Elite Signing Class, Deep Roster of Returnees Keeps Baseball on Track for Championship Contention

by Harrison Valentine, LSU Athletics Communications
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Elite Signing Class, Deep Roster of Returnees Keeps Baseball on Track for Championship Contention

Paul Mainieri doesn’t exactly know what the future looks like, but he does know that LSU returns all the pieces to be special for the 2021 season.

When LSU’s coach met with the media virtually on Friday, he didn’t look back on the 2020 season that could have been. Even in the midst of an unusual and tumultuous offseason for collegiate athletics, Mainieri remained level-headed about what lies ahead, without concerning himself about the past. 

“I didn’t spend time worrying about what we lost out on,” Mainieri said. “Life threw us a curveball, and we had to deal with it and move forward. That’s the attitude I took.”

The future, should it come to fruition, is especially bright for LSU. The Tigers return one of the top pitching staffs in the SEC and add another loaded signing class among a handful of proven returners. It’s full speed ahead, if fate allows.

It starts on the hill. Outside of the departure of Cole Henry to the MLB Draft, the Tigers return almost an identical pitching staff in 2021. In fact, Mainieri thinks this one has the chance to be even more special.

“I feel like we virtually have the same pitching staff back, except we’ve added to it with some really electric arms,” Mainieri said. “I just think our pitching staff has the chance to be one of the best pitching staffs we’ve ever had.”

Third-year right-hander Jaden Hill, who earned All-American honors in the shortened 2020 season, could form an electric weekend trio with Landon Marceaux and A.J. Labas. The staff even adds three left-handers. Javen Coleman, ranked the No. 2 LHP in the state of Texas, is someone who has come on “like gangbusters,” according to Mainieri. Coleman averaged two strikeouts an inning last spring. Early on, the staff thought he would evolve into a harder thrower as his body matured, and that’s exactly what they’re seeing right now.

Brody Drost comes in as Mr. Baseball in the state of Louisiana, and is also one of the better hitters of the signing class. Mainieri views him as someone who would do work out of the bullpen at the moment, but still expects production at the plate from him as well.

Then there’s Alex Brady out of Lower Columbia College (JUCO), who’s not exactly a hard thrower but rather a “developed, finesse” pitcher. Mainieri compared Brady to former LSU lefty Chris Cotton [2010-13], and if he’s as good as the former All-American, he’ll have a very happy coach.

Despite the cancelation of several summer leagues across the country, Mainieri said several of LSU’s players still found summer league teams to play for during the offseason, gaining playing experience that was lost. While the Tigers had players scattered over all different parts of the country, six traveled to South Florida and played extremely well.

Eddie Smith (LSU’s hitting coach) deserves a lot of credit for that,” Mainieri said. “He had the responsibility of placing kids this summer, and he was like Houdini. We ended up having several players play this summer and they all played extremely well. So, a lot of players were still able to gain some good experience this summer.”

Offensively, LSU did take a hit with the loss of Daniel Cabrera, Zack Mathis and Saul Garza, but the Tigers are bringing in some talented position players that are primed to make instant impacts. The headliner of that group is Dylan Crews, a potential first-round pick, who withdrew his name from the MLB Draft in June to come to school.

“You’re talking about a kid that’s got pretty special qualities,” Mainieri said of Crews. “When you see him out there running around, you’ll see what I mean. He looks like a big leaguer out there, and he’s got the talent.”

Since the MLB Draft was shortened to just five rounds in June, LSU was able to hold on to some guys that, in previous years, would have been lost to professional baseball. Mainieri has signed several No. 1 ranked classes, but he feels this has the chance to be the best of his tenure.

“We’ve got leadership all over the place on our pitching staff,” he said. “From a positional player standpoint, I look at [first baseman] Cade Beloso [to step up]. I thought two of the best leaders last year were [catcher] Alex Milazo and [shortstop] Collier Cranford, and they were just freshmen.”

LSU has 17 new players and 23 returners. In the fall, 18 position players will be healthy and ready to go. Hayden Travinski suffered a knee injury during the summer, so he will likely miss fall practice, while Nick Storz and Maurice Hampton will be 100-percent dedicated to football.

“Obviously it’s not business as normal when it comes to all these precautions that we’re taking,” Mainieri said. “But outside of that, it’s business as normal as we’re trying to develop a championship team, and I think we have the makings of a really great team.”