5 LSU baseball position battles for 2023, including second base, catcher, No. 1 pitcher
BATON ROUGE - LSU baseball is almost back.
The Tigers, after falling in the Hattiesburg Regional in coach Jay Johnson's first season last year, have reloaded for 2023. LSU added the No. 1 transfer portal class in the nation, according to Baseball America, the No. 1 recruiting class in the nation, according to Perfect Game, and brought back star outfielder Dylan Crews, first baseman Tre Morgan and other key contributors.
There's a lot to look forward to entering the Tigers' season opener against Western Michigan on Feb. 17, including who will be battling for starting positions to start the year.
Here are five potential positional battles for LSU baseball entering the 2023 season.
The Favorite: Alex Milazzo
Candidates: Hayden Travinski, Brady Neal, Jared Jones, Ethan Frey
Breakdown: Among LSU's positional battles, catcher may be the most up in the air. Milazzo gets the edge here since he started 47 games for the Tigers in 2021. But he's still far from a shoo-in, as he was injured for the majority of 2022 and has struggled in the batter's box in each of his last three seasons.
If it isn't Milazzo, there's a good chance a freshman could emerge. That's because LSU has three good ones: Neal, Jones and Frey. Neal and Jones were top-200 MLB Draft prospects, according to MLB.com, while Frey was the No. 2 prospect in Louisiana, per Perfect Game. Travinski is the other veteran option. He had a .937 on-base plus slugging percentage last season.
The Favorite: Gavin Dugas
Candidates: Ben Nippolt, Gavin Guidry, Jack Merrifield
Breakdown: Dugas, when healthy, has been an excellent hitter for LSU, posting an OPS over .990 in each of the last three seasons for the Tigers. He's mostly been an outfielder the last few seasons but started his career at LSU as an infielder.
Nippolt, a VCU transfer, could also earn the spot. He had a .430 on-base percentage and a .837 OPS a season ago. Guidry is another talented freshman who was the No. 1 recruit in Louisiana. Merrifield proved last season that he's a capable defender who can fill in at multiple spots on the infield.
Friday starting pitcher
The Favorite: Paul Skenes
Candidates: Thatcher Hurd, Ty Floyd, Grant Taylor, Jaden Noot, Chase Shores, Christian Little
Breakdown: Skenes is the favorite to become LSU's top starter, as he was an All-American last year and posted a 2.73 ERA in 85⅔ innings. But given how many new faces and quality arms are in the Tigers' rotation, his spot at the top isn't guaranteed.
Hurd, a UCLA transfer, held a 1.06 ERA in 34 innings as a freshman last season before a spinal injury cut his year short. But he's now back and fully healthy. Floyd stepped up as a reliable starter last season. Taylor was dominant in the Cape Cod Baseball League. Noot and Shores arrive as freshmen who were top-130 MLB Draft prospects. And Little, a Vanderbilt transfer, can challenge for the top spot.
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The Favorite: Paxton Kling
Candidates: Brayden Jobert, Josh Stevenson, Zeb Ruddell, Mic Paul, Dugas
Breakdown: Kling may only be a freshman, but the former top-105 MLB Draft prospect could start right away. The only caveat is if Dugas gets pushed back to the outfield and reclaims his starting spot.
Other candidates include Stevenson, a capable defender last season, and Jobert, who isn't as solid defensively but has a powerful bat. There's also Ruddell and Paul, two freshmen who are waiting in the wings.
The Favorite: Nate Ackenhausen
Candidates: Chase Shores, Jaden Noot, Bryce Collins, Riley Cooper, Samuel Dutton, Kaleb Applebey, Javen Coleman
Breakdown: After Paul Gervase was drafted and signed by the New York Mets, LSU is in need of a reliable reliever in high-leverage situations.
Expect this non-specific role to change throughout the year, but Ackenhausen appears to be a strong candidate to start. The junior college transfer posted a 1.84 ERA last season.
The two talented freshmen, Noot and Shores, are also top candidates. As is Collins, Cooper and Dutton, returning pitchers who proved they were more than just capable last season. Coleman is coming off Tommy John surgery but could still thrive in a bullpen role. Applebey, also a junior college transfer, was the No. 2 player out of Illinois in 2021, per Prep Baseball Report.
Koki Riley covers LSU sports for The Daily Advertiser and the USA TODAY Sports South Region. Email him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter at @KokiRiley.