One win away from a National Championship, Arizona Wildcats reload for 2017 season
The Arizona baseball team stands on the first base line for the national anthem during their June 18, 2016, matchup against Miami in the 2016 College World Series. Arizona won the game 5-1.
The Arizona baseball team came within one game of winning a national title last season, falling to Coastal Carolina in three games. It was a remarkable run under first-year head coach Jay Johnson who had the difficult task of returning the team to relevancy and taking over for legendary coach Andy Lopez .
Expectations were not high for last year’s club. A poll by Pac-12 coaches before the season projected the UA to finish ninth in the conference. The pitching staff was a question mark and the team lost their two best players from the year before, Kevin Newman and Scott Kingery, who were both early picks in the 2015 MLB Draft.
The team responded to the low expectations by coming in third in the Pac-12 and making it to the College World Series behind the efforts of seniors Cody Ramer, Zach Gibbons, Nathan Bannister and Ryan Aguilar. Six Wildcats went on to get selected in last year’s MLB Draft.
This time around, the world has begun to take notice of the program’s direction despite losing major contributors from last year’s team.
The site D1Baseball has the Wildcats ranked No. 19 in the preseason rankings while Baseball America has them at No. 22. The same Pac-12 coaches poll that once wrote off the Wildcats now have them finishing third this season.
In addition to the winning culture and mindset Johnson has instilled in the program, another reason for the team’s recent hype is this year’s recruiting class, which was ranked No. 10 by Baseball America and No. 4 by Collegiate Baseball.
The class brings depth on both sides of the ball that the team desperately needed after the departures of several key pitchers and position players from last season. The team also brought back a few players with star-studded potential and ability.
In fact, Johnson likes the depth of this year’s team better than last year’s, and it’s just a matter of finding the best way to mix and match the lineup to give the team the best chance to win.
“I think we’re a little farther along in terms of the number of good players,” Johnson said. “We are replacing a lot of really talented dudes that had special years. I think if there’s one thing that I’m excited about it’s the number of guys that can make a positive contribution. So now we have to go figure out what the right combination looks like.”
One player with one of the highest ceilings on the team, outfielder Jared Oliva, acknowledged the heightened expectations for this team but didn’t read too much into it.
“Obviously this year we have more of a target on our back,” Oliva said. “I wouldn’t say it’s more pressure. If we play our game, I think we can beat anybody in the country. This is a different group of guys, but I’m excited with what this group could do.”
Johnson didn’t pay too much attention to the scrutiny and speculation, but instead emphasized the importance of playing for each other and building a positive environment for players to thrive in.
“We do address it in terms of controlling what we can control, and really what matters is what they think of each other,” Johnson said. “How we address it is there’s a lot of positives in terms of building a program and a culture and foundation that we can really benefit from. There’s no pitch, no at-bat, no inning from last year that will help us win this year.”
Oliva is a five-tool player who can affect the game in a number of ways. The senior outfielder was ranked No. 87 on D1Baseball’s list of top 150 outfielders. This past offseason, Oliva worked on putting it all together and maximizing his skill set.
“Coach Johnson and I talk a lot about closing the gap between talent and usable skill,” Oliva said. “I think there [could] still be a little more consistency, but it was definitely a big step this fall and I look forward to carrying it into this season.”
The Wildcats boast another highly talented outfielder to pair with Oliva in Cal Stevenson, a junior college transfer who played for Johnson at Nevada Reno two years ago and followed him to the UA because of his coaching style. Stevenson was drafted by the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 36th round of last year’s MLB Draft and was ranked No. 39 on D1Baseball’s top outfielders list.
“My season at Nevada was awesome because Coach Johnson made it easier for me,” Stevenson said. “He allowed me to play the way I wanted to play, and I think it made me feel comfortable going from high school to a four-year school, and I think that’s why I wanted to follow him here because he made the game fun for me.”
The pitching staff has gone through turnover after losing Bannister, Bobby Dalbec and Kevin Ginkel. But the team is excited about two juco transfers, right-handers Landon Faulkner and Tylor Megill, who are both expected to slot into the rotation. Also, the return of lefties JC Cloney and Cameron Ming add balance and depth to the staff.
“I like that they throw strikes; I like that they have multiple pitches,” Johnson said. “This is a very pitcher-friendly park if you can execute to both sides of the plate and keep hitters off-balance, which I think several of them can. Coach [Dave] Lawn has done a great job of helping guys develop changeups.”
The team’s infield also went through a bit of a makeover after losing Dalbec, Aguilar and Ramer. Sophomore slugger Alfonso Rivas made the change from outfield to first base while JJ Matijevic is also expected to factor in at first and second.
A few freshmen are expected to start right away, including Nick Quintana at third and Cameron Cannon at second.
Quintana, a highly-touted recruit who was drafted in the 14th round out of high school, is a slick-fielding infielder with big-time hitting potential. Baseball America predicted Quintana to win freshman of the year in the Pac-12.
The Wildcats will open up the season on Feb. 17 against Eastern Kentucky for a four-game set at Hi-Corbett Field. Pac-12 play begins March 17 at UCLA. Here is a look at the team’s projected starting lineup and rotation:
1. Jared Oliva CF, Sr.
2. Cal Stevenson LF, Jr.
3. Alfonso Rivas 1B, So.
4. JJ Matijevic DH, Jr.
5. Cesar Salazar C, So.
6. Nick Quintana 3B, Fr.
7. Matt Frazier RF, Fr.
8. Louis Boyd SS, Sr.
9. Cameron Cannon 2B, Fr.
JC Cloney LHP
Landon Faulkner RHP
Tylor Megill RHP
Cameron Ming LHP
Follow Ross Olson on Twitter.