Interview: Mainieri laments what could have been, manages LSU roster with MLB Draft looming

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Woulda, coulda, shoulda.

The famous words uttered by Jim Mora in the midst of the magical 1987 New Orleans Saints season are utilized frequently when describing teams that did not reach their potential.

The 2020 LSU baseball team had a chance to be good, make that very good, if not special. They likely would have been an NCAA tournament team and a possible host team once again. They could have made significant noise in the tournament. They should have gotten the chance but fate intervened.

Of course, hitting was an issue but the pitching was simply superb and the defense was good.

LSU was 12-5 and had won nine of its last 11 games and was ready to open SEC play at Ole Miss when the season was shut down.

While the Tigers had not hit as well as they would like (.253 avg.), LSU pitching had a chance to be special, fashioning an impressive 2.38 ERA.

As a guest on All Access on 106.1 FM NASH ICON Wednesday night, LSU coach Paul Mainieri lamented what could have been.

“I thought our team was ascending,” Mainieri said. “I announced at Media Day, three weeks before our opening day that I thought our pitching would be elite and I think it was elite. It might have been the best pitching staff we’ve had in my 14 years here at LSU.

“I also said there were a lot of question marks about our lineup and we’d have to try some different guys and it may end up resulting in us losing a game or two that we probably should have won and I think that ended up playing out as well. I thought we had gotten to the point where I felt confident about our lineup. I felt that we were getting better. We had won five in a row. We were ready for the SEC challenge that was ahead of us.”

With the NCAA allowing seniors to return next season, LSU has two players who will get that opportunity.

“We only had two seniors in Matthew Beck and Aaron George,” Mainieri said. “Both of them were doing a really good job for us this year. I don’t think Beck had given up a run. I thought Aaron George had shown a great improvement from the year before when he came in as a junior college transfer. I’m happy to have those two guys back.”

How will the altered Major League Draft set for June 10-11 only having five rounds affect LSU?

“We think we’ll have some guys back that we would have lost in a normal draft,” Mainieri said. “I think we’ll probably have some guys show up to school out of our recruiting class that maybe typically we would have lost as well. For a while, we didn’t think there was going to be a draft at all.”

Most draft analysis has outfielder Daniel Cabrera and pitcher Cole Henry most likely to be drafted in the five-round process.

“I don’t have any doubt that those two guys have the ability and are thought of as top couple of round selections,” Mainieri said. “I think the difference between the two of them is that Daniel Cabrera has been in school for three years whereas Cole Henry has only been in school for two years. Daniel would likely end up signing. I think Cole Henry’s situation is a little bit more complex. If he went in the first round, he would likely end up signing.”

“I do think there’s several other guys that given a normal year with the draft, we probably would have lost them and the chances are they may come back,” Mainieri said. “We have several in the incoming recruiting class that are thought of very highly that could be drafted.”

The combination of players returning and more players likely to not fall in the five rounds of the draft will pose a problem for LSU getting to the roster limit of 35 for the 2021 season.

“It’s going to be a challenge,” Mainieri said. “It’s kind of a Catch 22 situation. We might have more really good players but it also might mean that we have to have some really tough conversations with some players. We’re still hopeful. The SEC has put in a proposal to the NCAA to expand the rosters and even get a couple of extra scholarships for this year alone. If that happens, it will be good for everybody. We’re kind of prepared for both scenarios.”

The lack of scholarships, set at 11.7 per school for a growing sport remains a point of contention for everyone in college baseball.

“In the 60’s, schools were allowed to give 25 full scholarships for baseball,” Mainieri said. “That number was cut down to 19 full scholarships when I came to LSU in the fall of 1975. Then, it was trimmed down to 13 and then it was cut from there to 11.7. It’s been a frustrating thing.”

In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, three schools (Bowling Green, Chicago State, Furman) have already cut their baseball programs and before the virus subsides, the possibility remains that more could be eliminated.

“Most college baseball programs are not self sufficient, Mainieri said. “They’re not revenue producers and when you’re not a revenue producing sport unfortunately, a lot of administrators look at your sport as a black hole where money goes in and never comes back out. Football is the big cash cow, the straw that stirs the drink and basketball is a distant second at most schools.”

Of course, the Tiger program is different.

“There aren’t many schools like LSU and a few others that create the revenue where they pay for themselves and maybe even put extra money in the coffers to help other sports. When you’re a revenue producing sport, you’re treated a little bit differently. There were 301 Division I (baseball) playing schools going into this year. When they have to cut budgets, unfortunately, college baseball programs seem to be one of the first things they think about cutting.”

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