Top 25 Countdown: No. 25 LSU

All has been quiet at Alex Box Stadium in Baton Rouge, La., since last May, but that’s about to change with LSU about to start the 2011 season.

The Tigers hope to get back to Omaha this spring. They won their sixth national title two seasons ago, but only reached the NCAA Regional round last season and ended the campaign with a 41-22 record.

Returning to Omaha could be a tough chore for coach Paul Mainieri’s club.

The Tigers lost some significant power production from last year’s team with the departures of Micah Gibbs, Blake Dean and Matt Gaudet. They’ll have a solid lineup, but power production is a concern.

As usual, Paul Mainieri and LSU have talent. But there are more holes than usual.
(US Presswire)

The pitching staff is a concern both in terms of starting pitchers and the bullpen. The Tigers will rely on Ben Alsup, who made three starts last season, to be the staff ace, while newcomers Kevin Gausman and Tyler Jones are expected provide an immediate impact. The bullpen, meanwhile, is a huge question mark because of injuries and departures. Matty Ott could provide the Tigers with stability should he return to his freshman form.

LSU has more question marks than usual, but has enough talent to make a splash if enough players rise to the occasion.

Projected starting lineup

An asterisk (*) indicates a returning player

C Tyler Ross
1B Alex Edward*
2B Tyler Hanover*
SS Austin Nola*
3B JaCoby Jones
LF Trey Watkins*
CF Mikie Mahtook*
RF Mason Katz*
DH Raph Rhymes

SP Ben Alsup*
SP Kevin Gasuman
SP Tyler Jones
RP Kevin Berry
CP Matty Ott*

Offense

The Tigers aren’t expected to emulate their power production from last season, but they’ll they have a productive lineup from a batting average standpoint.

They welcome back six hitters that earned significant playing time last season, including Alex Edward, Tyler Hanover, Austin Nola, Trey Watkins, Mikie Mahtook and Mason Katz.

Edward batted .314 with two homers and 15 RBIs, Hanover batted .332 with two homers and 35 RBIs, Watkins hit .268 with two homers and 15 RBIs, Mahtook, the top returning hitter, batted .335 with 14 homers and 50 RBIs and Katz hit .318 in 44 at bats.

Overall, LSU finished last season with a .319 average, and is expected to hover in the .300-.310 range this spring.

Keep an eye on newcomers Tyler Ross and JaCoby Jones.

Ross still has work to do from an offensive standpoint, while Jones is a highly touted freshman that turned down professional overtures as a 19th-round pick of the Astros in last June’s MLB draft. Jones is a versatile athlete, so it’ll be interesting to see how the Tigers utilize him at the plate.

The Tigers should be confident about their offense.

Pitching

After struggling last season with a 5.56 ERA, you’d think the Tigers would enter this season in better shape on the mound. However, that isn’t the case.

The Tigers have several new faces and are without Jordan Rittiner, Joey Bourgeois and Mitch Hopkins, who will miss the spring with elbow injuries.

In terms of the weekend rotation, returnee Ben Alsup and newcomers Kevin Gausman and Tyler Jones lead the way.

Alsup has upside and finished last season with a 3.88 ERA in 48 2/3 innings. However, it must be noted he only made three starts in 18 appearances. The Tigers are excited about his ability to have a good season.

Gausman is one of the nation’s top freshmen and is expected to have a good season, while Jones, a junior college transfer, is an intriguing character. Little is known about him entering the spring, but he finished last season at Madison Area Tech with a 3.01 ERA in 74 2/3 innings.

LSU could be in better shape than expected if Jones rises to the occasion.

The bullpen is tricky with veteran Matty Ott and New Orleans transfer Kevin Berry leading the way.

Ott has showed in the past he has a wealth of potential. However, he finished last season with dismal numbers. Berry, meanwhile, made 11 appearances at UNO last season and had an unimpressive 7.05 ERA in 44 2/3 innings. Opponents hit .320 off him.

The Tigers will go the way of their pitching staff this season.

Shoes to fill

The Tigers will have a tough time replacing the holes left by last year’s departures, which is why they’re in the bottom half of the top 25.

Offensively, the Tigers have the tough chore of replacing leading hitters Micah Gibbs, Blake Dean and Leon Landry, who each hit over .337 last season. Gibbs and Dean were two of the Tigers’ leading power hitters, while Landry finished ’10 with 16 stolen bases.

The Tigers also are without Matt Gaudet, who only hit .283 last season, but ended the campaign with 19 homers and 67 RBIs. They could’ve used his power this season.

On the mound, replacing starting pitchers Anthony Ranaudo and Austin Ross and reliever Paul Bertuccini won’t be easy. Ranaudo didn’t have a great ’10 campaign, but was hampered much of the season with an injury. Ross, meanwhile, started 13 games and limited teams to a .259 average. Bertuccini was the team’s best reliever with a 2.56 ERA in 31 appearances.

Fortunately for the Tigers, they brought in a solid recruiting class in the fall. Will that be enough to offset their losses?

Must step up

LSU has several players that must rise to the occasion to make a big splash this season, but Trey Watkins and Matty Ott are the headliners.

Watkins entered last season with much acclaim, but only finished the campaign with a .268 batting average. He also hit just two homers and had 15 RBIs.

More important, the Tigers need Ott to return to his freshman form on the mound.

The Tigers tried Ott’s arm as a starter last season, but that move proved to be a disaster and he never recovered. Ott recorded 11 saves last season, but had a dismal 6.38 ERA in 42 1/3 innings. He also struck out 40 and walked 21.

LSU is in much better shape if these two step up.

Impact newcomer

Catcher Tyler Ross and pitcher Kevin Gausman are the top newcomers to watch.

It’s safe to say Ross has tough shoes to fill with the departure of Gibbs. Only a freshman, Ross is slated to start for the Tigers.

He was drafted by the Phillies in the 46th round of the MLB draft last summer, but decided to go to college. He has been compared to Gibbs physically and has a good arm. Now, we’ll see what type of offensive skills he has.

Gausman was the jewel of LSU’s recruiting class. Drafted in the sixth round by the Dodgers, it was thought the right-handed pitcher would sign by the deadline. Instead, he kept his word with the Tigers and now is one of their best starting pitchers.

At 6-foot-4, 170 pounds, Gausman has plenty of room for growth, and has a smooth delivery that includes a fastball in the low-to-mid 90’s range.

Postseason prognosis

The Tigers are accustomed to being in the national title hunt, but accomplishing that goal this season would be a pleasant surprise.

They return enough talented hitters to have a productive offense, but the pitching staff is a huge question mark with two new starters and an unproven ace in Ben Alsup. The bullpen also is a concern with injuries and uncertainty surrounding Matty Ott.

LSU’s season boils down to how much the pitching staff exceeds expectations.

For now, the Tigers look like an NCAA Regional team and not much else.

Kendall Rogers is the college baseball editor for Yahoo! Sports and Rivals.com. Follow him on Twitter and follow Yahoo! Sports College Baseball on Facebook. Send Kendall a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Tuesday, Jan 18, 2011