2011 LSU Baseball Preview: Pitching Staff and SEC Predictions

Now that we have taken a look at the hitters and position players for the 2011 Tiger baseball team, it’s time to turn our attention to the other half of the equation: the pitching staff.  The failures of LSU’s pitching staff last year were a major reason the Tigers struggled down the stretch.  From injuries to just plain ineffectiveness, with a team ERA of 5.56, the guys on the mound just simply did not perform well last year.  Whether it’s a good or bad thing, the pitching staff will have a very different look this season.  More than any other portion of the team, Coach Mainieri will be counting heavily on contributions from the arms in the #1 ranked recruiting class.  LSU has only three pitchers returning that threw more than 25 innings a year ago.  A number of these new arms can bring the heat, with eight of them being able to throw 90+ mph.  That was one thing LSU did not have a lot of last season.  The pitching has looked good for the most part during the scrimmages so far, but with so many new faces, it remains to be seen what happens when they’re playing before 10,000 fans at the Box.

Starting Pitching

Going into last season, LSU knew without question who would lead off the rotation.  Anthony Ranaudo was a preseason All-American, top draft prospect and had pitched on Friday nights during LSU’s national championship season.  But with Ranaudo, as well as #2 pitcher Austin Ross, gone to pro baseball, the rotation will be in a state of flux as we start the season.  When Wake Forest comes to the Box on Friday, the rotation will consist of senior Ben Alsup (5-1, 3.88 ERA in 2010) and a pair of newcomers in freshman Kevin Gausman and JC transfer Tyler Jones.  Each of these three pitchers will get a chance to start on Friday night during the first few weekends of the season, before Coach Mainieri makes a final determination on everyone’s pitching roles heading into SEC play.

For much of Alsup’s career at LSU, he has been an afterthought on the Tigers pitching staff.  Through his first two years in Baton Rouge, he had combined for just 34 innings of work and an ERA of over 6.  But midway through last season, Alsup was given some more opportunities to help with a struggling pitching staff and he delivered.  He finished the season on a strong note highlighted by his complete game, 1 hit shutout of Ole Miss in the SEC Tournament.  The tall right-hander will usually sit in the upper 80’s with his fastball but will need to consistently control his breaking stuff like he did at the end of last season to have success.  Alsup is also one of only two seniors on this LSU team, so they will look to him to get the Tigers off to a good start on the opening weekend.

One of the crown jewels of LSU’s recruiting class is freshman pitcher Kevin Gausman from Colorado.  Thought to be a huge long shot to ever end up on campus, Gausman ended up going in the 6th round of the MLB draft and turned down a signing bonus from the Dodgers to come play college ball.  Gausman is another tall, athletic pitcher with a fastball that consistently sits around 93-94 mph and has been known to get up to the 98-99 mph range.  There are questions at times with some of his secondary pitches, but he has been working hard since getting on campus to refine those and become a more consistent pitcher.  Gausman has a very good frame for a pitcher and really the sky is the limit for him down the road.  A late addition to LSU’s signing class was JC All-American transfer Tyler Jones.  Jones, a 21st round draft choice by the White Sox this summer, is another hard throwing righty who will round out the rotation.  His fastball usually sits in the low 90’s range with good control and he looks to be a very physical presence on the mound.

Two freshmen, Ryan Eades out of Northshore High in Slidell and Kurt McCune out of Destrehan High, could also be in line for some starting duties as well.  Eades was a 19th round draft selection out of high school and would have gone much higher were he not recovering from an arm injury that caused him to miss his senior season on the mound.  Eades’ velocity usually sits in the low to mid 90’s and he compliments that with a good slider and changeup.  He is currently working his arm strength back to where it was before his surgery, but has looked very good in the scrimmages so far showing some good movement on his pitches.  Eades could turn out to be the best pitcher in this class, and it would not surprise me to see him push for time in the starting rotation by the time this season is finished with.  McCune is another tall right hander that follows a low-90’s fastball with a very good slider.  Both of these guys should some opportunities for midweek starts early on in the season or may see work out of the bullpen.


