FAYETTEVILLE, Ark.—Sitting at 14-13, following a 10th consecutive Pac-12 loss, the likelihood of Arizona making the NCAA Tournament seemed slim at best. The season was on the brink of being over only halfway through, but Chip Hale wasn’t ready to call it quits.
“I think that they’ve proven that over and over, that they’re not going to give up,” Hale said on April 6 after a 13-8 home loss to Washington, a game that saw the Wildcats rally from down 5-0, taking a 1-run lead in the bottom of the eighth, only to give it back in the ninth. “They keep fighting and they will keep fighting. There’ll be no give up, not as long as I’m here.”
The UA won nine of its next 11 games after that. Then, after a dip of seven losses in 10 games, Arizona turned it on late and won seven of eight to reach the Pac-12 title game and sneak into the NCAA Tournament.
That NCAA stay was a short one for the Wildcats, who were eliminated Saturday night by Santa Clara in the Fayetteville Regional. The UA (33-26) lost both games, ending the year on a 3-game skid, and finished with its most losses since 2014.
“I just basically want to say that I’m real proud of these guys,” Hale said afterward. “They worked their tails off all year to get to this point, to play in this tournament, and it wasn’t easy. We just didn’t play like we did like down the stretch. Disappointed with that, but it doesn’t diminish what this group has done.”
While finishing in eighth place in the Pac-12 and posting a 12-18 record, its worst in conference play since 2015, are both disappointing, as was the 0-2 NCAA performance, Arizona did manage to reach the postseason for the third straight season. That last happened from 2010-12, and is tied for the longest run of NCAA bids accomplished by Andy Lopez (2003-05, 2010-12) and Jerry Kindall (1974-76, 1978-80 and 1985-87) and longest for the program since Frank Sancet made 14 consecutive postseason trips from 1950-63.
Hale joins Jay Johnson as the only UA coaches to make the postseason in both of his first two seasons, and like Johnson he inherited most of his players at the start of that run from the previous coach. Nearly all of those holdovers from the Johnson era are moving on, either because they’re out of eligibility or will get drafted next month, thus making this offseason a major crossroads for the program in general and Hale in particular.
And he knows it.
“Obviously, when you don’t get to where you want to get, which is Omaha, and winning national championships, you’re always searching for what you need,” he said. “We’ll re-evaluate our coaching. That’s my job. I’m the leader of the staff and I have to decide and make tough decisions, but we have to get better in all areas.”
For those who have closely followed Arizona this season—or just parachute in when it’s convenient—Hale’s statement most likely means one thing for certain: a change is needed at pitching coach.
That change became official Monday when Dave Lawn announced he was leaving the program.
8 great years! 5 regionals, 2 Supers, 2 CWS, 1 P12 Championship…thanks to Greg Byrne/Jay Johnson for bringing me here and Dave Heeke/Chip Hale for keeping me here…thanks to all the staff/players for their support and effort. #BearDown CL— Dave Lawn (@UADaveLawn) June 5, 2023
Lawn was Johnson’s pitching coach from 2016-19, then moved to a “defensive coordinator” position in 2020 with the hiring of Nate Yeskie from Oregon State to coach the pitching staff. When Johnson left for LSU, almost immediately after Arizona was eliminated from the College World Series, Yeskie departed for the Texas A&M pitching coach job, leaving Lawn as the only one to hold down the fort before Hale was hired.
Keeping Lawn on staff made sense, from a program stability standpoint, and with Hale bringing on Trip Couch as recruiting coordinator and Toby DeMello as the hitting coach the pitchers needed someone to guide them. Lawn had familiarity with most of the staff, and likely was the reason Garrett Irvin, Quinn Flanagan and others opted to return in 2022 after going into the portal following Johnson’s exit.
But the results have not been there under Lawn’s tutelage. Arizona’s ERA this season was 5.94, its lowest since 2019 when the Wildcats had a 6.21 ERA (as well a ridiculous number of wild pitches and hit batters). This year’s staff allowed the most hits since 1996 and the most earned runs since 2000, but on the flip side its 203 walks allowed were the fewest since 2018.
Those numbers make total sense when you look back at all the 2-strike hits Arizona allowed in the NCAA and Pac-12 tourneys.
“I have to make decisions and I have to evaluate,” Hale said. “We’re in the midst of that. I’ve been doing that for the last month. We’ll see where that goes. I really can’t really comment on how we’re gonna fix it or how we’re gonna do so until I kind of get my thoughts together and put it on paper and decide what we’re gonna do it.”
While change of pitching leadership was the most pressing issue of the offseason, it’s not the only thing Arizona needs to address. It figures to lose at least five starters from the batting order, including likely first-round MLB pick Chase Davis, Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year Nik McClaughry and single-season school RBI leader Kiko Romero.
To say the 2024 team is going to look very different is an understatement.
Arizona had seven seniors on the roster, most notably McClaughry, third baseman Tony Bullard, outfielder Tyler Casagrande and right-hander relievers Chris Barraza and Derek Drees. They’re all out of eligibility.
