LSU outfielders have a pretty impressive track record over the last several years in terms of defensive prowess, as well as offensive production.
In Paul Mainieri’s five seasons, Jared Mitchell, Leon Landry and Mikie Mahtook have set the bar awfully high both with their gloves and their bats and each earned a lofty spot in the Major League Draft after their junior seasons.
The Tigers’ outfield was juggled in the offseason, with Jones moving from second base to center field, Rhymes making the move from DH to a corner spot after recovering from elbow reconstruction surgery and Slaid fighting his way onto the field by swinging the bat well in summer ball and following that up with a solid fall.
There will also be familiar faces occasionally, with Mason Katz and Alex Edward both slated in the mix. And there at least three newcomers who could see action: Freshmen Chris Sciambra and Jared Foster and junior-college transfer Arby Fields.
At the center of the new look, however it shakes out on a daily basis, is Jones.
The Tigers’ latest multi-tool star takes over in center for Mikie Mahtook, LSU’s offensive leader, emotional touchstone and kamikaze defender in the grass.
At first the move might seem a bit unorthodox considering that Jones was a high school shortstop who played second almost exclusively as a freshman in 2011.
But Tigers coach Paul Mainieri played a hunch when he saw Jones’ athleticism up close and personal for a season and asked his coach in the Cape Cod League to play the Mississippi native in center field.
“I just think he has the tools to be a very good outfielder for us, a guy who has the speed and instincts to go and get the ball,” Mainieri said.
Jones certainly has the potential to follow in the offensive footsteps of Mitchell, Landry and Mahtook.
Although he was a bit erratic as a freshman, Jones wound up hitting .338 and showed flashes of power (4 HRs) and speed (12 SBs) as he adapted to the college level.
How closely Jones resembles Mahtook with the glove remains to be seen. But a year of maturing and understanding the differences between the high school and college games at least has Jones headed down the right path.
“It’s a big adjustment,” Jones said. “Coach Mainieri likes to move me around, but it’s a good thing.
“Mikie Mahtook was the face of LSU for a couple of years and he’s a great center fielder. It’s a big achievement for me to play center field and follow in Mikie’s footsteps. It’s going to be a good challenge, but I believe I can do it.”
For different reasons, Rhymes and Slaid are also willing converts.
After a stellar career as a second baseman at Neville High and an equally as dominant freshman season at LSU-Eunice, Rhymes got to Baton Rouge with an eye on staying on the infield – either at second or third base.
It never clicked for Rhymes, though, and the second-base job went to Jones last spring, leaving Rhymes to serve as the designated hitter most of the season.
The move certainly didn’t affect Rhymes offensively as he batted .360, whacked 18 doubles and drove in 42 runs hitting mostly from the two-hole.
Rhymes did play seven games in the outfield last season when Trey Watkins struggled, but the elbow problem was diagnosed late in the season and forced Mainieri to abandon the experiment.
After the Tommy John surgery in early July, Rhymes went back to work honing his skills in the outfield despite not being able to throw until November.
“I’ve gotten a lot more comfortable out there,” he said. “With the injury, all I could do was take fly balls. Now it’s gotten to the point where I’m a lot more comfortable and I’m really looking forward to playing outfield this year because it’s something new.”
Slaid can relate.
A catcher throughout his prep career at Lakeside-Sibley, Slaid couldn’t get on the field last season behind Ty Ross, Jordy Snikeris and Grant Dozar. He got nine pinch-hit appearances and a handful of innings behind the plate in mop-up time.
But he went to the Illinois-based Prospect League last summer and exploded. In 44 games with the Danville Dans, Slaid batted .340 with 10 doubles, a pair of home runs and 35 RBIs.
“That kid swung the bat as well as any of our players last summer,” Mainieri said. “And he came back in the fall and did the same thing. He made it so I had to find a way to get him on the field and give him a chance.”
That chance will come in left field or as the designated hitter, though, with Ross nailing down the catcher’s job with a good offseason and Snikeris in place as the primary backup.
Should Slaid adapt well defensively, he could stay in the outfield. If not, Edward is poised to step in as one of the more veteran hitters Mainieri can summon off the bench.
Fields’ arrival was promising after he spent a season each at Northwestern University and Cypress Community College in California, producing good offensive numbers at each stop.
He struggled in the fall, though, and is relegated to vying for time as a pinch-runner and defensive replacement with Sciambra and Foster. Any of the three would be candidates to get a chance if Slaid moves to DH on a full-time basis.
While Jones is an anchor in center, the two corner spots may be a work in progress for a while.
Rhymes and Slaid will both likely get at least one start on opening weekend. Mainieri said he wants to take a look at Rhymes in right field as well.
Edward will get the nod in right field in the opener and could also play left field. Katz will probably move between first base and right field all season, giving Mainieri some flexibility based on pitching matchups and who’s swinging a hot bat.