LSU baseball team faces high expectations

Alex Bregman looks at LSU baseball’s preseason rankings — No. 3, No. 9, No. 12 — and takes away one thing.

“It shows us we’re not No. 1,” the LSU shortstop said smiling.

That’s, maybe, a different feeling than most might have.

After all, here’s a team that must replace half of its position starters and more than half of its bullpen from last season.

The Tigers’ No. 2 pitcher and school-record breaking closer from 2013 are both gone, too.

That hasn’t lightened expectations.

While the team continues its first week of preseason practice, prognosticators are pegging the Tigers to be among the nation’s best.

LSU is No. 9 in Baseball America’s preseason Top 25, released Monday. The Tigers are No. 12 in Perfect Game’s preseason poll and are No. 3 according to Collegiate Baseball.

Those seem awfully high for a squad that has a lot of replacing to do.

“I feel like at LSU there’s such a good tradition, such a good coaching staff, they do a tremendous job recruiting,” Bregman said. “Here you don’t really rebuild, you reload.”

“We have a lot of expectations people want us to meet,” ace pitcher Aaron Nola said. “And we expect to meet them.”

Nola and Bregman, preseason All-Americans, are the returning stars of a team that went 57-11 in 2013. Christian Ibarra comes back at third base, too. And Andrew Stevenson and Mark Laird return to their spots at center field and right field.

But lost are Mason Katz and Jacoby Jones, the right side of LSU’s infield last year, and left fielder Raph Rhymes and No. 2 pitcher Ryan Eades.

Throw in closer Chris Cotton and catcher Ty Ross’ departures, and there’s a lot of replacing to do.

That’ll come over the next three weeks, and even after the Feb. 14 season opener against UNO at Alex Box Stadium.

On Monday, under gray skies and a stiff wind, the Tigers held practice No. 3 of the preseason at Alex Box.

They’ll take the day off Tuesday, when snow and ice are expected to hit the Baton Rouge area.

A host of players are vying for the vacancies left by Eades, Jones, Katz, Rhymes and a host of relief pitchers who are gone.

Coach Paul Mainieri is confident he has the replacements to assemble a national championship type club.

Everyone else, apparently, is too — not that it’s a problem for Mainieri.

“Rankings,” he said, “a lot of coaches play them down. I’m not one of those coaches. I think rankings are cool. It creates excitement. Gets people talking.”

Doesn’t it also create pressure for a program with so many big holes to fill?

“I don’t really know how you can increase the pressure at LSU. I don’t think you can increase the expectations here,” Mainieri said. “Every year, the expectations are the same: Omaha or bust. And if you get to Omaha, you want to win the national championship.”

A gauntlet of a schedule awaits.

Seven other Southeastern Conference teams are ranked in Baseball America’s poll, and LSU plays six of them this season, including home series with No. 8 Mississippi State, No. 21 Alabama and No. 25 Arkansas.

The University of Louisiana at Lafayette is ranked No. 14. LSU hosts the Ragin Cajuns on Feb. 25.

That’s a long way off. There’s a lot of replacing to do until then.

It’s a fluid process. On Monday, new faces dotted the field during practice.

Tyler Moore, also competing for the catcher job, spent some time at first base.

Junior college transfer Conner Hale was at second and junior Jared Foster was in left field.

“This team is working really hard to get better and fill those vacancies,” Bregman said. “I think we’ll do it.”

Injury report

Four pitchers have not completely returned to practice and one might miss the season.

Pitcher Christian Pelaez’s freshman season is “in doubt,” Mainieri said Monday. Palaez has suffered from a lingering shoulder injury and will need rehabilitation or surgery.

Sophomore Hunter Newman, suffering from a sore shoulder, was able to throw pain free, but his full return has been delayed, the coach said.

Freshman pitcher Troy Whitty has a torn meniscus in his knee. It’s unclear when he’ll return or if the knee needs surgery.

Freshman pitcher Parker Bugg is still recovering from a bout of mononucleosis.