Center fielder Mac Bingham and righty Dawson Netz went through Senior Day last month, though both have a year of eligibility left. Bingham figures to get drafted and would likely sign, as could Netz if he gets picked or is offered an undrafted free agent deal.
Davis will be Arizona’s first pick off the board, and could be the fourth first-rounder since 2015 and second in as many years after Daniel Susac went 19th overall to the Oakland Athletics in 2022. Romero, though not high on draft boards, almost certainly will get taken and probably will sign since coming back for his final season of eligibility would eliminate all leverage he has.
Starting pitchers TJ Nichols and Bradon Zastrow also could get drafted, though Nichols’ stock has cratered since the start of the year.
Potential portal departures
Last year the Wildcats lost 1B/DH Noah Turley (Oklahoma State) and pitchers Chandler Murphy and Javyn Pimental (both to Missouri) to the transfer portal, and the latter two are back in there after Missouri made a coaching change.
Arizona already has six players in the portal, three of whom entered after fall practice and three freshmen who jumped in when it re-opened this past week: righty Hayden Lewis, C/RHP Luke Moeller and 1B/OF Trevor Schmidt. Lewis and Moeller each made one relief appearance in February.
Others are sure to follow.
The most likely departures including sophomore infielder Jack Grant, who only got nine at-bats this season after starting 18 games in 2022, and sophomore righty Anthony ‘Tonko’ Susac. Susac went 1-2 with a 6.08 ERA in 13 games, including seven starts, but he was the only regular arm not to be used in either the Pac-12 or NCAA tourneys. Combine that with Lawn’s likely departure and at least one pitcher still around from the previous regime may want to move on with no remaining connections to the staff that recruited them.
That same sentiment could apply to Nichols and even Trevor Long, who was supplanted as the closer midway through the year and finished with a 6.05 ERA after being at 3.68 in 2022.
Another to consider is Garen Caulfield, who was the starting second baseman to begin 2023 but lost his spot to freshman Mason White and was limited to being part of a DH platoon. He started four of the six tourney games, though, and may still figure into the 2024 plans.
White hit home runs in both NCAA games, giving him 10 for the season, and he finished with a .313 average and 35 extra-base hits in 208 at-bats. He struck out 56 times, tied for the team high, and committed nine errors, but with an expected move to his natural position (shortstop) the fielding should improve and the batting will only get better.
“Mason, obviously, has been fantastic,” Hale said of White, a third-generation Wildcat whose father played for Kindall and Jerry Stitt and grandfather for Sancet.
At the heart of the order next year should be outfielder Emilio Corona, who ended up hitting 11 homers despite only starting 38 games. He is draft-eligible but a high strikeout rate (46 in 168 plate appearances) almost assures his return.
Catchers Cameron LaLiberte and Tommy Splaine should both be back, as will outfielder Brendan Summerhill and third baseman Maddox Mihalakis. There are also a trio of redshirted position players who could make an impact in 2024, most notably infielder Xavier Esquer, the son of Stanford coach David Esquer.
“Eqsuer is gonna be one of the better leaders in the Pac-12, just like his father was when he played at Stanford, he’s phenomenal already as a freshman,” Hale said.
All three weekend starting pitchers (Zastrow, Aiden May and Cam Walty) should return, as will swingman Jackson Kent and relievers Casey Hintz and Eric Orloff. Hintz, who became one of the more reliable arms down the stretch, is also an outfielder who could be used in both roles next year.
Arizona’s 2023 recruiting class, signed in November, is heavy on pitching. At the top of the list is righty Blake Wolters, whose draft stock has risen so much during his senior year of high school he may end up never getting to campus.
MLB Pipeline recently ranked the 6-foot-4 Wolters as the No. 35 draft prospect, which would slot him for a seven-figure signing bonus, but his agent is Scott Boras and Wolters’ asking price may scare off teams and he ends up making it to Arizona. If that happens, the Chicago-area prospect could be in the weekend rotation.
One or two more recruits could get drafted and sign, such as Minnesota outfieler Easton Breyfogle.
As for the transfer portal, Arizona should be very active in there after only adding two pitchers (Drees and Walty) a year ago.
“We’ll search the (NCAA transfer) portal high and low,” Hale said. “The portal’s open and we’ve already been very active in it, so we’ll see how that goes. We’re still going to put more people on his team next year and we’re going to be better.”
Besides pitching, the positions of need include first base, outfield and catcher. LaLiberte hit over .300 and Splaine was at that level for much of the season, the two combined for only one homer and 33 RBI and both had notable defensive flaws.
Splaine was 0 for 40 throwing out attempted base stealers, and while LaLiberte’s 10 caught stealing (on 34 attempts) were the most by a UA catcher since Cesar Salazar in 2018 he also had six passed balls and the majority of the wild pitches thrown were with him behind the plate.
“That’ll be something we’re gonna have to get better at,” Hale said.