Big Changes Afoot For LSU Baseball

At lunchtime today, a little more than 24 hours after the shocking development that LSU Baseball didn’t make the NCAA Tournament just two years after winning a national championship, some not-unexpected news crossed the wire.


Grewe, who was on the staff in 2009 when the Tigers pulled off that College World Series title as the first-year pitching coach, has been seen by many observers of the program as a problem. Development of the Tiger pitching staff has been an issue – the best hurlers LSU had this year were freshmen, and the inability to produce a reliable bullpen was the difference between the Tigers winning the SEC West and hosting a regional, and missing the tournament entirely. And Grewe’s recruiting, though it produced a good crop of newcomers this year, is directly responsible for what is seen as a weak group of juniors and sophomores on the LSU roster.

“David has decided to take his career in a new direction, and we wish him the best in all of his future endeavors,” head coach Paul Mainieri said. “We’re very grateful to David for the contributions he made to our program, including being a part of a national championship, a conference championship and two league tournament titles.”

Mainieri’s hiring of Grewe and hitting coach Javi Sanchez to replace former associate head coach Terry Rooney after the latter moved on to Central Florida as the head coach and took hitting coach Cliff Godwin with him – Rooney and Godwin had a breakthrough season at UCF this year with a 38-21 record, and they’ll play this weekend as the No. 2 seed in the NCAA Regional in Tallahassee, Florida – was considered questionable in baseball circles at the time. After all, Grewe had been a hitting coach for Mainieri at Notre Dame, not a pitching coach, and during a mediocre stint as Michigan State’s head coach his pitching staffs never showed a particularly high standard of performance. There were concerns that Grewe lacked the expertise that Rooney, whose work in developing Louis Coleman into an All-American arm (Coleman is currently in the Major Leagues with Kansas City) exemplified his ability, brought to the table.

In 2009, Grewe’s first year, Coleman duplicated his 2008 performance. Sophomore Anthony Ranaudo emerged from an injury-marred freshman season to become an All-American staff ace. And freshman closer Matty Ott broke out on the scene as one of college baseball’s best arms. The trio keyed a national championship run along with a Murderer’s Row batting lineup which included draft picks in Ryan Schimpf, Blake Dean, Sean Ochinko, Leon Landry, Micah Gibbs, Jared Mitchell, D.J. LeMahieu and Mikie Mahtook.

But in 2010, LSU’s pitching – and the team’s overall performance – cratered. Ott went from 4-2 with a solid 2.68 ERA and 16 saves as a freshman to a bad 2-4 record, a 6.38 ERA and 11 saves. Ranaudo’s ERA was even worse at 7.32 in an injury-plagued season. And other arms on the Tiger staff like Austin Ross and Daniel Bradshaw saw their performance plateau if not slide. There were murmurs among the program’s insiders that Grewe’s performance as the coach and management of the staff was the problem.

And this year, while Ott recovered to post a better ERA (2.60), he was 1-3 as the closer – if Ott was 1-2 rather than 1-3 LSU would have both made the SEC Tournament and in all likelihood been in a regional – and posted only six saves. Bradshaw went from a weekend starter early in his sophomore year to a little-used reserve as a senior. And newcomers pitched 365 of the 490 innings LSU pitchers threw this season; senior Ben Alsup, whose improvement over the course of his career he himself had credited to summer-league coaches, was responsible for 66 of the veterans’ innings pitched. And furthermore, just 21 innings of that 490 were worked by left-handers; sophomore Chris Cotton, a former walkon, pitched 13 innings and sophomore Forrest Garrett, a former highly-rated recruit in his first year back from arm surgery, threw only eight.

That’s not exactly a ringing endorsement of the work product of the pitching coach/recruiting coordinator. And it’s no particular surprise that just one day after the official end to LSU’s season Grewe isn’t on the staff anymore.

“For my personal development, I want to explore the possibilities to expand my role as a college baseball coach and professional,” Grewe said. “Unfortunately, the timing of this desire does not match the timing for the LSU Baseball program and its immediate needs. Therefore, I have made a decision based on these timing issues and my personal desires as well as the “unknown” of the next several months to make Joe Alleva and Paul Mainieri aware of the fact that I will not be returning following the end of my 2011 contract.”

As Grewe’s staff has struggled, fan estimation of his boss has dropped off from near-deification following the national title to calls for his head. And Mainieri, who said he’d been “ashamed” of LSU’s work product at the low point of this season when the Tigers sat at a mere 24-17 overall and 4-14 in the SEC, was fully aware of the direction things were working. Reports surfaced that Grewe was no longer calling pitches in LSU’s dugout or working with the staff much in practice – and Mainieri began making his way out to coach third base, replacing the much-maligned Sanchez there. With the head coach taking a more substantial role in the day-to-day coaching of LSU’s team the performance took a major jump; the Tigers closed the regular season 12-3, winning nine of their final 12 SEC games and coming just one game short of qualifying for the SEC Tournament.

And the regional, as it turned out.

In fact, it was the second-to-last game of the season which ultimately made the difference for LSU. The Tigers blew a sizable 5-0 lead at Mississippi State with the season on the line, getting four baserunners thrown out in scoring position (two at the plate in one inning) as Sanchez returned to coach third and then giving up two runs in the ninth inning to lose the game with Ott on the hill. While LSU rallied to win what turned out to be the final game of the season, it was too late. The NCAA passed its judgement, and the Tigers were found wanting.

