Three Up, Three Down

In this week's Three Up, Three Down, TSD's Hunter Paniagua examines how good Chris Cotton has been as the closer, and which juniors have really struggled to produce at the plate.


Chris Cotton can close

One of the bigger question marks heading into the 2013 season was what role Chris Cotton would have on the pitching staff. Before the opening weekend, the coaches gave him a "hybrid position," as the Sunday starter if not needed out of the bullpen on Friday or Saturday. Because of injuries to Nick Rumbelow and Kurt McCune, LSU needed Cotton as a full-time closer, and that has seemed like the ideal fit so far.

Cotton has been perfect in save opportunities, converting all five so far. He picked up two this past weekend, facing the minimum six batters in two innings spread evenly on Friday and Sunday. In 10 1/3 innings of work, he's allowed only one run, which came in a 5-1 victory against Maryland on the second game of the season. He's thrown 15 strikeouts — compared to zero walks — a surprisingly high total considering his low velocity. Through 16 games, Cotton has been LSU's most dependable option out of the bullpen, and it appears opponents will have a tough time mounting comebacks if he's on to close out a game in the ninth.

More is always better in the outfield

Paul Mainieri has an abundance of defensive talent in the outfield, something he said Sunday gives him plenty of options. In the series finale against Washington, Mainieri opted to switch things up, starting Andrew Stevenson in CF, with Mark Laird in LF and Chris Sciambra in RF. Because of windy conditions, he wanted more speed in the outfield, something Stevenson and Laird certainly bring to the table.

Though Raph Rhymes will be the everyday LF moving forward, Mainieri has the luxury to bring in someone fresh should the situation call for it. Sean McMullen has also gotten time in the outfield, and Mainieri appears ready to count on any of the outfielders at any time.

Laird has excelled at the plate so far in his career, jumping over the .400 mark this weekend. Sciambra has struggled at times, but has shown enough to warrant Mainieri's trust. McMullen and Stevenson could also work their way into the mix should Sciambra's woes at the plate become too costly to ignore.

JaCoby Jones has no problem walking…

Entering the 2013 season, Mainieri pegged JaCoby Jones as one of the players that needed to step up. He complimented Jones for maturing in terms of his plate discipline, something that has plagued Jones' career as he's become notorious for striking out. At this point in the season, there certainly are signs though that Jones has grown in that department.

Jones set a career-high for walks in a season, drawing his 16th against the Huskies. Just 16 games into the season, that's obviously an encouraging sign to see, especially as it's the main reason on-base percentage lies at .424. With his speed and athleticism, Jones has the ability to produce runs on the bases, evidenced by his 8 SBs thus far. His bat does still need to come along, which I will discuss below, but is ability to consistently draw walks is cause for celebration.


…it's the hitting that's been the problem

While Jones has seen his walk total soar to new heights, his batting average is stuck on the ground. After a 1-for-8 weekend against Washington, Jones' average has dipped to just .213, the second lowest among everyday players. Mainieri pointed to Jones' struggles as something he'd like to see improve as the Tigers head into SEC play, obviously disappointed he hasn't seen more production.

Jones woes led Mainieri to drop him a spot in the lineup, moving Christian Ibarra to the six-hole and Jones to seventh. With Mainieri expecting teams to pitch around Mason Katz, he wanted a more formidable offensive threat behind him to hopefully produce runs. Jones hasn't been able to that much this year, with just six RBI on the season. Jones has always had loads of potential, but until he starts showing that offensively, there will always be doubts about how good he can truly be.

Inconsistency in the middle

One of the primary works still in progress is the LSU bullpen. Though Cotton has solidified the closer role, and Joey Bourgeois has been strong as a setup man, LSU could use more consistency in middle relief. Though starters Aaron Nola and Ryan Eades will frequently last through the seventh inning, that's not something to be expected every outing. That's why Mainieri is still searching for guys to take over in the sixth or seventh innings if need be.

He said Sunday that the injury to Kurt McCune (who he hopes to have back by the third week of SEC play) has hurt the team in that area. But he also pointed out that Nick Rumbelow and Brent Bonvillain need to be more consistent. Rumbelow has been good and bad since returning from an oblique injury. He was perfect on Friday in 1 2/3 innings of work, but on Sunday he allowed two earned runs in less than an inning.

There are other guys poised to step up, pitchers like Hunter Newman, Will LaMarche or Hunter Devall, but it's obvious Mainieri still doesn't have complete faith in his bullpen, a disturbing fact heading into the first SEC series of the season.

Ty Ross good behind the plate, but bad next to it

Alongside JaCoby Jones, Ty Ross has been one of the bigger offensive disappointments at this point in the season. His .209 batting average and .286 on-base percentage are worst on the team among everyday players, and he's coming off a 2-for-10 weekend against Washington. The power is still there though, evidenced by his blast Sunday that cleared the LF bleachers (though the wind can be thanked in part for that).

Still, for a player hitting near the bottom of the order, Ross will be counted on the turn the lineup over to provide opportunities for the guys producing at the top. He hasn't been able to do that thus far. His defensive ability is too great to consider dropping him out of the lineup, so LSU will have to hope his offense comes around eventually. Considered a player that could jump to the pros after this season, his bat still has plenty of room to grow before that's considered feasible.

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