When Chip Hale took over his alma mater in July 2021 he had to scramble just to keep his current roster together and wasn’t able to make many additions. As a result, Arizona lacked depth at key positions and it caught up to them along the way.
Determined not to let that happen again, Hale’s first recruiting class last fall was a big one, with 19 players signing in November and several more getting added during the spring and summer.
The class Arizona officially signed Wednesday is smaller, with 14 players coming on board for the 2024 season. But unlike the previous class, this one has Hale and his staff’s fingerprints all over it.
“Every kid in this class, we had eyes on,” Hale said. “Usually more than one coach had eyes on (them), which is a nice thing. I mean, I sat in on a bunch of these kids for a while. So that gives you a lot more comfort in what you’re bringing in and what you’re expecting.”
Arizona signed nine pitchers and five position players, with 11 from the high school ranks and four from junior colleges. One-third of the pitchers and sixty percent of the hitters are left-handed, helping to further bulk up those areas of need.
“That’s one of the things we felt like we lacked last year,” said Hale, whose regular batting order this past season only featured one lefty bat while the bullpen had just three southpaws. “These guys are all really, really talented lefties.”
Eight signees are in-state prospects, including five from Southern Arizona. Hale said that was by design, but not just because they were close by.
“It’s just not that we’re recruiting the Tucson area, Southern Arizona, Phoenix, the whole state of Arizona, but we have really good baseball in Arizona,” he said. “Did we get all of them? No. And that just shows how good our state is producing baseball players.”
Three of the four JUCO signees are from Arizona colleges, including two from nearby Pima. The Wildcats also added three Pima players in the 2022 class in pitchers Aiden May and Braden Zastrow and outfielder Emilio Corona, all of whom are expected to be contributors in the spring.
“They do a great job over there, and not only at Pima but all the Arizona JCs,” said Hale, who noted that when he played at the UA in the 1980s it was California that had the best junior college players. “Arizona has become sort of the spot now. Maybe it’s because of COVID, (California) shut it down for two years over there and we kept playing. Ken Jacome has done a wonderful job at Pima. It’s a very strong junior college and heavily recruited by everybody across the country.”
The Pima-to-UA pipeline figures to only be stronger in the future with the addition of ex-Wildcat standout (and 2022 undergraduate assistant) Brian Anderson to the Aztecs’ staff.
College baseball recruiting has gotten to the point that many players commit as early as their freshman year of high school, if not sooner. A look at PerfectGame.org indicates the UA already has 12 commits for the 2024 class, made up of current high school juniors, as well as eight prep sophomores for 2025 and and one 2026 commit who is still almost four years away from college.
That puts a lot of pressure on Hale, pitching coach Dave Lawn and recruiting coordinator Trip Couch, the only members of Arizona’s staff that are allowed to recruit under current NCAA rules, to identify talent as early as possible and hope it pans out.
“We go back and forth on, do we commit (to) this kid that’s never even played a high school baseball game?,” Hale said. “Because really, is it fair to him, is it fair to us? But the problem is, if you don’t attack that and get in on the ground floor with those kids, they’re all committed to other schools in the conference and other schools back in the south. So you just have to identify—and Trip’s really good at it—the athleticism and some of it has to do with how mentally ahead of the game they are.”
For reference, former UA coach Jay Johnson already has nine 2025 commits, three for 2026 and two that are in eighth grade.
Hale said the NCAA is looking at increasing the number of paid assistants in baseball, which would then allow Arizona to have more eyes on more prospects. It would also make it less of a learning curve for new assistants who would come in without any recruiting experience.
“The problem we run into is, so let’s say one of my coaches leaves to be head coach, and I gotta hire a coach, and now these poor guys have never recruited, they’ve never been out there,” he said. “They don’t have any opportunity to do it.”
The exception is for when a coach that’s able to recruit is unable to hit the road for some reason, as would be the case with Lawn, who is set to have a hip replacement later this month.
“So for those three weeks we can replace him with one of our assistants that doesn’t get to recruit, but the problem is there’s no recruiting during December,” Hale said.
Arizona’s 2023 season begins Feb. 17 when it plays in the MLB4 Tournament in Scottsdale. The home opener at Hi Corbett Field is slated for Feb. 24 against West Virginia, with Pac-12 play set to begin March 10.
The UA’s full schedule is expected to be released this month.