Chip Hale has a wealth of coaching experience, ranging from college-age prospects to Major League stars. But never before has he been tasked with actually choosing the players he’s going to coach, not to mention convincing them he’s the guy they should be coached by.
Which made getting to Wednesday, the first day of college baseball’s early signing period, a significant milestone for Hale. Hired in July to coach his alma mater, despite never working at the collegiate level, at least a part of every day since then has been dedicated to an aspect of the game he had to learn on the fly.
“Recruiting is the lifeblood of our program,” Hale said at a press conference to formally announced Arizona’s 19-member 2022 class. “And so for us to be successful here and maintain what’s been done here before, and the trips to Omaha, we have to be good in that arena. Obviously, I came in in July, so the timeline was shorter than most years we’re going to have.”
Hale, who played at Arizona from 1984-87, said assistants Trip Couch and Dave Lawn “educated me real fast” on the ins and outs of college recruiting, which he said included not just putting together the 2022 class but also making sure the 2021 class (which signed last November) was still on board in the wake of Jay Johnson’s sudden departure to LSU immediately after the College World Series.
“We were really scrambling to just get the current roster right, and figure out who was going to stay, who was going to go, (and) who was going to show up from the high school ranks,” he said. “So that was our first order of business and then it was this class. So some of these kids that were committed to the school before I got here decommitted, some came back to us and some didn’t and we had to go out and work very hard. Trip Couch and Dave Lawn and myself feel like we put together a really good class. Pitching, hitting, defense, catching. High school, junior college, we feel really good about the guys we got.”
Hale said he fielded all sorts of questions from parents, many of which were related to how long he planned to coach at Arizona. That was especially the case from the families of recruits who had committed to the UA prior to Johnson leaving.
“We had a lot of kids that were very skeptical,” he said. “They didn’t know me yet. Obviously they knew what I’ve done in the game. They knew a little bit of my history here at the university. And it was interesting, because a lot of the kids that we talked to, and the parents especially, were like, ‘well, how long are you going to be there?’ That was really a big question. And it was legitimate, at that time because you got a coach who just left. So once we got that clear that, hey, I am here for the long haul, this is my destination job, this is my dream, we were able to get a lot of those kids back.”
Arizona’s class features 14 prep signees and five from the junior college ranks. There are eight pitchers and 11 position players, including three catchers. Catcher was a priority, Hale said, considering reigning Pac-12 Freshman of the Year Daniel Susac is eligible for the 2022 MLB Draft and is likely to go in the first round.
“We started targeting that position,” Hale said. “There’s a good chance (Susac) is gonna probably sign. So now all of a sudden we’re looking at we need a legitimate guy that can come in here and get behind the plate and catch. We have a few guys that are in school now that we feel can develop into that, but let’s get two or three more. So we ended up getting, I think really, four guys that have caught. One that is a legitimate, just catcher, the other guys probably could play other positions.”
Fourteen of the 19 signees are either from Arizona or currently play their high school or JUCO ball in the state, including two from Tucson high schools and two from nearby Pima College.
“I wanted I wanted to get the best of this state, especially Southern Arizona, and we felt like we got some good ones,” Hale said.
Hale said some of his 2022 signees had been previously committed to other schools but had backed off those pledges prior to Arizona reaching out. He said there’s a “gentleman’s agreement” in college baseball not to talk to kids who are committed elsewhere until they decommit.
“We don’t back channel, and that’s kind of an honor code,” Hale said. “And is it happening everywhere? I don’t know. We’ll find out.”
If you think that might have been a shot at Johnson, consider that his first class at LSU includes at least two players who had been committed to Arizona.
The players the UA signed Wednesday won’t actually suit up in a regular-season game until February 2023, but now that they’re locked in Hale and his staff can have regular contact with them. They can also influence their pre-Arizona baseball activities.
“When I played, you were a senior in high school, you played on your summer ball team, you showed up in Arizona in August for school and you started practicing,” he said. “Now we just had a couple kids that we were placing on a team in Salt Lake City for (next) summer. It’s a college-level summer league that they’ll get to go play. They play against better competition.”
As for the 2022 squad, the UA is wrapping up the team portion of fall practice this week by having its “Wild vs. Cats” World Series, a 3-game set Thursday, Friday and Sunday at Hi Corbett Field. The 38-man roster was split up Tuesday via a draft, with Tyler Casagrande (Team Wild) and Blake Paugh (Team Cats) serving as captains.
The 2022 schedule is set to be released in the next week or so, with Arizona opening play Feb. 18-20 at the State Farm Collegiate Baseball Showdown at Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas. Ironically, that’s the stadium Hale was coaching in (as bench coach for the Detroit Tigers) when Arizona hired him.