The offseason is here, with all of Arizona’s sports done for 2021-22 and the 2022-23 campaigns still a little ways away.
Which makes this a great time to step back and see how all of the Wildcats’ programs are doing.
Over the next few weeks we’ll take a look at each of the UA’s 19 men’s and women’s programs to see what shape they’re in and what prospects they have for the near future. We’ll break down each team and evaluate how it is performing under its current coaching staff, looking at the state of the program before he/she arrived and comparing it to now while also looking at this season and beyond.
Next up: Chip Hale’s baseball team.
How it looked before
Jay Johnson took Arizona to the College World Series in his first year on the job, in 2016, reaching the championship series. Five years later, he got the Wildcats back to Omaha, this time with his own players and an incredibly potent offense full of future MLB draft picks.
And then in the blink of an eye, he was gone.
Within days of Arizona’s season ending, Johnson had left to take the LSU job and ended up bringing a few of the Wildcats’ best players (and a key assistant) with him to Baton Rouge. The move was a huge shock, considering Johnson was a West Coast guy and had just gotten the UA program to a level he’d promised, but the school had no chance competing with the offer—both in terms of compensation and resources—made by LSU.
Not long after Johnson left, former UA player Chip Hale texted athletic director Dave Heeke to express his interest in coaching his alma mater. Heeke jumped at the chance to bring in someone with Hale’s experience, albeit all at the professional level as a coach or manager in the minor leagues and various MLB teams.
Hale signed a 5-year contract in July that would pay him $2.55 million over the length of the deal.
Where things stand now
Hale inherited a team that featured a good amount of talent but also some noticeable holes, and his hiring in early July limited his ability to add to the roster. That resulted in Arizona having a regular lineup with only one left-handed hitter and a pitching staff that had to rely on a lot of untested arms.
The Wildcats finished fifth in the Pac-12 in the regular season, a year after winning the outright title, and reached the semifinals of the inaugural Pac-12 Tournament. They earned an at-large bid to the NCAA tourney and reached the finals of the Coral Gables Regional, getting blown out by eventual CWS champ Ole Miss to finish with a 39-25 record.
Since then the UA has seen a handful of players enter the transfer portal, most notably third baseman Tony Bullard and lefty reliever Javyn Pimental, and in addition to those who have graduated they’re also going to lose the likes of catcher Daniel Susac and a few others to the pros.
Hale and his staff signed a large recruiting class in November, and almost all of them should end up getting to campus in August. The plan is to add talent from the portal as well, particularly pitchers, and when the team opens the 2023 season in February in a tournament in Phoenix more than half the roster figures to be made up of Hale’s players.
One big question
Does Hale have an eye for talent, and can he develop it? With a few exceptions, Hale’s managing of the team in his first season was solid. He admitted a few times he left in a pitcher one batter too long, but other than that there wasn’t much he could do in terms of in-game adjustments with the lack of depth he had.
Recruiting is by far the most unique thing about college baseball that Hale had never had to do as a professional coach, so how his first recruiting class performs on the field will speak volumes. That may not completely come to fruition in 2023, though.
It’s not just about finding good players to come to Arizona, they have to get better when they’re here. That’s where Hale may be able to tap into his pro experience, since some of his gigs were with instructional league teams where the players were younger than those he’s now in charge of.