We continue our countdown to Opening Day by taking a look at this year’s LSU baseball team on a position-by-position basis. The 2013 season starts Friday against New Orleans, and the Tigers appear poised for another long postseason run.
Yesterday, I previewed the LSU pitching staff, and today we’ll dissect the Tigers’ corner infielders and catchers as the players vying for the 1B job are the same battling for a spot behind the plate. This group of players also provides LSU’s biggest power threat, and many of these players will land in the heart of the batting order as well.
A year ago, Chrisitan Ibarra was little more than an unknown JUCO transfer with a slick glove. Few expected a power swing from that 5-foot-7 frame, but as he has throughout his baseball career, he proved his doubters wrong in 2013.
He finished the season hitting .305 with 17 doubles, six home runs and 39 RBI. He earned a spot on the All-SEC Team as well as the conference’s All-Defense and All-Tournament teams. Ibarra played so well in fact the LSU coaches didn’t even expect him to be back in 2014.
Ibarra was drafted later than expected though (32nd round to Pittsburgh), and he opted to return for his final season of eligibility. He’s now one of the more veteran players on the team, and will be a leader on that left side of the infield.
While his defensive prowess is almost guaranteed, Ibarra can expect to have a bigger impact from the offensive end this season. Paul Mainieri mentioned Ibarra as a candidate to protect Alex Bregman in the heart of the order as they’ll be looking to replicate the production lost from Mason Katz and Raph Rhymes.
Entering his second season post-JUCO, Mainieri said he’s seen a lot of improvement in Ibarra.
"If all these guys are better than they were last year,” Mainieri said, “then synergy stars to kick in."
As I mentioned earlier, LSU actually started preparing for a 2014 season that didn’t include Ibarra at third base. To step in for him, LSU recruited JUCO transfer Connor Hale to be the Tigers’ Opening Day third baseman had Ibarra gone pro. But with Ibarra returning and firmly entrenched in the starting lineup, the coaches began experimenting with Hale elsewhere in fall practices.
He got looks at first and second base, and he now appears set to be LSU’s second baseman when the season starts Friday (more on that tomorrow). So with Hale now on the right side of the infield, LSU moved one of its most promising freshmen back to third base to be Ibarra’s backup.
Danny Zardon, a high school third baseman, spent fall practices competing to be LSU’s starting second baseman. Zardon may still have a chance to crack the starting lineup, but Mainieri said he’ll likely begin the year as a reserve, but with a strong bat, LSU will find a way to get him in the lineup.
Zardon was absolutely mashing the ball back in the fall, but Mainieri said they’ll take their time and make sure the first-year player finds his stride before asking too much from him.
"With some freshmen, it's hard to throw them in right away,” Mainieri said. “Sometimes you have to make them earn their way in."
As for the other two positions we’ll discuss in this preview, there are three players competing for the two spots. Out of this group — Tyler Moore, Chris Chinea and Kade Scivicque — LSU will have its starting catcher and first baseman.
The first priority for the Tigers will be determining the catcher, then picking a first baseman out of the two remaining. The three players exited fall practices essentially tied, and that mostly remains the case with the season only a few days away.
Smith can play in a 3-4 or 4-3 defense.
If you had to pick one player that has the edge though, it would probably be Moore, though only six of his 51 career starts have come at catcher. Moore manned that position in high school though, and has developed a reputation as a clutch hitter in his two years at LSU.
“There are always areas to improve, especially behind the plate, because it’s one of the most important positions on the field," Moore said. "Just because you are in every single play and you can see the whole field and everyone else can’t. So I’m really just trying to be a leader back there and leading this whole team and trying to work with the pitchers and be a rock for them.”
All 10 of Chinea’s starts last season, his freshman year, came at catcher, so he does have some collegiate experience at the position. He was average at the plate though in his limited appearances, hitting .277 with 11 RBI. But there’s some legitimate pop in his bat, and he could be one of the Tigers’ bigger power threats if he taps into that potential.
Scivicque is the newcomer of the group, transferring in from Southwest Mississippi Community College. He was named his league’s Defensive Player of the Year in 2013 and hit .321 with four homers and 37 RBI.
"All three swing the bat exceptionally well and are steady defensively,” Mainieri said. “They just aren’t outstanding like Ty Ross was."
The competition between these three will be one of the bigger storylines in the early season. You can expect all three to see significant playing time in the first couple weeks as Mainieri and the other coaches try to determine the best combination.
Maineiri has said though he’s not ruling out a “by-committee” approach and called this his “three-headed monster” at catcher. It’s possible you even see all three in the starting lineup, as the odd man out could even be the Tigers’ designated hitter.
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