Posted on January 18, 2020
In this first installment of our Pac-12 preseason baseball previews, I examine the 2020 prospects of the two desert schools, Arizona and Arizona State.
2019 record: 32-24 (15-14 Conference)
The Wildcats ended the 2019 season on fire, winning 13 out of their last 14 games. They hope to bring some of that momentum with them to the 2020 season in a conference that is as wide open as it has been in years.
To be successful in 2020, Arizona will need to find a way to compensate for the loss of Cameron Cannon and Nick Quintana, both of whom were second-round picks in the 2019 MLB draft. Additionally, the Wildcats will need to improve on their abysmal 6.23 ERA, if they intend to be a contender.
While the Wildcats have two major holes to fill in Cannon and Quintana, a duo of talented catchers figure to make up some of that production.
Austin Wells is a nationally recognized talent, and for good reason: The sophomore started in every game for the Wildcats and hit .353, all while showing some signs of power, with five home runs.
Wells is complimented by Junior Matthew Dyer, who had a 20-game hitting streak in 2019, and ended the year batting .393. Do not be surprised if this is the last year we see Dyer in a Wildcat uniform.
In addition to the two catchers (each of which will assuredly be in the lineup somewhere else when not behind the plate), Arizona will get a boost from the return of Jacob Blas, who was able to play in only 17 games last season due to injury.
Finally, Branden Boissier, Dayton Dooney, and Ryan Holgate are all entering their sophomore seasons expecting to make an impact. Dooney showed some major power potential last year by hitting 10 home runs. Look for all three to increase productivity and be consistent pieces within the Wildcat lineup.
The strength of the Wildcat defense come through the leadership provided behind the plate by Wells and Dyer. Both spent ample time at catcher last year, and there is no reason to expect that to be any different this year.
Coach Jay Johnson is on record as saying that Blas will perform well at short stop as well as second base. Johnson will have to decide if he can fill the vacancy at short before moving Blas to second.
Another key piece will likely be third baseman Tony Bullard. Although Bullard came to Arizona to play first base or serve as a designated hitter, he is anxious to prove himself across the diamond.
The Wildcat pitching staff struggled in 2019. Arizona made an enormous move to rectify that situation by hiring former Oregon State pitching coach Nate Yeskie. Many in Corvallis had projected Yeskie as the next Beaver head coach, and with good reason. Yeskie has produced some of the most dominant college pitching staffs during his tenure at OSU.
Beyond the addition of Yeskie, the theme for the Arizona pitchers will be depth. Coach Johnson has 16 guys capable of registering 90+ MPH on the radar gun. The trick for Johnson and Yeskie will be developing three or four of those guys into clear starters. The battle figures to be wide open early on before the Wildcats nail down their weekend rotation.
Arizona fields some solid depth with plenty of potential. The addition of Yeskie gives the Wildcats a tremendous boost, and is no doubt making other Pac-12 teams nervous. Arizona won’t be the Conference favorite, but after the strong finish of 2019, don’t be surprised if the Wildcats make a push for the top of the Pac-12.
2019 Record: 38-19 (16-13 Conference)
The Sun Devils put together one of the most prolific power offenses in the country last season, hammering 94 home runs in 2019—good for third-best in the nation. ASU will seek to replicate those power numbers while also tightening up the pitching staff as a top-tier Pac-12 team in 2020.
D1 Baseball ranked the Devils the top Pac-12 team, coming in at No. 9 in their preseason Top 25 rankings. This is due, in no small part, to the return of star Spencer Torkelson, arguably the best player in college baseball. However, ASU must also overcome the loss of Hunter Bishop, taken 10th overall by the San Francisco Giants in the 2019 MLB draft.
ASU can make a strong case for having the best offensive team in the conference entering 2020. Last season, the Devils put together a lineup with a cumulative .310 batting average, and they return six starters from that daunting group.
The biggest question mark for ASU offensively will be how to replace Bishop, who posted an on-base plus slugging percentage (OPS) of 1.227, while blasting 22 home runs. Torkelson, projected by many as the first overall MLB draft choice for 2020, expects to build on his lights-out performance of 2019. That would be quite a feat, given his already off-the-charts production from last season.
Juniors Gage Workman and Trevor Hauver seek to improve on their sophomore campaigns as well. The pair combined for 21 home runs and 92 RBI’s in 2019, and are the most likely candidates to fill the gap left by Bishop.
Opposing teams better bring their bats if they hope to keep up with ASU’s offensive production.
While the Devil offense is their obvious strong suit, ASU’s defense figures to be one of the best in the conference as well. Again, while they will need to find a suitable replacement for Bishop, the remainder of the defense appears to be in excellent shape.
At the core of the Sun Devil defense is one of the Conference’s best middle infield duos in Juniors Drew Swift and Alika Williams. In fact, there may not be a better second base and shortstop pair in the country. Combine that with the veteran presence of Sam Ferri behind the plate and you have a defense that is sure to steal some outs.
The outfield returns Hauver and Myles Densen, who started 19 games in 2019. Another new face is likely to play in center ia Freshman Sean McLain.
While the offense was clicking on all cylinders for ASU last season, the Devils finished the Pac-12 season just three games above .500 for a reason: The pitching staff posted a pedestrian 4.93 ERA in 2019. ASU hopes to improve that number with a revamped rotation, and the addition of pitching coach Jason Kelly.
Much of ASU’s pitching success will depend on left-hander Justin Fall. Fall, a 6-foot-6, 245 pound junior college transfer, throws in the low 90’s and has the ability to touch 95-96 MPH when needed. Expect Fall to be the Friday night guy if all goes according to plan.
Joining Fall in the rotation should be freshman Cooper Benson and junior Boyd Vander Kooi. However, there is a strong possibility that another arm will emerge to take one of the weekend spots.
The one sure thing on the Sun Devil staff is closer RJ Dabovich. While Dabovich had an up-and-down 2019, he reportedly has made dramatic strides in an impressive summer season. Coaches expect him to control the bullpen and shut down opponents when needed.
It’s no secret the Sun Devils are going to be a powerhouse in the conference in 2020. The offense has the potential to be elite, and the defense isn’t far behind. If ASU can find a gem or two within the pitching staff, there is little doubt that they could be in the mix to take home the Pac-12 title and even make a run at Omaha.
—Recent James Cleary Stories—
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- 2020 Pac-12 Baseball Preview: Utah Utes
- 2020 Pac-12 Baseball Preview: UW & WSU
- 2020 Pac-12 Baseball Preview: Oregon & OSU
- 2020 Pac-12 Baseball Preview: USC & UCLA
- 2020 Pac-12 Baseball Preview: Cal & Stanford
- Cleary: The Pac-12 is the SEC of Baseball
Cleary Mailbag: Why Pat Bailey wasn’t retained as an assistant at OSUPlus questions about MLB Draft, last season's cancellations, and more - August 7, 2020
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