All week we've been previewing this year's Tigers on a position-by-position basis. If you missed any of the previous pieces, catch up with all of them by clicking the links below:
Corner Infielders, Catchers
Today we'll take a look at the final position group — the outfield. LSU is even faster in the outfield than they were ago. Andrew Stevenson and Mark Laird have another year under their belt and with veterans Jared Foster, Chris Sciambra and Sean McMullen in the mix, this is probably LSU's deepest unit on the field.
Speed is the name of the game, and as LSU showed several times last season, that attribute can really change a game.
"You just can't quantify a value for speed in the outfield," said LSU coach Paul Mainieri. "You're taking away those base hits and making it more challenging for the other team. The whole idea is run differential, so whether you're scoring runs or saving runs, it all counts the same when you're trying to win the ball game."
With so much talent and experience in the outfield, Mainieri had some decisions to make with how he wanted to align it. The first priority was finding a new everyday player to replace Raph Rhymes. Mainieri thinks he's found that in Foster.
The former walk-on quarterback has been a key contributor in the first two years of his career, but he's never found a steady spot in the starting lineup. That'll change this year though, as Foster will not only be in the everyday lineup, but he'll also be hitting cleanup.
"The last three weeks, he's played unbelievable," Mainieri said. "I told him about a week ago he'd be an everyday player, and I really think he's ready to blossom. I'm going to hit him four-hole, right behind [Alex] Bregman, so that shows you how much confidence I have in him."
Foster not only has speed. He also possesses the strongest arm among the outfielders, as he showed in last year's SEC Tournament Championship Game against Vanderbilt. He said he's excited to get the chance to show that off on a more regular basis.
"I've been working hard this whole time and I finally get the chance to do it," Foster said. "I'm starting to feel comfortable and it's starting to come. It feels good right now, so I just have to keep it up."
When Mainieri inserted Foster into the starting lineup, he made another change. He flipped Foster over to right field and moved Laird to left field. While it's not a drastic switch, Laird admits it does take some getting used to.
"It's a little different with the reads off the bat," Laird said. "But I've been getting practice these last couple weeks, so I'll be ready. I'll be fine. You get more balls that die with topspin and break toward the line, which is the opposite from right field."
Because Friday night forecasts project some chilly temperatures, Mainieri will opt on the side of caution and start McMullen in center field for the opener.
"We think he's 100 percent, but once the sun goes down, the temperatures are going to drop," Mainieri said. "I'm just concerned on a cold night with him standing out there in center field, all the sudden a quick movement might aggravate it again…His game is speed, so if he strains that quad again, we'll be dealing with it all season and it neutralizes what he brings to our team."
Mainieri does expect Stevenson to be back in the lineup for Saturday and Sunday, and McMullen will resume his duties as designated hitter. Though he will be LSU's regular DH, Mainieri has said McMullen will also see some time in the outfield, and the Tigers also have Sciambra waiting in the wings as an experienced reserve.
The Tigers obviously won't be strapped for depth in the outfield, which will allow the current batch of freshmen some time to develop. Coming out of fall, Mainieri said he expected all three — Jake Fraley, Jarrett DeHart and Cade Stone — to redshirt.
But Maineiri said a couple weeks back that Fraley has actually made a case to get some playing time in 2014. Fraley had a disappointing fall, but since returning from winter break, Mainieri said he's looked much more like the elite player they recruited.
"It's like watching a flower bloom," Mainieri said. "He's not going to be an Opening Day starter, but he can be a key contributor by the time conference play comes around."