Mainieri discusses LSU’s bullpen, catchers, infield

Paul Mainieri, beginning his eighth season as LSU’s baseball coach this year, sat down with The Advocate for an hourlong interview.

Sunday, you read Part I, in which Mainieri looked back to last season, turned to the expectations of this year, and touched on his starting pitchers.

In Part II, he discusses the bullpen, the intense battle at catcher, his batting lineup, and filling the voids on the right side of the infield.

The Advocate: How’s the bullpen looking, specifically who replaces closer Chris Cotton?

Mainieri: That’s a big concern. I’m of the philosophy that your closer is as important as your No. 2 and No. 3 starters. We recruited a young man I’m extremely high on named Brady Domanque. He’s a kid out of Houma. Went to Southeastern Louisiana as a freshman. Had a back issue and never pitched. Transferred to LSU-Eunice the next year and for the last two years has been their top pitcher. They won the national championship his first year and runner-up his second year, and he was the No. 1 pitcher.

He’s one of those kids, you can see, he’s got that bulldog about him, that unwavering self confidence. I think his stuff is good enough, 90-91 mph on the mound, with a pretty good curve ball.

Problem is, he didn’t get to pitch much this fall because he had a freak injury where his knee cap popped out. It didn’t need surgery but was really sore for about three weeks. That was right in the middle of fall practice. He missed out on about three weeks of development to become a closing relief pitcher. But we’re going to use these next three weeks to really try to groom him for that role.

I thought Brady would be either a starter or closer, and the only way he can be the closer is if somebody else emerges to be a starter.

And I’m hoping that two of those three guys that I mentioned before (Cody Glenn, Hunter Newman and Jared Poche) can be quality starting pitchers. And if that’s the case, we’ll go into the year with Brady as the closer.

The Advocate: You have to replace Ty Ross at catcher. How is that battle heading into practice?

Mainieri: Right now, I’d say Tyler Moore is a notch above Chris Chinea, and Chris Chinea is a notch above Kade Scivicque. So really, we’ve got three guys we have confidence in, and I think we’ll use all three guys.

For the last six years, we’ve used two catchers. We used Micah Gibbs every day for three years, we used Tyler Ross every day for three years. I think that’s what our fans have become accustomed to, so they’re going to have to change their thought process a little bit, because I think they’re going to see a little bit of a revolving door behind the plate.

But whoever’s not catching becomes a candidate at first base. So that tells you how much I think of all three of those guys. They all swing the bat very well. They’re all good athletes. I don’t think one is as good defensively as a Tyler Ross. Tyler Ross was a shut-down catcher. I don’t know that anyone of them are quite at the level of Tyler, but I think all three of them may be better hitters than Tyler.

We’ve got the opportunity to, maybe, platoon, because Moore’s a left-handed hitter, and Chinea’s a big right-handed hitter. Some guys throw better than others, but other guys block balls and receive balls better than others.

We’ve got to do a little bit of manipulating there. But right now, I like all three of them.

The Advocate: You return shortstop Alex Bregman and third baseman Christian Ibarra, but the right side of your infield was completely lost. How do you replace it?

Mainieri: I came out of the fall with the idea that we’d end up playing a freshman at second base, either (Danny) Zardon or (Kramer) Robertson.

We had recruited a kid named Conner Hale, thinking he could replace Christian Ibarra at third. What happened is Christian was drafted in the 32nd round and decided to come back for his senior year, which we were happy about. So we decided we’re going to flip Hale over to first base and put a third baseman at first base. And with (his) infield skills (he) is going to be an outstanding first baseman, and I think Hale could do that. But I’m starting to think also that I might want to give one of those catchers a shot (at first base). If that’s the case, I might slide Conner Hale over to second base and use one of those catchers at first base.

That’s not an indictment on Zardon and Robertson. I love both of those kids, and I think both are good ballplayers that are going to have great careers here. But it’s very difficult to thrust a freshman into the SEC at LSU and expect them to perform like seasoned veterans.

At some point, I think Zardon and Robertson could be a sparkplug for our team if we need that spark at some point.

I’m just not sure … a lot can happen in the next three weeks. After three weeks, I might say, ‘You know what? Those young kids are better every day than one of the other catchers at first base, and I might move Hale back to first. Or Hale might not perform up to speed and I might not even play him. That’s still a little bit of a work in progress, that right side of the infield.

The Advocate: You’ve mentioned three freshmen who could have an immediate impact: Robertson and Zandor at second base, and Jared Poche on the mound. But are there any others?

Mainieri: I’m also real high on a kid named Parkery Bugg, a right-handed pitcher out of San Diego. He was the only drafted player that ended up coming to school. He did some really good things in the fall.

Probably the top freshman recruit coming in out of our evaluation is a kid name Jake Fraley. Jake had a very, very poor fall. But (Thursday) was the first day I’ve seen him hit since he came back, and it was like night and day from what we saw in fall practice. I don’t know if he’s going to continue this over the next three, four weeks, but (Thursday) it was awe-inspiring to see the way he took batting practice.

The Advocate: Let’s talk about your bats. How does the lineup shape up right now?

Mainieri: I was thinking about making (Andrew) Stevenson a leadoff hitter. Stevenson reminds me a lot of a Jared Mitchell or a JaCoby Jones type: a really good athlete that can do some spectacular things, but you’ve got to kind of let them play. You can’t manipulate him into being the player you want him to be. You’ve got to let him be the player he is. Those type of kids, sometimes you can overcoach them, and that’s not positive for them.

So instead of leading off Stevenson and make him take pitchers and make him bunt, I’m probably going to end up hitting him sixth or seventh in the order like I did with Jared Mitchell and JaCoby Jones, and just let them play and hope they do more positive things than negative things.

If I did that, I’d probably put Sean McMullen back in the leadoff spot (where he was last year). He was great for us. He’s got a nice blend of power, and he can run. A lot of doubles. I think Sean has kind of figured it out, and I’m thinking he’s ready to have a fantastic year.

I like (Mark ) Laird in the 2 hole. He can handle the bat a lot and can really run. And Bregman’s your 3 hole hitter.

The key for us this year is going to be figuring out 4 and 5. Right now, the most obvious candidates would be Ibarra, who hit 6 for us last year, but he drove in a lot of big runs, as well as that group of catchers, Moore, Chinea and Scivicque.

And then when you get to the second half of the order, you’re talking about whoever else is starting: Hale, Stevenson, whoever the left-fielder is, which would be a combination of Jared Foster, Chris Sciambra and Jake Fraley. If McMullen plays the outfield, it frees up the DH position.