Relief Pitching

Like the starting pitching, LSU does not return a lot of experience out of the bullpen.  The main man in relief for the third year in a row will be junior closer Matty Ott (2-4, 11 Saves, 6.38 ERA).  Ott had a phenomenal freshman season in 2009 using his outstanding slider to save a school record 16 games.  And he was off to a similarly strong start last year when he had 11 saves before the midpoint of the season.  But in the second half of the year, Ott proved suddenly mortal.  He blew two saves in a weekend series at Kentucky, had a disastrous start against Florida, and repeatedly had trouble with his control.  Ott went off to the Cape Cod League over the summer and did very well, sporting an 0.44 ERA and picking up 7 saves, and he hopes to use that as a springboard into 2011.  Coach Mainieri has said repeatedly that Ott will remain the closer and will not move into a starter’s role.  How Ott rebounds from last year’s finish, will be a key to setting up a bullpen with a number of question marks.

The most veteran returning pitcher on LSU’s staff this year is senior Daniel Bradshaw (5-1, 5.01 ERA).  Bradshaw has logged 151 innings on the mound during his previous 3 years in the Purple and Gold.  He will likely be used this year in a variety of roles, from spot starter to long relief and everything in between.  His career has been up and down and it will really help solidify the Tiger pitching staff if he can finish his career on a high note.  A couple of other returning hurlers are Chris Cotton (2-0, 5.32 ERA), one of only two lefties on the staff, and Michael Reed (0-0, 9.15 ERA), both of whom could see some action.  The coaches are also hopeful that Forrest Garrett, a highly thought of pitcher coming out of high school who had arm surgery last year, will be able to pitch in the second half of the season.

A number of new faces will contribute in relief duties this year.  Kevin Berry is a UNO transfer who picked up the save in the Privateers win over LSU last year.  It looks like he will be used in a set-up type of role out of the pen, similar to what Coach Mainieri asked Paul Bertuccini to do last season.   Jimmy Dykstra was another late addition to LSU’s signing class out of Yavapai JC in Arizona.  Dykstra is tall righty who should add some depth to the bullpen.  Both Berry and Dykstra are two-way players, with Dykstra having seen some playing time in the outfield during the preseason scrimmages.  Some other names to look for are true freshmen Nick Rumbelow, Sam Peterson and Joe Broussard and JC transfer Kirk Cunningham.  Many of the roles out of the bullpen have yet to be determined and Coach Mainieri will use these first few weekends of play to try and solidify who he can count on as we head into SEC play.


SEC Preview & Predictions

South Carolina made it two national titles in a row for the SEC last year in the final College World Series in Rosenblatt Stadium.  Can the SEC make it three in a row this season?  The SEC East definitely looks to have the strongest teams in the conference, but there is a clear separation in the division as well.  The top 3 teams are all legitimate Omaha contenders, but the bottom 3 teams could likely find themselves watching the SEC Tournament from home.  The SEC West is more of a jumble.  No one team stands out above the others as all have some pertinent question marks heading into the season.  I could honestly see any of the top 5 teams winning the division.  So here’s how I think the SEC will shake out on the diamond this year.  Records listed below are from 2010.


SEC East

1.            Florida  (47-17, 22-8, 1st East)


Florida won the SEC last season and went to Omaha with a team largely comprised of freshman and sophomores.  Now, with those players a year older, the Gators look to be the favorites in the league again.  Florida will have one of the deepest pitching staffs in the country.  They return their entire rotation from a year ago, which included two freshmen, have two former weekend starters on hand, and added true freshmen Karsten Whitson who was the #9 pick in the draft last summer.  Put it this way.  Alex Panteliodis, a weekend starter that won 11 games a year ago, is fighting for a spot in the rotation.  The Gators also bring back 8 out of 9 position players from a year ago as well, led by outstanding sophomore SS Nolan Fontana and OF Preston Tucker.   And they      should all be hungry after last year’s disappointing showing in Omaha.  It will be interesting to see how Florida responds to being the ones with the target on their backs this year.  Will any of those freshmen experience the dreaded sophomore slump?  Even so, the Gators are definitely one of the early national title favorites.

2.            Vanderbilt  (46-20, 16-12, 3rd East)

If Florida is #1 this year, then Vandy is just right behind them.  Vanderbilt will have one of the better starting rotations in baseball this year.  Led by juniors Sonny Gray, Jack Armstrong, Taylor Hill and Greyson Garvin (who was the Cape Cod pitcher of the year over the summer), the Commodores will throw a starting punch at teams that few can match.  Vanderbilt also returns seven starters from a season ago, including six of their hitters that batted over .300.  They will miss SS Bryan Harris and a couple of players will be moving into new positions on the field, so that will be something to watch for.  Will this be the year Tim Corbin’s club finally breaks through and gets to Omaha or will they fall short again like their ultra-talented 2007 squad that lost at home in the regionals?

