Two weeks ago, Arizona was still numb from a disappointing 0-2 performance at the College World Series, but all signs pointed to a very bright future.
Then Jay Johnson surprisingly left for LSU, creating a domino effect that saw a total of 20 players enter the NCAA transfer portal. Suddenly a program with so much problem was at an unexpected crossroads.
Monday’s hiring of UA legend Chip Hale helps get things back on course, but the 56-year-old first-time college coach has a lot of work ahead of him. Getting a head coach was only one part of the process, here’s what’s next for Hale and Arizona:
Meeting the team
As soon as Arizona returned from Omaha after the CWS, its players dispatched to all corners of the country to play in various summer leagues. The UA currently has members of its 2021 squad playing in Alaska, California, Massachusetts, Michigan, Washington and Wisconsin, just to name a few places.
It won’t be until August that the entire roster is able to get together with Hale. Before then, though, he must reach out to each one and sell them on his vision for the program, in effect re-recruiting them.
Many players head to summer ball with a hitting or pitching plan, one that’s put together by their college coaches to better prepare them for the next season. Hale doesn’t have that luxury, since those leagues have been going for a few weeks now and it won’t make sense to adjust approaches in the middle, which will make the fall practice season even more important.
Building a strong coaching staff
Hale has an endless supply of pro baseball connections, but whether that translates into finding the right guys to help him coach in college remains to be seen. He needs assistants that not only can handle things during games but just as importantly, if not more so, help him with the recruiting aspect.
A good place to start was retaining veteran assistant Dave Lawn, who was the “defensive coordinator” and third base coach under Johnson but now will be the Wildcats’ pitching coach. Lawn has been coaching in college since the 1990s and keeping him on will provide Arizona’s players with some much-needed familiarity.
If Hale wants to try and replicate Arizona’s hitting prowess of the last few years, elevating volunteer assistant Marc ‘Chief’ Wanaka to a full-time role would be wise. Though Johnson was technically in charge of Arizona’s offense, Wanaka is widely regarded as one of the best hitting coaches in college and it’s time he started getting a paycheck for all he’s done.
Hale will also need to bring in a recruiting coordinator with strong ties to the West Coast, where Arizona has always gotten the bulk of its players. There’s no area where his extensive coaching resume is lacking than in the recruiting department.
Pulling back from the portal
At least one of the many Wildcats who entered the portal, and arguably the best of the lot, won’t be changing their mind. Freshman All-American Jacob Berry has already signed to play at LSU for 2022, reuniting with Johnson in Baton Rouge.
Losing Berry, who set UA freshman records for hits, extra-base hits, RBI and total bases, is no doubt a huge loss, but that seemed like a lock the moment Johnson’s hiring was announced. It could have been much worse, but high-ceiling freshmen like catcher Daniel Susac and right-handed pitcher TJ Nichols quickly reaffirmed their commitment to the Wildcats, and a good number of the top contributors from 2021 are set to come back.
Still, there are guys in the portal that Hale would be wise to try and coax back, most notably freshman lefty reliever Riley Cooper and veteran outfielder Tyler Casagrande.
Beyond the Arizona guys, more than 2,000 Division I players entered the transfer portal and quite a few would look good in pinstripes.
Locking in the 2022 recruiting class
At least two players who had been committed to Arizona in the 2022 class have decommitted, with infielder Mikey Romero pledging to LSU. It could be more but they haven’t publicly backed off those commitments.
Hale and his staff will need to reach out to these recruits, who can sign in 2022, and convince them that Arizona is still the place to be. According to Perfect Game, the Wildcats still have 12 commitments for 2022 including Las Vegas OF/LHP Mason Neville, who is ranked by Prep Baseball Report as the No. 30 player in the country for that class.
No sport has players commit earlier than baseball, as Arizona also has four pledges in the 2023 class and six in the 2024 class, per Perfect Game. There’s no doubt Johnson will try to lure some of them to LSU, so plenty of phone calls are going to need to be made.