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Taking Stock 2020: How Arizona baseball is looking under coach Jay Johnson

arizona-wildcats-baseball-jay-johnson-stock-analysis-program-2020 Courtesy Arizona Athletics

We haven’t had college sports for more than three months now due to the coronavirus pandemic, making this the longest offseason ever. Literally, not just figuratively.

But with student-athletes returning to campuses across the country, it looks like our long national nightmare might be over sometime soon.

So now is as good a time as ever to take a look at each of the Arizona Wildcats’ 19 different men’s and women’s programs to see what shape they’re in and what prospects they have for the near future.

To help prepare you for the 2020-21 seasons of Arizona’s 19 different men’s and women’s programs

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 at this season and beyond).

NOTE: The information in the ‘before’ section has been repurposed from last year’s series to provide continuity.

Next up: Jay Johnson’s baseball team

How it looked before

Andy Lopez piloted Arizona to its fourth NCAA title in 2012, a 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 tenure started off with a bang, as Arizona reached the CWS championship series in 2016 where it fell in three games to Coastal Carolina. Since then, however, the results have been on a steady decline including consecutive postseason-less efforts in 2018 and 2019.

The 2020 campaign had been targeted as when things would turn around, and the early returns indicated that was going to happen with the Wildcats starting 10-5 including a key road win at Texas. The addition of pitching coach Nate Yeskie from Oregon State was a huge one, with Arizona’s arms looking much improved early on.

Then the pandemic happened, shutting the season down just before the start of Pac-12 play, and any hope of getting back to the playoffs was put on hold until at least 2021.

That brought to an abrupt end the stellar career of career Austin Wells, the 2019 Pac-12 Freshman of the Year who ended up going in the first round of the 2020 MLB Draft to the New York Yankees. He and utilityman Matthew Dyer (4th round, New York Mets) were the only Wildcats taken in the coronavirus-shortened five-round draft, while only one member of Arizona’s strong recruiting class was expected to sign a pro contract after getting drafted.

In other words, Arizona should be loaded in 2021, maybe even moreso than it was this year. That means Johnson is under even more pressure to produce a winning team, particularly with a contract that only runs through 2023.

One big question

Will the oversized roster be a plus or a minus? The NCAA granted an extra year of eligibility to all spring sports student-athletes in the wake of the shutdown, which means Arizona’s baseball roster will be much bigger than usual. Two of its four seniors are set to return, while the majority of its draft-eligible upperclassmen are also returning. Throw in the 2020 recruiting class and that dugout is going to be packed.

Thankfully, legislation was passed earlier this month that lifted the cap on roster size (previously 35) for one season while also increasing the number of players that can receive scholarship money from 27 to 32. There’s only 11.7 scholarships to go around, though, so some players may be paying more out of pocket than a year ago to be in school.

There are still only nine positions in the field, nine spots in the batting order and 56 games in a regular season—though the Pac-12 has added a conference tournament for late May—so Johnson will have to figure out a way to get all of his talent into the game without upsetting anyone.