3.            South Carolina  (54-16, 21-9, 2nd East)


It speaks to the strength of your league when then defending national champions will probably be picked to finish 3rd in their own division.  But that’s not to say that the Gamecocks aren’t a dangerous club to could wind up in Omaha again this year.  They will have one of the better outfields in the conference this year, led by the speedster and future high draft pick Jackie Bradley Jr.  South Carolina also returns 3 of their starting infielders.  The pitching staff will also have a couple of solid starters back in addition to closer Matt Price, but some unproven arms will have to step up to help them solidify things on the mound.  The Gamecocks will get everyone’s best shot this year and will find that repeating their magical run from a year ago isn’t always as easy as it seems.  But South Carolina definitely has enough firepower to challenge Florida and Vanderbilt for the SEC crown.

4.            Georgia  (16-37, 5-23, 6th East)


It’s easy to forget that Georgia was just one win away from a national championship a few years ago.  The Bulldogs suffered through a dismal 2010 season, where the main culprit was a suspect pitching staff.  To say their pitching, which had an 8.51 team ERA despite a number of talented hurlers, was horrible might be being too kind.  So step one is obviously to fix their problems on the mound.  It will help to have a veteran lineup, as they return 6 players with significant experience led by outfielder Zach Cone who led Georgia in the three Triple Crown categories a year ago.  The talent from Georgia’s highly rated recruiting class a few year ago has yet to live up to its potential, but if they can get some better pitching, they will be better in 2011 and could challenge for a spot in Hoover.  Call this one more of a hunch as I just think Georgia will be improved this season.

5.            Kentucky  (31-25, 13-17, 4th East)


After just missing the SEC and NCAA Tournament a year ago, the Wildcats hope the pieces they have in place can improve from a season ago.  The Wildcats were just inconsistent a season ago.  Kentucky swept LSU late in the season and won a series against National Champion South Carolina, but they also lost series to Georgia and Tennessee.  Kentucky returns its three weekend starters, but all of those guys were inconsistent last season with ERAs over 5.  Kentucky also lost their top 5 hitters from a year ago and will be breaking in a couple of new starters in the infield as well.  Coach Gary Henderson has brought in some good recruiting classes to Lexington the past few years, but now is the time for them to produce.  The Wildcats had a number of close losses a year ago and will have to turn that around on that if they want to see postseason play.

6.            Tennessee  (30-26, 12-18, 5th East)


The Volunteers haven’t had much success in Coach Todd Raleigh’s first three years and this year may be more of the same.  They played somewhat better a season ago and were fighting for a spot in the SEC Tournament heading into the final weekend.  There will be a lot of inexperience on the mound as Tennessee lost their top 3 pitchers and have only one pitcher back that started more than 5 games a year ago.  Tennessee also lost a number of their top hitters and most of their power production.  One addition that will help the Vols is freshman OF Andrew Toles, who was drafted in the 4th round of the draft but decided to play in Knoxville.  With so little returning compared to the rest of the league, it’s tough to see them making a whole lot of noise in what figures to be a very top heavy SEC East.

SEC West

1.            LSU  (41-22, 14-16, 5th West)


LSU looks to atone for a disappointing finish a year ago, but will be relying on a host of newcomers to do it.  Many members of LSU’s #1 ranked recruiting class will have to contribute immediately for this season to be considered a success, and the main improvement must come from the pitching staff.  Coach Mainieri has been pleased with the way pitching staff has performed in scrimmages so far.  Pitchers like Kevin Gausman, Ryan Eades and Tyler Jones will have to perform well and quickly adjust to the pace of big time college baseball.  The Tigers return three major starters from a year ago in CF Mikie Mahtook, SS Austin Nola and 3B/2B Tyler Hanover.  They also will rely on a couple of others in 1B Alex Edward and RF Mason Katz that saw significant playing time late in the season.  LSU should have a productive offense, led by Mahtook, even though it won’t be nearly as power laden as Tiger fans have come to expect.  How the pitching staff, especially the bullpen, comes along will hold the key to whether or not this season is a success.

