LSU Baseball: Five Questions to Answer Entering 2022
Louisiana State endured a roller coaster season in 2021. A preseason top-10 team, the Tigers floundered early, finally got their footing halfway through the SEC slate, snuck into a regional and then won the regional before running out of gas and being eliminated in the Knoxville Super Regional.
Along the way, coach Paul Mainieri announced his retirement after 15 years in Baton Rouge and 39 years as a head coach. Former Arizona coach Jay Johnson is now at the helm, and in that sense, the 2022 season will be one of new beginnings for the Tigers.
But at the same time, LSU brings back a ton of talent from the 2021 team, added another solid recruiting class and brought in one of the best transfer classes in the sport. Given that, there’s well-founded hope that, in hindsight, the 2021 season will end up being remembered as the kick-off to great things in the program rather than simply the end of the road for a legendary coach.
These are five questions LSU will look to answer as it heads into its first season with a new coach since 2007.
What are the expectations in year one of the Jay Johnson era?
This is LSU, so expectations are always going to be high no matter the circumstances. Although he got a deserved hero’s send-off when it was all said and done, it’s no secret that many LSU fans were getting impatient with Mainieri toward the end of his tenure because the Tigers hadn’t been to the College World Series since 2017 and had just one national title in 2009.
Omaha is the expectation in this program, and going into 2022 it's a realistic expectation considering the roster LSU brings back. There are big questions to answer on the mound, but it also returns what could be one of the best lineups in the country and brings in a standout transfer class, highlighted by freshman All-American Jacob Berry, who followed Johnson from Tucson to Baton Rouge.
As a coach just a matter of weeks into his first fall practice period with a new program, Johnson isn’t so much focused on that kind of big-picture thinking just yet. Rather, it’s about taking things one step at a time with a group that there is still much to learn about.
“I really believe in the value of every day, and a lot of coaches will talk about process,” Johnson said. “What we try to do is define the process to the players and give them a roadmap to being the best player they can be, and to being the best team we can ultimately be. So you can’t rush that part of it.”
Johnson is no stranger to places with a ton of history and a high level of expectation. While no one would argue that Arizona is the cauldron that LSU is, it’s a proud program that has been to Omaha 18 times and has four national titles. And perhaps more importantly, if Johnson has a good team on his hands right away, he’s not been one to miss opportunities.
At Nevada, his first head coaching stop, he led the Wolf Pack to a Mountain West regular-season title in year two on the job, and at Arizona, he had the Wildcats one win away from a national title in his very first year.
There’s much work to be done between now and the time we would find out what kind of team LSU actually ends up having in 2022, but there’s very little evidence that any sort of step back or rebuilding period should be expected right away.
Will Jacob Berry pick up where he left off?
LSU certainly hopes so, because Berry was immediately one of the best hitters in college baseball as a freshman last season. He finished the year hitting .352/.439/.676 with 17 home runs, and he kept that up over the summer by hitting .387/.475/.871 in an 11-game scrimmage schedule with USA Baseball’s Collegiate National Team.
It can certainly only help that Berry has been through fall practice with Johnson before. In terms of the preparation, not much will be altogether new to him as he approaches his first season in Baton Rouge.
“I think there’s certainly an advantage (for) any player that’s played for us before,” Johnson said. “When they come into this environment, (they have) maybe a little bit of an idea of what to expect.”
There is no questioning Berry’s offensive ability, as he was seen as arguably having the best hit tool and best power of any player on the CNT during the summer, and his performance both there and in the Pac-12 matches that evaluation. He’ll face better pitching week after week in the SEC than he did last season, but not to the point where it should make him any less of a lineup cornerstone for the Tigers.
There are questions about his defensive ability, however. A third baseman by trade, Berry was mostly in the DH slot for Arizona and he played a lot of first base with the CNT. Coaches who worked with him over the summer rave about his plus-plus work ethic, inspiring confidence that he’ll eventually find his way into being at least an average defender somewhere at the next level, but in a crowded LSU infield, it’s not yet clear where he fits in 2022.
Either way, Berry is aware of the shortcoming and has made it a priority in an effort to make his game as well-rounded as possible.
“The biggest thing I worked on this summer was my defense and just becoming more confident and believing in myself as a defender,” Berry said. “I know I can hit, I know I’m a good base runner. I’ve just got to continue to improve myself as an all-around player, so that was my biggest emphasis this offseason.”
Will LSU be better at catcher?
Catcher was a position of weakness for LSU last season, particularly when Hayden Travinski, who was shut down for good in early May because of a torn ulnar collateral ligament that required Tommy John surgery, was out of the lineup.
Alex Milazzo is a very good defensive catcher, and most importantly given the circumstances, he was durable for the Tigers down the stretch last season, but with a .135/.220/.183 slash line, he produced very little offensively. That was especially true when compared to Travinski, who has big-time power and hit four homers in just 48 at-bats in 2021.
In 2022, LSU should be in better shape at catcher for a couple of different reasons. For one, it will have strength in numbers. Milazzo and Travinski are experienced options back in the fold, assuming that the latter is healthy and ready to go.
And in Samford transfer Tyler McManus, a fourth-year junior, LSU added quality to the position in addition to depth. Last season, McManus hit .346/.432/.612 with 11 home runs. He didn’t catch every game for Samford, so perhaps he slides to another spot on the field or to DH from time to time, but if he can prove himself as a full-time backstop, it would be a big lift at a position of need.
McManus has built some relationships quickly at LSU, including with pitcher Ty Floyd, who fully endorses him.
