Cajuns’ Baseball in 2019 – The Offense – From the Bird’s Nest
There is no question if the Louisiana Ragin' Cajuns are to get back to NCAA Regional play in 2019, the offense has to be better.
Make that a lot better.
The Cajuns were 11th in the league in hitting, walks per game and on-base percentage, 10th in runs per game, slugging and home runs. Their .242 batting average was 54 points behind the league leader (Troy) and 23 points behind the league average. They were sixth in doubles, second in triples and second in stolen bases. They cut down on their strikeouts significantly in the second half of the season.
While all of the numbers were better in the second half and considerably better in the final 20 games, even the most optimistic Cajun fan will agree the offense must improve if the Cajuns are going to get back to what the coaching staff would consider to be acceptable numbers.
How does that happen? Well, obviously the returning players need to improve in their numbers from last year. It is a reasonable assumption to believe they will. But there will have to be contributions from newcomers as well. Here's a position by position breakdown.
CATCHER--God bless Kole McKinnon. The JUCO transfer was expected to be the backup to Handsome Monica and spell the veteran with spot starts. But when Monica went down with an injury on opening day, McKinnon was pressed into full time service. The Lincoln, NE native caught every pitch the rest of the season. Offensively, he showed some ability to hit with power, but only hit .188. Monica, on the other hand, was the most improved player last fall and spring according to head coach Tony Robichaux. His absence from the lineup was significant. Off season surgery makes Monica a bit of a question mark, but if he's back healthy and ready to continue what was shown before his injury, the Cajuns will be better offensively at this position. One thing the Cajuns will have is depth at the position with the return of McKinnon and the signing of Sebastian Toro from Seminole State. After hitting .273 as a freshman, Toro improved his batting average to .374 in 32 games this past season. He's known more for his defensive skills, however. The Cajuns will have options at this position. They are hoping Monica is the first option and hoping for a breakout year, but if McKinnon can improve as a hitter, no one will complain seeing him behind the plate.
FIRST BASE--Kennon Fontenot played out of position this past season out of necessity. The Cajuns simply could not get any offensive production from the position, forcing the move. This position is going to be crucial for the Cajuns next season. The addition of Mason Templet to the spring signing class could prove to be crucial for the Cajuns. Templet was the leading hitter for the NJCAA Divsion II national champion LSU-Eunice. He did it all, leading the team in hitting with a .388 batting average. He also had 27 doubles, seven homers and 70 RBI. He also walked 51 times and struck out just 28. The former St. Thomas More and LSU product slugged .663 and stole 22 bases. LSU-E hitters can be hit and miss at the D-1 level. It took Steven Sensley more than one season to adjust before blossoming in the second half of his second season with the Cajuns. Gavin Bourgeois, on the other hand, had much less of a learning curve. The Cajuns need Templet to hit the ground running next season. Another possibility is Todd Lott. The junior to be will be playing on the Cape this summer and is slated to get some work at first base. Lott wants to be more than just a DH and could get a chance at this position.
SECOND BASE--Hunter Kasuls had a solid season for the Cajuns in 2017. He didn't hit for a high average (.250) but had his most productive season with five homers and a team leading 50 RBI, the most for a Cajuns since another second baseman, Stefan Trosclair, had 53 in 2015. Kasuls also made only one error defensively all season. In a perfect world, Kasuls would hit for a little higher average and would walk more (only 15 in 2018), but there's no question who the Cajuns' second baseman will be next season.
SHORTSTOP--The blossoming of Hayden Cantrelle was a joy to watch this past season. Cantrelle hit only .157 over his first 16 games, but then went on a 13-game hitting streak when conference play began. He wound up at .287 and led the team in walks and on base percentage. He was seventh in the league in batting in Sun Belt games, hitting at a .358 clip and showed he'll be able to hit with more power as his career unfolds. He fielded his position like a veteran from the first game of the season. He and Kasuls combined to steal 35 bases.