2.            Auburn  (43-21, 20-10, 1st West)


Auburn was definitely the surprise of the SEC last year in Coach John Pawlowski’s second season.  Not only did the Tigers return to postseason play for the first time in 5 years, but they also won the SEC West and hosted a regional.  A major reason for that was their offense which led the SEC with a .348 average and led the nation with 131 homeruns.  Four of their top hitters are gone, but led by 1B Kevin Patterson there are several quality players returning to build their offense around.   It will be interesting to see how an offense that relied on such an abundance of power last year adjusts to the new bats.  The Auburn pitching staff is a bit of a question mark with the loss of two starters and their closer and only two pitchers returning with an ERA under 5.  Auburn will still have a good offense, so how well their pitching staff comes into shape will tell how far they can go this year.

3.            Arkansas  (43-21, 18-12, 2nd West)


The Razorbacks will have an entirely new look as they lost a lot of talented players that made up the core of their team the past few years.  Gone are names such as Zack Cox, Brett Eibner and Drew Smyly who were major contributors to Arkansas’ success and their run to Omaha in 2009.  Their offense has some returning players to build around, led by outfielder and leadoff hitter Collin Kuhn.  The Razorbacks lost a lot of pitching from last year and many of their returning pitchers will be taking on different roles from a season ago.  True freshman pitcher Ryne Stanek is one to keep an eye on, as he is a highly thought of hurler who should figure into the weekend rotation.  Dave Van Horn is good coach who seems to have his team in the mix every year and this year should be no different if some young players make the step forward.

4.            Ole Miss  (39-24, 16-14, 3rd West)


Like everyone else in the SEC West, Ole Miss has some question marks as they try and get over the hump in the postseason.  The Rebels lost their top two pitchers from a year ago in ace Drew Pomeranz and Aaron Barrett and will need some freshmen and transfers to step up and provide a solid presence on the mound.  Ole Miss’s bullpen should be a strength for them with the return of closer Brett Huber and Jake Morgan, their closer from two years ago that had arm surgery in 2010.  Ole Miss will also return a couple of veteran offensive players in Matt Snyder and Matt Smith that they will hope to build their offense around.  Mike Bianco’s club will always be in the mix in the SEC West but this year they seem to have a few more questions than normal.

5.            Alabama  (42-25, 15-15, 4th West)


The Crimson Tide finished the season strong and ended up just one victory shy of Omaha in Coach Mitch Gaspard’s first season.  But duplicating that this year may be a tall order.  Alabama lost their entire infield, which constituted the middle of their lineup.  How all those new faces play together will be a key story for Alabama this season.  The outfield should be solid, led by one of the conference’s best hitters in Taylor Dugas patrolling CF.  Alabama lost a couple of their top pitchers as well.  They do have some good pitchers, led by closer/part-time starter Nathan Kilcrease and Adam Morgan, who will have to me more consistent this year and carry the team early on as all the new position players get acclimated to college ball.  But Alabama simply has a lot of holes to expect anything more than a regional appearance.

6.            Mississippi State  (23-33, 6-24, 6th West)


The seat may be starting to get a little warm for John Cohen over in Starkville.  Two consecutive last place finishes (and three overall counting Ron Polk’s final season) can not be sitting well with the fans there.  The pitching has the main culprit for State’s poor play the past few seasons, with an awful 6.90 team ERA in 2010.  The pitching should be improved this year as several experienced arms return, but as evidenced by their stats they will have to perform better.  The offense, however, must replace several big names like Connor Powers and Ryan Duffy.  The Bulldogs should be improved this year with a good freshman class coming in, and Coach Cohen thinks he has some talent in place to compete in the SEC West this year.  But at this point, it’s hard to see them moving up much in the standings.

Top 5 SEC Series of 2011

1.  Florida at Vanderbilt  (May 13 – 15)
2.  South Carolina at Florida  (March 25 – 27)
3.  Vanderbilt at South Carolina  (April 15 – 17)
4.  Florida at LSU  (March 18 – 20)
5.  Auburn at LSU  (April 15 – 17)

Top 5 Non-Conference SEC Series of 2011

1.  Stanford at Vanderbilt  (February 25 – 27)
2.  Cal State Fullerton at LSU  (March 11 – 13)
3.  Clemson vs. South Carolina  (March 4 – 6)
4.  Miami (Fla.) at Florida  (March 4 – 6)
5.  Arizona State at Auburn  (March 11 – 13)