BATON ROUGE, La. — Paul Mainieri and the 2018 LSU baseball team won’t have the luxury on relying on the arms that carried them to the 2017 College World Series.
Alex Lange is in the Chicago Cubs organization. Jared Poché is with an Oakland A’s affiliate. Eric Walker is out for the whole season with Tommy John surgery on his throwing elbow. Where the team once had depth, it’s now bare.
But Mainieri isn’t too concerned.
At the top of the rotation, Mainieri expects to rely on Caleb Gilbert and Zack Hess, the Tigers’ two most dominant relief pitchers from the end of 2017. Gilbert (7-1, 2.16 ERA in 2017) has been shut down for the summer after throwing almost 60 innings last season, but will resume a throwing regimen designed by LSU pitching coach Alan Dunn in the coming weeks. And Hess is out pitching with the Bourne Braves of the Cape Cod League, where he’s throwing once a week and being stretched out as a starter.
In Gilbert, Mainieri has a player he’s confident in using as a front-end starter, especially after his 7.1-inning, 1-run performance against Oregon State in a College World Series elimination game. Commanding a 94 mph fastball and a hooking slider, Gilbert “has a great chance at winning a starting rotation job.”
As for Hess, Mainieri understands how useful he can be as a reliever. But the roster might not allow that.
“It almost looked like he was made for that kind of a role, doesn’t it,” Mainieri said of Hess working as a closer. “It would be an awesome thing if we could use him in that role going forward. [But] he’s got the best arm of any of our returning [pitchers], and usually your best arm is your Friday starter. So we’re going to give a chance to pitch.”
Beyond Hess and Gilbert, LSU is in a bit of a rough situation. Among returning players, Mainieri listed rising sophomores Nick Bush and Todd Peterson as the leading candidates, but both are spending the summer rehabbing.
Bush suffered a shoulder injury two outings into his summer league session, coming home after Mainieri said he reported “feeling discomfort.” While Bush was at summer ball, he was being stretched out to starter’s innings.
As for Peterson, Mainieri said the right-hander fell out of shape as the season dragged on, losing some conditioning and gaining some weight. Had Peterson been in peak condition, Mainieri said, he would’ve started Game 1 of the College World Series finals instead of Russell Reynolds. But the youngster is on a strict rehab and conditioning program this summer and Mainieri said he still has “a lot of hope” for Peterson as a starter in the future.
Beyond Bush and Peterson, the Tigers brought in 11 freshman or junior college pitchers, many of whom factor into the conversation. Mainieri didn’t feel inclined to single any out before fall practice, but he explained that he’s consistently surprised by freshmen pitchers.
“I think we’ve got some really outstanding prospects in this crop of 11 pitchers coming in,” Mainieri said. “Somebody is going to emerge. Someone is going to be the next Eric Walker as a freshman, the next Alex Lange as a freshman. It’ll be interesting to see how it develops.”
Headlining that group of freshmen is 6-foot-6, 255-pound right-hander Nick Storz, a hard-throwing big-man who can serve as a designated hitter if necessary. About Storz, Mainieri said:
“Nick is the most physical pitcher that we have in this crop of pitchers. He stands 6’6” tall and weighs approximately 255 pounds. In other words, he is quite a presence out there on the mound. He is a very athletic and powerful pitcher, though, who excelled in football as a lineman and can hit a baseball as far as anyone we will have on our team. Nick can pitch regularly in the low to mid 90s, and he possesses a late-breaking slider as his put away pitch. He is working on the changeup, but it has the potential to be a solid third pitch. After having been drafted by the Detroit Tigers, Nick decided LSU was his best route for development. He will have a major influence on our baseball program and he will be fun to watch.”
Beyond Storz, LSU is also bringing in right-handers A.J. Labas, Devin Fontenot, Trent Vietmeier, Clay Moffitt, Matt Schroer, Ma’Khail Hilliard and Cameron Sanders, as well as left-handers Taylor Petersen, John Kodros and Brandon Nowak.