Making lineup changes at any point of the season has been a hallmark of Paul Mainieri’s six-year LSU tenure, most of the time with notable success.
Out of necessity, the Tigers’ coach has some shuffling to do this week as his team heads toward the midway point of the 2012 season.
With freshman center fielder Chris Sciambra’s season abruptly over due to two broken vertebrae in his neck, 12th-ranked LSU (18-6) will have a new starting center fielder starting Wednesday when the Tigers take on ULL (13-10) at 6:30 p.m. at Alex Box Stadium.
Mainieri has identified three primary options for filling Sciambra’s void, and here’s a breakdown of each possibility:
1. Insert Jared Foster as the starter in center field.
Foster is one of LSU’s best athletes and should be capable of covering plenty of ground in center. He never played center at Barbe because the Buccaneers needed him at third base as a junior and second base as a senior. It might take some adjustment, but Foster would likely adapt to playing the spot.
The drawback on the surface is what Foster can provide with the bat.
Since getting off to a strong start offensively, Foster has cratered and has only five hits in his last 42 at-bats, causing his average to tumble to .210. He would likely need to hit in the bottom third of the batting order for an offense that can’t afford to give away a bunch of outs.
“Jared is a very good athlete and had really improved as a left fielder when he was in there,” Mainieri said. “He’s a great athlete and I’m sensing he could do the job defensively.”
2. Move JaCoby Jones back to center field and put Casey Yocom back at second base.
|JaCoby Jones: Back to the outfield or staying put at 2B?|
Jones came into this season as the starting center fielder because he is the best athlete on the roster and was the logical heir to Mikie Mahtook at the key position.
Defensively, Jones handled the job well and was looking more and more natural. But he wasn’t dazzling offensively with a .267 batting average (8-for-30) in eight starts with 8 runs scored and 7 RBIs.
In an effort to shore up the infield defense, Mainieri slid Jones back into second base and since then the sophomore has batted .274 in 14 starts with 13 runs and 5 RBIs. He has collected at least one hit in all but two of his 14 starts at second, and recently when Mainieri adjusted the batting order and installed Jones in either the leadoff or two-hole, he has batted .310 (22 of 71).
“My concern with moving JaCoby is that he really seems to be coming on with the bat, and I hate to do anything to change his comfort level,” Mainieri said. “He may be swinging the bat better because he’s more involved when he’s playing second base, and I really don’t want to affect that.”
3. Move Mason Katz from 1B/RF to center field.
This looms as the least likely alternative because it would leave LSU without much speed in the outfield, but it remains a possibility because it would allow Mainieri to maintain a stronger left-handed presence in the batting order.
|Mason Katz: His versatility be a benefit if he moves to CF.|
Raph Rhymes has settled in as the every-day left fielder and Alex Edward has re-emerged as a viable option in right field. Katz is the most athletic of that trio and the best outfielder, so he would be the most logical candidate to move to center.
By moving Katz, Grant Dozar or Tyler Moore could step in at first base – both swing left-handed – and Edward would keep his spot in right field. That would also free up the designated hitter spot, and Mainieri said he might give senior Beau Didier, who also swings from the left side, a shot at platooning there.
Mainieri said Katz is instinctive enough to man center, but he doesn’t have the speed that Sciambra or Foster provide.
“When we’re facing right-handed pitchers, particularly ones with a good curve ball, Sciambra and Dozar gave us two left-handed hitters,” Mainieri said. “Now first base and DH are the only two spots where we can keep a left-handed bat in the lineup, but to do that, we’d have to move Katz.”
Regardless of how the center field job shakes out, Mainieri said whoever winds up with the job will have earned it by showing him they can handle it better than anyone else. That said, he also said he isn’t against rotating players there.
“If there are other options, we’ll try them whenever we need to,” Mainieri said. “The most important thing is to have somebody out there who can do the job.
“Foster is the most likely situation if he shows he can be an above average center fielder, but I won’t hesitate to make changes when we need to.”