If there was one thing Paul Mainieri was slow to come to terms with about coaching baseball at LSU — and there weren’t many — it was the reality of the Major League draft.
With the absurd NCAA limit of 11.7 scholarships for the sport, colleges weren’t often going to beat MLB’s checkbooks.
But for years it frustrated and annoyed Mainieri to go sign a top class only to see the really elite ones never reach campus. Only late in his tenure did he accept it.
Well, Mainieri apparently picked the wrong time to retire from coaching due to chronic neck and back pain.
Times, they are a changing — and Mainieri would sleep a lot better in this new age.
Instead, new coach Jay Johnson is already reaping the benefits.
True, the Tigers lost four incoming recruits, all taken in the first four rounds of this week’s draft.
That won’t change and was already figured into the roster equation.
Johnson doesn’t necessarily agree with it.
“Regardless of the money, you will not convince me that the low minor leagues — what I call ‘complex baseball’ — is a better environment to develop than Alex Box stadium, than playing in the SEC, than going to Omaha, the Cape Cod League playing for Team USA,” he said Thursday.
But it’s the reality.
“If you’re drafted in the top 10 rounds, the full intent is to sign. “Players don’t get picked that high unless they’ve agreed to terms (with the drafting team).”
So you wish them well.
But look at what gets left behind now that the draft has been reduced to 20 rounds — actually up from the five rounds during last year’s pandemic chaos, but still well below the traditional 40.
Most notably for LSU were three valuable veterans — pitchers Devin Fontenot and Ma’Khail Hilliard, along with team home run leader Gavin Dugas — that most assumed had played their last games in The Box.
It wasn’t lack of interest from the pros, Johnson said. But all three decided they weren’t interested after 10 rounds came without a call.
Bottom line, the Tigers could have every position starter back next season.
“I can’t overstate how important that is,” Johnson said. “It’s huge. Looking across the College World Series teams this year, one theme was they were all old and experienced.”
Even if the draft had taken its usual slice of the Tigers, there’s a fallback now.
“The transfer portal, whether we all like it or not, is going to be a part of college athletics now,” Johnson said.
His tone suggested he wasn’t sure he liked it or not, only that he better have “a plan for it.”
But it certainly was tailor-made for LSU and other top programs — probably to the detriment of the mid-majors.
“Everybody wants to come to LSU,” Johnson said, adding that for the Tigers the portal process is not so much recruiting as it is picking and choosing.
Think of a kid in a candy store.
“Getting the right player is the most important thing In this case it afforded us the opportunity to add some pieces to the team that needed to be improved. That’s been our focus (and) it will be until we feel like we’re put the best team together that we possible can.”
He’s already added four transfers, most notably one of his former Arizona players in Jacob Berry, an All-American who shared the Collegiate Baseball’s national freshman of the year honor with LSU’s Dylan Crews.
The portal can work both ways. But if you’re LSU, you’re a lot more likely get a player you want than to lose a player you need.
The Tigers, in fact, will probably have to lose some.
By the start of the season next February, the roster will have to be down to 40 players.
Johnson said they’re a little north of that number at the moment.
“We’ll work through that this summer and fall,” he said.
It sounds like a good problem to have. “It’s absurd the amount of talent we’re going to have on this team,” Dugas said. “I really wanted to be a part of it.”
Scooter Hobbs covers LSU athletics. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org