The LSU baseball team will have to replace nearly half of the players from the group that qualified for the College World Series this season.
Eight players have run out of eligibility and a few more are expected to sign professional contracts after being drafted as underclassmen earlier this month. Just how many choose to leave early won’t be known for a while, but it’s all but certain that starting pitcher Ryan Eades, second baseman JaCoby Jones and catcher Ty Ross will bypass their final year of eligibility to begin their professional careers.
Eades was a second-round draft choice of the Minnesota Twins, Jones was a third-round choice of the Pittsburgh Pirates and Ross was a 12th round pick of the San Francisco Giants.
Others who were drafted as underclassmen were relievers Nick Rumbelow (seventh round, New York Yankees) and Will LaMarche (ninth round, Detroit Tigers) and infielder Christian Ibarra (32nd round, Pittsburgh Pirates). Ibarra is the most likely of the three to return.
If Rumbelow and LaMarche were to turn pro as expected that would mean 13 of the players on the 27-man roster for the CWS won’t be back.
However many of those draftees choose to leave early will increase the attrition started by an unusually large senior class — eight, most notably first baseman Mason Katz and left fielder Raph Rhymes (the No. 4 and No. 5 hitters in the batting order), closer Chris Cotton and reliable relievers Joey Bourgeois and Brent Bonvillain.
So the Tigers have a lot of restocking to do, but the cupboard is far from bare.
The rebuilding will begin around two All-Americans in starting pitcher Aaron Nola, who will be a junior next season, and shortstop Alex Bregman, who was the National Freshman of the Year this season.
Nola (12-1, 1.57 earned run average) was dominant as the Tigers’ No. 1 starter and was named Southeastern Conference Pitcher of the Year. Bregman immediately showed that he could handle the No. 3 spot in the batting order (.369, six home runs, 52 runs batted in).
“Bregman and Nola coming back gives us a pretty good foundation,” LSU coach Paul Mainieri said. “We’ve got the best player and the best pitcher in the country, but now we have to fill in around them.”
Eades’ expected departure will leave an opening for the No. 2 starter, but Cody Glenn, who emerged as a solid No. 3 starter and got the nod over Eades in LSU’s second game in the CWS, likely will slide into the Saturday starter’s role.
The Sunday starter figures to be open to competition. Right-hander Russell Reynolds, who was emerging as a dependable mid-week starter before shoulder surgery cut short his freshman season, could be a strong candidate if he’s fully recovered.
Junior right-hander Joe Broussard, who missed this season after undergoing Tommy John surgery last fall, could be a candidate to start or close.
Right-hander Kurt McCune has been a weekend starter and long reliever in his three seasons and right-handed reliever Nate Fury returns for his senior season.
Several pitchers who get their feet wet as freshmen last season — right-handers Hunter Newman, Taylor Butler and Mitch Sewald as well as left-hander Hunter Devall — will have opportunities to compete for expanded roles.
The incoming pitchers most likely to have an impact right away are right-hander Brady Domangue (LSU-Eunice), left-handers Jared Poche (Lutcher High School) and Christian Pelaez (Florida Christian High School, Miami) and right-handers Dylan Williams (Cass High School, Cartersville, Ga.) and Parker Bugg (Rancho Bernardo High School, San Diego).
“We lose a lot of senior pitchers and Eades,” Mainieri said. “We’ve got to rebuild a pitching staff.”
The left side of the infield should be in good hands with Bregman at short and Ibarra at third, assuming Ibarra spurns the pros.
Tyler Moore, who has been a valuable role player but hasn’t won a starting spot in his first two seasons, is a prime candidate to replace Katz.
If Ross chooses to sign with the Giants, Michael Barash and Chris Chinea, who both saw spot duty at catcher and first base as freshmen, would battle to replace him.
Jones’ expected departure leaves second base wide open, but LSU has commitments from a few middle infielders, most notably Connor Hale (State College of Florida), Kramer Robertson (Midway High School, McGregor Texas) and Dakota Dean (Crestview (Fla.) High School).
Danny Zardon, a third baseman from American Heritage High School (Pembroke Pines, Fla.), could push for playing time somewhere on the infield.
Right fielder Mark Laird and center fielder Andrew Stevenson won starting positions as freshmen this season. The candidates to replace Rhymes in left include Chris Sciambra and Jared Foster, who both saw spot duty as sophomores last season.
Designated hitter Sean McMullen, who seized the leadoff position at mid-season, is also capable of playing the outfield.
Newcomer Jake Fraley (Caravel Academy, Middleton,, Del.), is expected to push for playing time in the outfield.
Even though the Tigers were a disappointing 0-2 in the CWS, that experience is something next year’s team will have that this year’s team didn’t.
“This experience will help us,” Mainieri said. “I wish we could have come last year and maybe we would have played a little better this year. Hopefully we’ll come back next year and we’ll learn from this experience.”