The word has it that Sanchez will likely be the next head to roll. But the two assistants won’t be the only departures. LSU currently sits with 20 signees for 2012 (with recruiting continuing), and of that number only about a half-dozen (if that many) are being considered as serious possibilities to take major-league draft money and bypass a stint in Tiger Town. It’s likely at least 15 of the signees will join a roster which actually was three over the NCAA maximum of 35 players this year. Pitchers Jordan Rittiner and Joey Bourgeois sat out the season as non-roster medical redshirts, while first baseman Jamie Bruno sat out as a transfer from Tulane. Of the 35 actives, only Bradshaw and Alsup were seniors. Mahtook, a projected first-round pick in next week’s draft, is surely gone. And Ott, who hasn’t made plans to play summer-league baseball, is expected to turn pro as well. Shortstop Austin Nola, disappointing pitcher Tyler Jones, third baseman Tyler Hanover and pitcher Jimmy Dykstra are also draftable players with at least some chance of turning pro this summer.

That leaves some 42-46 – or maybe even more – players for 35 roster spots. A sizable roster purge is surely coming.

The grumbling about Mainieri among fans who regard missing a regional as a personal affront has flared up considerably this week. The coach knows he’s going to have to revamp the program completely in the offseason.

“I have immediately started the process to identify the best pitching coach in the country and bring him to LSU,” he said. “We will have a coach who can best develop the outstanding pitchers that are returning to the team along with a very talented of group of recruits that will join the program in August.”

The three freshmen pitchers Mainieri is talking about are Kurt McCune (7-3, 3.31 ERA this year), Kevin Gausman (5-6, 3.51 ERA) and Ryan Eades (4-1, 4.81 ERA), who by the end of the season constituted the team’s weekend rotation. All have outstanding ability, and if Mainieri is able to make good on his promise to deliver an elite pitching coach they could anchor a fearsome pitching staff. Fellow freshman Nick Rumbelow (2-0, 4.85 ERA) also showed major potential, along with major inconsistency; he offers potential as a bullpen ace. And with high school recruits Cody Glenn (6-4 left-hander from Westbury Christian in Houston), Aaron Nola (6-2 right-hander from Catholic High in Baton Rouge), Carson Baranik (6-3 right-hander from Airline High in Bossier City) and Aaron Johnson (6-0 left-hander from Dunham High in Baton Rouge) at least somewhat likely to make it to campus next year, along with impressive JC transfers Nick Goody (6-1 right-hander from State College of Florida), Brent Bonvillain (6-4 left-hander from Delgado JC) and Rob Tasin (6-1 right-hander from Texarkana JC), it’s not just blind optimism to suggest LSU’s staff is an attractive one for a pitching coach to take over.

Grewe’s statement as he left took credit for setting the table.

“This talent will enable Coach Mainieri to win future championships for all the LSU faithful to be very proud,” he said. “As I have communicated to Coach Mainieri, in my heart I would love to be able to play out this summer because I believe in this program, the players, and their future, but again, I feel very strong in my desire to expand my role and build my future.  For LSU the timing is now and the hardest part of seeking new opportunities is the fact that I will be leaving what I believe to be the best pitching staff in the country in 2012, great players that I have recruited, and the greatest fans a team can have. I truly appreciate all the support of the LSU faithful and wish LSU Baseball all the best in the future.”

But in the field and at the plate LSU needs sizable improvement as well. The Tigers posted a so-so .303 team batting average and an even more so-so 34 home runs in 56 games in 2011; considering that Mahtook hit .383 with an SEC-leading 14 on his way out the door, those numbers look even less impressive. Designated hitter Raph Rhymes might have an opportunity to turn pro as a middle-round draft pick after hitting an impressive .360 with 18 doubles and 42 RBI’s this year, but Rhymes, right fielder Mason Katz (.337, 21 doubles, 4 home runs and 53 RBI’s) and second baseman JaCoby Jones (.338, 11 doubles, 4 HR’s, 32 RBI) are being counted on to key an offensive resurgence. Hanover (.311), Nola (.296), outfielders Alex Edward (.279) and Trey Watkins (.226) and catcher Ty Ross (.223) all had disappointing seasons in 2011 amid spates of what looked like trips to the plate with zero plan or confidence.

That can’t continue, and speculation abounds that either a change in hitting coaches or personnel must be employed to resolve the issue. There are several high-profile recruits scheduled to come aboard, including outfielders Terrance Magee (Franklinton; also a football recruit at tailback), Jake Cave (Hampton, VA), Arby Fields (Cypress, CA College, and a former running back at Northwestern University) and Johnny Eierman (Warsaw, MO), first baseman Bruno, who struggled at Tulane but hit an impressive .285 with nine homers in 138 at-bats for the Wisconsin Woodchucks in the wood-bat Northwoods League last year, catchers Tyler Moore (Dunham High in Baton Rouge, who hit .589 with 16 homers this past season) and Evan Powell (Lafayette) and infielders Jake Barrios (Seward County, KS JC), Andrew Ray (Northeast Texas JC) and Casey Yocom (Feather River, CA JC).

Infielder Trevor Story (Irving, TX), who would represent a major infusion of hitting talent to LSU’s team, was recently rated as the #39 prospect in the entire draft by Baseball America last week; he’s unlikely to make it to campus. Cave and Eierman are also dicey propositions; LSU will need one of them to make it to campus. Barrios, whose team is currently competing at the JC World Series, is regarded as a big-ticket recruit as well.

There is talent pumping through the program, regardless of the reputation as a shaky talent evaluator Grewe earned in his first two years as LSU’s recruiting coordinator. But putting that talent into practice and returning the Tigers to national prominence is something Mainieri has little time to make happen.

Because in two short years between a national championship and a long summer with no postseason baseball in Baton Rouge, the current mood around the program isn’t a good one. And with the nation’s finest college baseball facility set to add four new luxury suites, losing isn’t part of the plan.



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