THIRD BASE--Freshman Jonathan Windham wore number 12 for the Cajuns and played third base a lot like the player who previously wore that number, Joe Robbins. Windham showed why the coaches loved this kid when they signed him as he made most of the routine plays and plenty of spectacular ones as well. But offensively, Windham has a lot of work ahead of him. He started just 1-22 on the season before a game winning RBI against LSU and hit only .192 after that, finishing with a .171 batting average. Because of that, the position will be open in the fall. The Cajuns will give O'Neal Lochridge another look this fall. Lochridge looked like a player who was out of baseball for a year and a half and was just 4-33 on the season. But the LSU transfer will get a lot of at bats this summer playing for Victoria in the Texas Collegiate League and could challenge for the third base spot if Windham doesn't show big improvement with the bat. Lochridge is a good defensive third baseman, though not as solid as Windham. But third base needs to be an offensive position and Louisiana needs one of these guys to step forward.
The Cajuns will welcome a pair of newcomers as middle infielders. Nathan Camp (Ringgold, GA) has played for a premier summer program and got interest from some high level programs before signing with the Cajuns. Camp has outstanding speed and can play either middle infield position. Koi Westbrook (LSUE) was named the Most Outstanding Player of the World Series won by the Bengals last week. Westbrook hit .285 with five homers and stole 45 bases this past season. If things falter at third base, one of these guys could get a look at that position in the fall.
THE OUTFIELD--Two of the starters, Gavin Bourgeois and Daniel Lahare, return. Lahare wasn't a starter on opening day after a poor fall and didn't get his first hits of the season until the Sunday game against Wright State, the day he hit the home run that wasn't. He was just 7-40 (.167) in pre-conference, but then caught fire. Lahare wound up leading the club in hitting (.321) and tied Bourgeois for the team lead in hits with 69. He batted .342 in league play and was voted second team all conference. There is no reason to believe he won't challenge for league honors again. The thing Lahare needs to get better at is the art of stealing bases. He has excellent speed but was only 6-9 in steal attempts. There's no reason why he can't be a 15-20 stolen base guy. Lahare showed some propensity for power and those numbers have a chance to improve as well. Bourgeois was steady from an offensive standpoint just about all season. He finished the season .314 and had three or more hits in a game five times during the year. He led the team in doubles and stole 22 bases. He, like so many Cajuns, needs to walk more often to help his on base percentage. Both of them are plus defenders.
That leaves one spot open. And, it will probably be a newcomer who fills the slot.
Brennan Breaux, a transfer from LSU, will certainly be a candidate. He's a plus defender with very good speed and a solid, accurate arm. He's a prototypical center fielder, which would allow Robichaux to move Lahare to RF. Breaux, however, has to show he can consistently hit D-1 pitching. He hit just .157 in 70 at bats in two years with LSU. Three freshmen could challenge for the third spot. Dexter Jordan (Hattiesburg, MS) has a lot of tools with great power potential and plus bat speed. But Jordan will have MLB options and may not make it to campus. Connor Joffrion (Parkview Baptist HS) was a multi sport star in HS and scored 21 touchdowns for Parkview as a RB. He's lightning fast and is a prototypical leadoff hitter with a tough as nails attitude. Colton Frank (LaGrange HS-Lake Charles) is another multi sport guy who had football interest from LSU and Texas A&M. Another player with great speed but adds strength as well.
DESIGNATED HITTER--Lott returns after finally breaking through at the end of the season. The summer at the Cape should make him even better. Monica is an option here if there are issues coming back from surgery in the off season. Jordan is definitely a candidate if he doesn't sign a professional contract.
It will be difficult for the Cajuns to realize their goal of post season play if they aren't considerably better on offense. They need to do a better job at gap hitting and hitting with power. But with a solid nucleus to work with, a hope for improvement from a couple of players and contributions from a couple of newcomers, they could, in fact, be a lot better in 2019.
(Tomorrow: The Pitching Staff)