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Taking Stock: How Arizona baseball is looking under coach Jay Johnson

arizona-wildcats-baseball-jay-johnson-stock-analysis-program-2019 Courtesy Arizona Athletics

It may seem like college sports are always going on, but July is the one month of the year when no Arizona Wildcats teams are in action. Yep, we’re as sad about that as you are.

Before you know it, the 2019-20 seasons will be under way for Arizona’s 19 men’s and women’s sports. But in the meantime, now is the perfect opportunity to assess how each of these programs are doing.

Over the next few weeks we’ll break down each team and evaluate how it is performing under its current coaching staff, looking at the state of the program before he/she arrived and comparing it to now (as well as looking into the near future).

Next up: Jay Johnson’s baseball team.

How it looked before

Andy Lopez piloted Arizona to its fourth NCAA title in 2012, an dominant postseason run in which the Wildcats won all 10 games and allowed just eight runs in five College World Series contests. But the next three seasons saw Arizona regress considerably, leading to Lopez’s retirement after the 2015 season.

It took only two weeks for Arizona to find his successor in Johnson, who was coming off a 41-win season at Nevada but whose reputation was first established as an assistant at San Diego where he coached and help recruit future MLB star Kris Bryant.

Where things stand now

Johnson’s first season with the Wildcats was about as good as it could be, with Arizona reaching the CWS championship series in 2016. But that squad was made up almost entirely of players Lopez brought to Tucson, and since then the results have been on a noticeable decline as Johnson’s own recruits have taken center stage.

The 2017 squad made the postseason but went 1-2, and then the past two seasons have ended without an NCAA tourney bid (despite winning 10 straight to end the 2019 campaign).

Arizona has promoted itself as an #MLBTrainingGround, and the 2019 MLB Draft saw several of the players Johnson brought in getting selected, but so far that hasn’t translated into on-field results. The 2020 season could be a make or break one for Johnson, who is under contract through 2023 (thanks to extensions signed after the 2017 and 2018 campaigns) and is set to earn $510,000 next year.

There is reason to be optimistic about 2020 with the talent that’s returning, including Pac-12 Freshman of the Year Austin Wells and several other players who contributed heavily in their first year. However, anything short of a return to the NCAA tournament will be considered a massive disappointment.

One big question

Can Arizona develop quality pitchers? The Wildcats were near the bottom nationally in earned run average in 2019, which was a big reason they didn’t make the postseason despite one of the most potent offenses in Division I. The arms that Arizona has had on the roster of late haven’t been good to start with, and in most cases they haven’t gotten better during their time in Tucson.

It hasn’t helped that many of the best pitching prospects Johnson has signed have ended up turning pro out of high school, including first-round pick Matthew Liberatore in 2018 and Andrew Dalquist in the third round in June. That’s going to happen in college baseball, but the key is making the most out of the guys who do still come to college, and so far that hasn’t happened.