. He showed flashes of it, but not for three straight games like he did. Whether or not Kramer proves to be an everyday player will remain to be seen, but he’s going to get an opportunity, I’m sure, and if he does the job and plays at a high level, he becomes an asset for our team as well.
I think those things are for certain. I think Trey Dawson showed that he has the capabilities of making the routine play all day long. His range is a little bit limited and certainly he’s behind with the bat. But first thing’s first, we need to find someone who can make the routine play at (shortstop). That’s something that’s been taken for granted around here for as long as I’ve been here because we’ve had shortstops like Mike Hollander, DJ Lemahieu, Austin Nola and Alex Bregman. But I’ve played that position, I know it’s not an easy position to play. Making those clutch plays, even though they’re routine, I’ve known a lot of teams that haven’t made that play and it’s affected their ability to win. I think Dawson gives us that and hopefully the rest of his game will continue to improve as well.
I think Cole Freeman emerges also as an option at shortstop if Dawson can’t handle it on an everyday basis. He brings a lot of life to the team, has a lot of hustle, quickness and energy, a lot like Tyler Hanover brought to our team a few years ago. He becomes an option at third base, but I do think Chris Reid has emerged and gotten himself into the fight. His skills defensively are adequate and he had one of the best falls of anyone on our team swinging the bat. Can’t deny that he’s got a very sound swing and makes consistent contact and has got a good eye at the plate. He’s not fleet of foot and sometimes he has trouble acclimating himself to the entire college experience, it’s a little big for him right now in terms of being reliable and responsible and those things.”
Q: It seems like you have a list of players who can contribute, but you’re not sure exactly where they fit just yet. Is that where you want to be at the end of the fall, especially with this much youth?
“I’d like to have options right now. If you had a team coming back like we had last year with a bunch of veterans, not to say it was boring, but you just maintain status quo through fall practice. This fall’s been a lot more exciting, a lot more dynamic. We’ve done a lot more teaching, there’s been a lot more evaluating of what the players can do and what the areas are they need to continue to work on. Like I said, during the ebb and flow of the fall, some guys did well and then some guys didn’t and then the roles are reversed the next week. That’s not all that unusual when you have a lot of new guys, but I don’t think right now is the time to make these decisions. When the bell rings in January and February, you get to start to know the players better.
And I’m not even writing off the guys that had poor falls. For example, Cody Ducote had a very poor fall with the bat, yet when we recruited him, he came to us with the reputation of being the most outstanding hitter out of the city of New Orleans in the last five years. I’m not going to give up on him because he didn’t hit well in the fall. He may come back in January and all of a sudden light it up and be in the mix for a starting spot. Other guys that performed well in the fall might get a little bit of the deer in the headlights look come spring time. We’ve got to let it play out a little.
Q: But that’s not unusual, right? Some guys, like Jake Fraley, had bad falls in their first year but turned it around in spring?
“If I would have judged Fraley based on the fall of his freshman year or Sean McMullen when he came here in the first fall after being at Delgado. If I would have judged those guys based on that, you’d have said they would have never been able to play for us. And yet, Fraley’s career’s still going and McMullen’s career at LSU became really good and he’s playing pro ball, but sometimes it takes people a while to get acclimated. Even the junior college kid who’s a little bit older and has a couple years of college experience, LSU’s a whole different animal.”
Q: Do you like where you’re at now that fall is done?
“I think we’re in perfect position. Couldn’t be happier. When I think of all the fall practices I’ve had in my time at LSU, I don’t think we’ve gotten more accomplished in any other season than we did this fall. Maybe the fall of 2007 when we were kind of trying to make the move to get back to being relevant again and we brought back a really good recruiting class. I thought we got a lot accomplished. We went over most of the players, but to see all that stuff happen and do as much teaching as we did. Usually fall practice is a little bit of a pain in the neck and it drags, for me it didn’t drag at all. It was exciting for me to see the players work and get better, and I feel like we did. But I still have that little bit of anxiety because these guys still haven’t done it in real games and how are they going to react when the lights go on. We won’t know that until February 19 and beyond, but at this point, I feel like where we are is exactly where we should be. I do think we’re a better team today than we were two months ago and I think we’ll be better when we show back up in January than we are now. I certainly hope we’ll be better when the season begins than we are when we first get back and I hope we’ll be better in April or May than we are in February and March.”