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What’s next for Arizona baseball after early College World Series exit

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NCAA Baseball: College World Series-Arizona v Stanford Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports

OMAHA—The last time the Arizona Wildcats made the College World Series and were not part of the final game played was 2004. That also makes being the first team eliminated in 2021 feel like a disappointment.

Almost.

“Thirty-six hours of disappointment here is not going to change the accomplishments of our team,” UA coach Jay Johnson said shortly after Arizona lost 14-5 to Stanford on Monday afternoon. “I’m very proud of them.”

Despite going 0-2 in Omaha for the first time since 1985, the 2021 season was an historic one for the Wildcats. They won their first outright conference title since 1992, got their first share of a Pac-12 title since 2012 and currently lead the nation in hits (737), runs (537), doubles (145) and triples (30).

But a good portion of that potent offense, as well as several key members of the better-than-its-numbers pitching staff, are unlikely to be back for 2022.

Almost certain to be gone are outfielders Donta’ Williams and Ryan Holgate, first baseman Branden Boissiere and second baseman Kobe Kato as well as right-handed starting pitcher Chase Silseth are all ranked by Baseball America among the top 500 prospects for the 2021 MLB Draft that runs July 11-13. Lefty Garrett Irvin, despite two rough postseason outings, is a fourth-year player who could either get drafted or sign a pro contract, while righty relievers Preston Price and Vince Vannelle are seniors who have exhausted their eligibility.

“This is a tough group to say goodbye to,” Johnson said.

Also draft eligible are infielders Jacob Blas, Tony Bullard and Nik McClaughry, outfielders Tyler Casagrande, Tanner O’Tremba and Blake Paugh, left-handed pitchers Randy Abshier, Ian Churchill and Gil Luna and right-handers George Arias Jr., Quinn Flanagan, Jonathan Guardado, Mason Millett and Austin Smith.

For those not wanting to do the math, that’s 22 draft-eligible players. With the draft only 20 rounds this year—up from five in 2020, but half the previous number before the COVID-19 pandemic—it’s unlikely any of those others will get picked but some might want to begin their pro careers.

The more likely scenario is Arizona will see some of those guys transfer, as could also be the case for some of its 23 players listed as freshmen. One has already left the program, as D1Baseball.com lists 1B/LHP TJ Curd in its Transfer Tracker.

It wouldn’t be a surprise to see Abshier and Luna move on after being suspended by the university ahead of the Super Regionals for an off-campus incident. The absence of those lefties drastically changed Arizona’s bullpen play for the College World Series, particularly in the opening game against Vanderbilt, and depending on the resolution of their case—which is being handled by the UA Dean of Students office—they may opt to turn pro or play elsewhere.

Despite all the potential losses, Arizona has a lot coming back. First and foremost, catcher Daniel Susac and Jacob Berry will be back for their second and final seasons—both will be draft-eligible sophomores, unfortunately—after stellar freshman campaigns.

Susac, the Pac-12 Freshman of the Year, set a UA freshman record with 24 doubles and hit .335 with 12 home runs and 65 RBI. Berry, a Collegiate Baseball 1st Team All-American as well as a Pac-12 All-Conference pick, hit .352 and established UA freshman marks for hits (87), extra-base hits (41), RBI (70) and total bases (167).

Berry, who was the DH nearly all season, will either become the everyday second or third baseman. At least starting outfield opening will go to Chase Davis, a highly regarded freshman who played in 27 games but was stuck behind too many veterans, while Mac Bingham will be back and figures to take over for Williams in center.

Righties Chandler Murphy and TJ Nichols could be Arizona’s top two starters, with projected to be high draft picks in 2022 and 2023, respectively. And two of the Wildcats’ most reliable relief arms late in the season, lefty Riley Cooper and righty Dawson Netz, figure to be even better with another offseason under their belts. Netz could get stretched out to be a starter, depending on team needs.

Arizona’s 2021 recruiting class, which signed back in November, is sure to include some immediate contributors. Among the group is righty Anthony ‘Tonko’ Susac, cousin of the UA catcher, righty Christopher Cortez and outfielder Tyler Whitaker, each of whom is on Baseball America’s Top 500 draft list.

Whitaker probably won’t make it to Arizona, as most draft boards have him going in the first two or three rounds, if not sooner. The Wildcats lost one recruit a year ago when infielder Nick Yorke was s surprise 1st-round pick of the Boston Red Sox, who signed him for $2.7 million, and for 2021 the top 66 picks are projected to land seven-figure signing bonuses.

Johnson also figures to be active on the transfer market, having picked up two key additions in that way for the 2021 team in O’Tremba and Smith.

There’s also the issue of Johnson himself. Though under contract through the 2023 season, he has been mentioned as a possible candidate for the LSU opening. Athletic director Dave Heeke said Saturday that it was a “compliment” to have Johnson, as well as other UA coaches, get mentioned for vacancies, and he seemed to intimate that a contract extension was possible.