A coaching change always brings plenty of uncertainty, particularly when it’s as unexpected as when Jay Johnson shockingly left Arizona for LSU shortly after a College World Series run.
His successor, Chip Hale, wasn’t able to match that success, but the Wildcats still put together a solid debut season, one that ended Monday night with an NCAA Tournament loss to Ole Miss in the regional finals.
The UA went 39-25, going 2-2 in Coral Gables, Fla., after a 2-2 showing at the inaugural Pac-12 tourney in Scottsdale. It finished fifth in the Pac-12 regular-season standings a year after winning the outright title for the first time since 1992.
There was a fair amount of common contributors between Johnson’s final season and Hale’s first, but the 2023 squad figures to look much different due to expected losses to pro ball, graduation and the NCAA transfer portal.
What will that team look like? Here’s what we know so far:
Gone for good
Arizona’s 2022 roster only featured three seniors: left-handed pitchers Holden Christian and Garrett Irvin and outfielder Blake Paugh. That trio is out of eligibility and won’t return.
Also certain to be moving on is catcher Daniel Susac, whom ESPN, MLB.com and The Athletic all project to be taken by the New York Mets in the first round of next month’s draft.
A draft-eligible sophomore who turned 21 in May, Susac’s stay in Tucson was always expected to be for only two years, and he passed on the chance to go elsewhere for this past season following Johnson’s departure.
'The second-best decision I ever made was coming to Arizona, but the best one was staying' - Daniel Susac— Brian Pedersen (@realBJP) June 7, 2022
Workhorse righty Quinn Flanagan has another year of eligibility, but he’s been at Arizona for five years and participated in Senior Night festivities last month along with Christian, Irvin and Paugh as well as junior righties George Arias Jr. and Jonathan Guardado.
Hale brought up Flanagan in the post-Ole Miss press conference, pointing out him pitching in three games in 24 hours (earning two saves in the process) wasn’t ideal, particularly for “a senior (that) we’re hoping he gets a chance to play the next level.” That’s a good indication Flanagan, who was 5-1 with a 1.63 ERA and appeared in 34 games, is done with college baseball.
Could get drafted
Besides those listed above, Arizona has several other draft-eligible players. Of those, the most likely to get picked in the upcoming 20-round draft are outfielders Mac Bingham and Tanner O’Tremba and third baseman Tony Bullard.
Bullard could be the first current Wildcat taken after Susac because of his size (6-foot-4) and his power potential, though the shoulder injury that impacted him early in the season could scare off some teams. Bingham and O’Tremba also both figured to have their names called, and like Bullard could end up signing pro deals depending on the size of the bonus their draft slot warrants.
Shortstop Nik McClaughry probably won’t get drafted but if he’s ready to begin his pro career there’s probably a team willing to sign him on the cheap.
In the portal
Four UA players already put their names in the NCAA transfer portal in May: outfielder Matty Clark, infielder Luis Tuero, utility man Jacob Shaver and righty Mason Millett. Tuero is the only one who played this season, appearing in two games with one at-bat, while Shaver saw a little time last season and Millet hasn’t pitched in two seasons since transferring from Pima College.
Other Wildcats will undoubtedly join them, including ones that may have made notable contributions in 2022. It’s the nature of college sports nowadays, and for guys who were recruited to Arizona by a different coaching staff and decided to give the new regime a try may think they’d be a better fit somewhere else.
Not making any specific predictions, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see a couple pitchers transfer. Hale said adding pitching depth is key for Arizona this offseason, and some of that addition could be via subtraction.
Top players expected to return
Outfielder Chase Davis and righty TJ Nichols are Arizona’s top 2023 draft prospects, making next season huge for them as well as the Wildcats. Davis had a breakout sophomore year, hitting 18 homers after getting only 30 at-bats as a freshman, while Nichols was the UA’s No. 1 starter for most of the spring and has tremendous stuff but control issues led to team highs in walks (38), hit batters (13) and wild pitches (13).
Garen Caulfield fell into Arizona’s lap and ended up becoming a very reliable hitter as the year went on. He could take over for McClaughry if he left but otherwise has second locked down as long as his bat stays strong.
Tommy Splaine and Noah Turley both showed flashes with the bat and at first base, with Splaine a good option to fill the open catcher spot. Cameron LaLiberte impressed with his defensive play behind the plate and Jack Grant is a solid utility infielder.
Injuries robbed righties Chandler Murphy and Dawson Netz of a lot of their value, but both have high upside as starters, as do lefty Eric Orloff and righty Anthony ‘Tonko’ Susac following up-and-down freshman campaigns.
In the bullpen, righty Trevor Long should only get better after a taking over the closer role midway through 2022, while righty Chris Barraza’s arrival from New Mexico State was huge and he’s got another year of eligibility. Lefty Javyn Pimental has three, and as long as he cuts down on the walks (16 in 30 innings) he’s a great piece to the relief puzzle.
The 2022 recruiting class
Arizona signed 19 players in November, some of whom committed to Johnson and others that Hale landed. The group features 11 position players and eight pitchers, with five coming from the junior college ranks.
That includes two members of the Central Arizona team that just won the NJCAA World Series in Colorado.
1B/OF Kiko Romero hit 25 home runs (six in the World Series, tying a record) and drove in 84 while lefty reliever Drew Sommers struck out 92 in 53 innings. Both could make instant impacts, assuming they don’t get drafted and sign.
Same goes for any of the UA’s incoming prep players. Baseball America and D1Baseball should be putting out their list of top draft-eligible college and high school players soon, and a couple of the Wildcat signees could be on there.
Convincing anyone who gets drafted—newcomers or existing players—is one of the few things Hale hasn’t done yet since coming back to Arizona. But he said he’s ready to be a UA salesman.
“We’re hoping we have a whole bunch (drafted), and we have to give a lot of pitches, whether it’s our current players, or our recruits,” he said. “We think we recruited at a high level and that’s going to be part of the challenge. Everybody has to do what what’s best for them, number one, and we want the best for them. So we’ll sit with them and we’ll explain why coming to the University of Arizona is probably a better thing when you’re a senior in high school and get a little bit of seasoning, like Daniel did, and like Chase is doing. They had an opportunity to sign out of high school, and I think it’s the best decision they ever made.
“We have our pitch. We have a nice … we have a real good pitch.”
Arizona could always sign more high school and JUCO players and already has done so. Outfielder Emilio Santos, who played in 20 games at Washington in 2021, spent this season at Pima where he hit .346 with 13 homers and 60 RBI; he committed to the UA in March, per AllSportsTucson.com.
Arizona added two players from the portal last summer in Christian and Barraza and it figures to be active in that area once again. D1Baseball’s Transfer Tracker already has more than 1,700 names in it—including the aforementioned UA entrants as well as Santos, plus a lot of ASU guys—and will only keep growing.
Some big names are already in there, such as NC State slugger Tommy White (who set the NCAA freshman homer record), Kansas shortstop Maui Ahuna and Air Force two-way star Paul Skenes, whom Arizona saw in 2021 at Hi Corbett Field.
Baseball players have to be in the portal by July 1 to be eligible for the 2023 season, and with fall practice starting in late September the next few months will be critical for roster management.