By David Folse II
Make no mistake about it, Jay Johnson knew what he was getting into when he took over the job of leading the LSU Baseball program.
A 40-22 record in year one, making it to the championship round of a regional would be considered a very good inaugural season for most of the program in the collegiate baseball world.
Stop me if you have heard this one before though, LSU is not most of the college baseball programs in the world.
Did I mention Jay Johnson knew what he was he was getting into?
Now set to enter year two, the Tigers open up the 2023 campaign on Friday, February 17 at home against Western Michigan.
Expectations are sky-high heading into the 2023 season for the Tigers, who brought in not only the nation’s best recruiting class, but also some of the most highly-touted transfers through the portal to go along with big changes in the coaching staff.
So, as Baseball at the Box draws ever closer, I figured I’d give my two cents based on what I have been hearing around the program in terms of what a starting lineup may look like heading into the opener against Western Michigan.
Part of the top-ranked recruiting class is Brady Neal, the all-everything backstop out of Florida. The 5-10, 180-pound Neal was the #1-ranked catcher in the state of Florida for the Class of 2022 and the nation’s second best catcher by Perfect Game. Neal can do it all. He can hit (left-handed) and can keep opposing running games in check, something LSU catchers struggled with in 2022.
Was there really any question with this one? The first base job has been Tre’ Morgan’s since the minute he stepped foot on campus back when Paul Maineiri was the coach. Now, let’s talk about what seemingly the last two years everyone wants to talk about. Is Morgan projected to play first base on the next level? Probably not, but I don’t think that is going to stop Johnson and staff from putting their best first baseman at first base. So, I don’t see the move to the outfield happening for him in 2023. He hit .324 last season, starting all but one game at first base and that was because of an injury. He made four errors all season. Four. Tre’ Morgan is your starting first baseman for the 2023 Tigers.
Here’s where things start to get a little tricky. You may be reading this and thinking, why I’m not just saying second base and then shortstop. I’ll give you my reasons. I think there are four players that could combine to see playing time at both positions. Let’s start with second base. The crown jewel of the 2022 recruiting class was Gavin Gudiry, the state’s best prep player from perennial powerhouse Barbe High School. Guidry, who has pitched and played shortstop most of his baseball career I believe is very much in the running for one of the middle infield spots. It is my belief he will get first shot at second base, but could end up making the move to shortstop later in the season.
What does that mean for Jordan Thompson? Well, everyone remembers the struggles Thompson had in the field in 2022, particularly early in the season, but to his credit, he did finish the season strong. With a complete off-season under Johnson and staff under his belt, Thompson hopefully has put those fielding problems behind him and if the season started today I believe would be the opening day shortstop.
In that rotation in the middle infield however will also be a familiar face in Gavin Dugas. Returning for his senior season, Dugas was plagued by injuries that forced him to miss much of the 2022 season. An outfielder for a majority of his time at LSU, Dugas returned with the opportunity to compete for playing time in the middle infield and even perhaps at third base if needed.
The jack-of-all trades for the Tigers this season and the name you need to start familiarizing yourself with right now is Ben Nippolt. Standing 5-11 and 175 pounds, the VCU transfer can play anywhere on the infield and maybe even in the outfield for the Tigers and will be a valuable tool for LSU’s depth this season. He’s also a left-handed stick that can get on base. That’s never a bad thing.
But, if you had to ask me to make a call now, the game is tomorrow, I think it’s Guidry at second and Thompson at shortstop.
Everyone say it with me, Tommy Tanks.
After setting the NCAA freshman record for home runs in a season last year at N.C. State with 27 and driving in 74, LSU hit the mother of all home runs in the transfer portal when they were able to land Tommy White to Baton Rouge.
White hurts the baseball when he swings the bat and when you put him into this lineup with the protection that will be around him, I expect a monstrous season at the plate. Brandon Larson hit 40 home runs in 1997 for LSU, a single-season school record, could that be in jeopardy???
This is Josh Pearson’s job. Entering his sophomore season, the left-handed hitting Pearson hit .299 last year and was a pleasant surprise in the outfield when LSU suffered some injuries to start the season. Pearson took advantage of his opportunity and once he cracked into the starting lineup, he didn’t leave it, smacking eight home runs.
Dylan Crews. That’s it, that’s all I got….
No, I promise I got more. He’s the best player arguably in the history of the school, and has the chance to be the school’s second overall top pick in the Major League Draft later this year. There’s nothing Crews can’t do. He’s a five-tool player and hit 22 home runs last season.
Much like with White, the protection in the lineup that everyone will provide this season for each other could lead to a monstrous final season in Baton Rouge for Crews.
We shift back to the talented freshmen class coming in as we head to right field. Look for freshman Paxton Kling, the nation’s sixth-ranked overall player according to the 2022 Perfect Game rankings to get the chance to get the chance in right field first. Standing 6-2, 210 pounds out of Pennsylvania, Kling can flat out hit and has a rocket for a right arm.
Could be a multitude of different bats here, but will probably be more a situational sort of situation. Cade Beloso and Brayden Jobert are the left-handed options and another talented freshman in Jared Jones could also see playing time at designated hitter, but when he’s not pitching, expect Air Force transfer Paul Skenes to be hitting. We will talk about his exploits on the mound in a second, but Skenes can flat out hit, launching 13 home runs for the Falcons last season.
I’m going to stick to who could be in the starting rotation mostly here. New pitching coach Wes Johnson has a ton of different arms to choose from for his bullpen. Initially, when Skenes came to Baton Rouge, I thought he was going to come in and be the closer. But, Skenes has shown to have arguably the best stuff on the entire staff in terms of a pitching repertoire and at this point I wouldn’t be surprised at all if he didn’t get the ball to go out for that first inning against Western Michigan.
Other names to keep in mind for the starting rotation include UCLA transfer Thatcher Hurd, Grant Taylor, Christian Little, Ty Floyd and Blake Money. Right now, I think the rotation will be Skenes, Hurd and Taylor, but that could of course change. What I do have absolute certainty about is the starting rotation we see that first weekend most assuredly won’t be the starting rotation we see at the start of Southeastern Conference play.
In the bullpen, the joke I have that almost came to reality is will rubber-arm man Riley Cooper pitch in every game this season.
I could be the homer and say, oh yea LSU is going to win every single game they play and not be scored upon. Get the National Championship parade ready.
But, I do expect LSU to come out of the gates like a house of fire. It’s a mixture of how not great the pre-conference schedule is (toughest game is a mid-week game at Texas on February 28) and how absolutely talented this team is.
You can’t predict Omaha for any team realistically because it all depends on the draw etc, but if they remain relatively healthy, I would be absolutely shocked if this team wasn’t a top-eight National Seed come Selection Monday.