The following is from an interview I conducted with LSU baseball coach Paul Mainieri on Tuesday. Considering the length of the discussion, I broke up the Q&A into two parts. Today's portion focuses on fielding and hitting for the 2012-13 Tigers.
Ben Love: Just for a refresher, what's the team's schedule like this semester? When did fall ball start and how long will you have with the guys for this stretch?
Paul Mainieri: At the beginning of the semester we have individual work-outs, and they lasted until I believe September 23. That was our first day of official practice, and we'll go until November 5, the Monday after the Alabama (football) game. And then the three weeks after that will be individual work-outs again until Thanksgiving. Once Thanksgiving hits, we're done with them and can't do any more by NCAA rule until January.
BL: Your thoughts so far on the overall feel of the team and how they're coming back from last season?
PM: We feel great. I'm very, very optimistic about everything. Obviously every year in this business you lose some quality players. Losing Kevin Gausman and Nick Goody off our pitching staff are certainly big blows. Then losing the left side of our infield with four-year starters in [Austin] Nola and [Tyler] Hanover, that's a big blow for us to have to recover from as well. But you expect it because this is the business we're in.
My guess is, if you look at the amount of players, it's not an enormous amount of guys to have to replace, but they were critical guys. I feel really confident about our team. I was mostly worried about replacing Austin Nola. He's the best defensive shortstop I've ever coached, but I think we're going to find a solution there who's not quite at his level but the player that replaces him may bring some other things, more foot-speed or things on the offensive end perhaps. Third base has been a little bit of a challenge to replace, and you don't replace a guy like Gausman. He was the number one pitcher taken in the draft. But I do think we have some depth, and then we'll just have to find somebody who can do the job as a closer. So after being in it for about three weeks, I feel pretty good about things.
BL: You mentioned shortstop. I would assume the new guy Alex Bregman is someone who gets a look there?
PM: Bregman is a phenomenal player. He's everything that we hoped he would be. He's going to be a real impact guy starting in his freshman year. I just have not made a decision on who we're going to go with at shortstop yet. The competition really has been between Alex Bregman and JaCoby Jones, who has been our starting second baseman for the last two years. We also have another infielder by the name of Christian Ibarra, who could play shortstop and would do a fantastic job. But I really like these other two guys.
I just haven't made the final decision on which one I'm going to go with at short and which one I'll move over to second base. Trying to figure out the third base situation factors in as well because I could use this kid Ibarra at third base, I could use Tyler Moore at third base, and I could use Mason Katz at third base. I'm just not certain yet, and we'll go another week or two before we kind of narrow down our decision making on that. Either way I think we're going to end up with a pretty good infield.
BL: No matter who ends up taking those spots, is it more difficult to replace what Nola and Hanover brought on the offensive side or defensive side?
PM: Oh, the defensive side. For sure. I think offensively we'll be okay. Austin, I thought he had a really good year, but he was never a great runner and he had some inconsistencies with the bat. Same thing with Hanover. This kid Bregman, he's going to come in and immediately be one of the top hitters in our lineup. He'll probably lead off. He can run pretty decent. He's got power. He doesn't strike out. He's going to be a really good offensive player as well as a really good defensive player for us.
BL: In the outfield I know Raph Rhymes is a guy you can pencil in at left field when he's not in the DH slot. But, at center and right, it seems you're looking at a lot of young, fast lefties. What have you seen from them so far?
PM: Yeah, we have four left-handed-hitting, speedy outfielders. One of them, Chris Sciambra, was on the team last year, and he broke his neck trying to catch a ball against Auburn in late-March. Chris, I'm happy to report, is back at full speed and full health. He's played great this fall. Losing him last year initially got a lot of play in the media because of the severity of the injury, but I don't think anybody every really understood how significant of a loss that was too our team last year, right down to the wire. He was an excellent outfielder and was really coming on as an offensive force for us.
So there's the one guy with a little bit of experience in Sciambra and then three new players. Mark Laird and Andrew Stevenson are both freshmen. Laird is from Ouachita Christian in Monroe, and Stevenson is from Mikie Mahtook's high school, St. Thomas More in Lafayette. Then we have a junior college transfer from Delgado by the name of Sean McMullen, who attended Brother Martin in his high school years. All three of those guys along with Sciambra have played really, really well this fall. We haven't made any final decisions there either, but all four of those guys are going to be really good options. So when the decisions are between really good players, that's a coach's dream.
BL: Are there any of those four that because of their skill sets you wouldn't consider them at center?
PM: I've been pretty much grooming Sean McMullen as a rightfielder, although he played centerfield at Delgado. But the other three - Sciambra, Stevenson and Laird - have all been working (primarily) in center, although I've also been working them some in right and left as well. I'm going to play Raph in leftfield because Raph's worked really hard at his defense, and I think he's a good athlete who can do well there. But all those other kids can flat out fly, so their range in the outfield is really outstanding. They're kind of interchangeable between center, right and left, but we'll find a good centerfielder. We're going to have a good centerfielder. There's no doubt about that.
BL: How does it feel this year to have the option of so many more lefties to toss in the lineup?
PM: Boy, I'll tell you honestly, it's been a couple of years since we've had this kind of left-handed presence. It just seems like the best teams I've ever had as a coach, we've always had a good left-handed presence in our lineup. So I'm excited about that. I think some of the guys we're signing in this year's class will help it continue to grow that way.
I've always preached a balanced lineup - some power, some speed, some righties, some lefties. But we haven't been that way for the last couple of years. We've been a mostly right-handed lineup, and we haven't had a lot of speed. This year I'm excited about seeing what kids like Mark Laird, Andrew Stevenson and Sean McMullen can bring to our team. So far this fall, it looks like it's going to be a tremendous addition and added dimension to our team.
Q & A: Paul Mainieri, Part 2
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