“He’s unreal behind the plate,” Floyd said. “He’s got a really good stick. He receives the ball really well. He’s just great behind the plate, great overall player, he can bring a lot to the table for us this year.”
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Who else will fill out the lineup?
Berry will hit in the middle of the order, and McManus might provide some additional punch in a place the Tigers didn’t get much of it last year, but the lineup as a whole is projected to be loaded.
Fourth-year junior Gavin Dugas returns in the outfield after hitting a team-leading 19 home runs a season ago, as does sophomore Dylan Crews, who had every bit as good a freshman season as Berry in hitting .362/.453/.663 with 18 home runs.
“Obviously, I was familiar with him,” Johnson said of Crews. “He was one of the best freshmen in the country last year. Tremendously talented. He can do things on the field that you don’t see very often in college baseball players. Usually players with that kind of ability sign out of high school.”
The infield is every bit as stacked as the outfield, and perhaps even more so. Sophomore first baseman Tre’ Morgan (.357/.441/.526), third-year sophomore third baseman Cade Doughty (.308/.368/.546, 13 HR) and sophomore shortstop Jordan Thompson (.250/.324/.392) are all back after serving as effective full-time players last season.
In fact, the return of Morgan and Doughty in particular is part of what makes Berry’s eventual defensive position an interesting variable.
Berry might be a good fit at first base, and Morgan has the athleticism to move to the outfield in that scenario, but Morgan is an excellent defensive first baseman, which makes that decision tougher. Third base is the other natural spot for Berry, as Doughty could slide over to second base to take over for Zach Arnold, who transferred to Houston after last season, but that would likely require Berry to be successful in his work to be a better defender than he was at Arizona last season.
All of that makes up a really good lineup before we talk about fourth-year juniors Cade Beloso, who hit 10 homers as a freshman, Drew Bianco, who had seven home runs in just 118 at-bats last season, and Giovanni DiGiacomo, a .292 career hitter in nearly 100 games played. None of the three have been a consistent centerpiece of the lineup over the totality of the last three years, but each has been productive at various points in their respective careers.
Figuring out who is going to end up on the lineup card every day is a big challenge that coaches grapple with during the entire leadup to a season, and in some cases, well into a season. Sometimes that’s because there aren’t enough guys they can trust to produce. Other times it’s because there are too many guys they can trust. In LSU’s case, it’s clearly the latter and that’s a good problem to have.
How will the pitching staff shape up?
This is probably the most important question LSU has to answer going into next season, but it’s also the one that’s most difficult to answer at this stage, because every role on the staff feels very much up for grabs.
“We are nowhere near naming guys that are candidates for the rotation or the key guys you go to when the game is on the line, and that will evolve over time,” Johnson said.
There are clearly holes to fill. Jaden Hill, who started just seven games last season due to injury, and Landon Marceaux were both high draft picks last summer, and A.J. Labas signed as a free agent after the draft. Those three took up 39 of LSU’s 63 starts last season.
But it will also be an interesting competition to see play out because the Tigers have no shortage of options.
Key returners include last season’s closer duo of sophomore righthander Garrett Edwards (3.41 ERA, 4 SV) and fifth-year senior righthander Devin Fontenot (2.86 ERA, 5 SV). After serving mostly in a relief role the previous four seasons, the latter has to be considered a contender to take over a spot in the weekend rotation after he passed on opportunities to begin his pro career over the summer.
The same is true of another obvious rotation contender in fifth-year senior righthander Ma’Khail Hilliard, who had a 4.31 ERA in 54.1 innings last season, a number that doesn’t necessarily capture how good he was at times, including in the first game of the super regional against Tennessee, when he gave up just one run in five innings of work.
Other pitchers who got a significant amount of run last season who will presumably be in the mix again for major innings include fifth-year senior righthander Trent Vietmeier (3.93 ERA, 18.1 IP), sophomore righthander Will Hellmers (4.08 ERA, 39.2 IP), third-year sophomore lefthander Jacob Hasty (4.24 ERA, 17 IP) and sophomore righthander Ty Floyd (4.44 ERA, 24.1 IP).
Floyd is an interesting breakout candidate, no matter what role he ends up holding. With 39 strikeouts in 24.1 innings last season and a fastball that was up to 96 mph, he clearly showed the ability to dominate. Johnson has also gone out of his way to mention that he likes what he’s seen from Floyd at this early juncture of fall practice.
But Floyd knows he needs to vary his repertoire more if he’s going to take another step forward. Last season, he threw his fastball 84% of the time. No matter how good a pitch that is, he’ll have to mix it up more to be a pitcher who can carry a heavier load.
“I know more than anybody that I struggled with my offspeed pitches,” Floyd said. “All offseason, that was the one focus for me was to work on my offspeed pitches and get a feel for it better and learn how to throw it in certain counts and throw it when I’m comfortable.”
New additions to the roster will also have something to say about how roles shake out. That group includes San Francisco transfer Eric Reyzelman, a hard-throwing righthander who opened a lot of eyes this summer with his performance on the Cape, Arizona transfers Bryce Collins and Riley Cooper, and freshman righthanders Grant Taylor and Cale Lansville, who were both top-500 prospects in the draft coming out of high school.
Working with all of those arms will be new pitching coach Jason Kelly, widely considered one of the best pitching coaches in college baseball. His track record and the talent on hand suggest that LSU will put together an effective staff in 2022. It’s just anyone’s guess at this point who will be in the most prominent roles.