The Arizona Wildcats baseball team relied on a bunch of upperclassmen this season but failed to make the NCAA Tournament for the third straight year.
Head coach Andy Lopez hopes to continue the rebuilding process by turning a lot of juniors into seniors.
Arizona won three out of four non-conference games at Hi Corbett Field to close the season with 31 wins, a nine-game improvement over last year. But the Wildcats’ record isn’t the problem.
The problem, at first glance, is the team’s age. The UA will be losing three of its top four hitters. Senior Riley Moore has graduated and juniors Kevin Newman and Scott Kingery are going to be high picks in this summer’s MLB draft. Only sophomore slugger Bobby Dalbec will be back from the top of Arizona’s stat sheet.
On the mound, of the top five pitchers in terms of appearances, you had a redshirt junior (Cody Hamlin, honored on senior night), two true juniors (Tyger Talley and Nathan Bannister), Dalbec and redshirt freshman Robby Medel.
That usually means a lot of roster turnover but Lopez is optimistic about “surviving the draft,” as he calls it, and bringing back a lot of experience in 2016. He specifically named Talley, Bannister and Hamlin as junior pitchers who could return.
“The cupboard is not bare by any stretch of the imagination,” Lopez said after Sunday’s finale. “Could there be a few more sweets in there? Heck yeah.”
The sweets Arizona needs are superstars. Dalbec will be the Cats’ best returning hitter but he may also be the team’s best returning pitcher. Lopez believes Dalbec is good enough to be the team’s top starter.
“When we first got him out there it was 92-95 (miles per hour on his fastball) and two other pitches,” Lopez said. “He definitely has the ability. Without a doubt.”
Starting on Friday night and hitting in the middle of the lineup? That’s a lot of eggs in one basket. Granted, at 6-foot-4, 219 pounds it’s a big basket.
The UA’s returning Player of the Year candidate sees his professional future as a batter but he’s willing to do double duty again next spring.
“I like hitting when I’m pitching,” Dalbec said. “It keeps me balanced. I see the ball well and I know where the umpire’s zone is.”
Dalbec hopes to do even better than his conference-leading 15 home runs.
“I’m going to work on hitting (over the summer),” he said, “just trying to get better at the plate. I’m going to try and get 20 (home runs) next year.”
The Wildcats are also banking on the return of some key arms from injury. Lopez said Tyler Crawford, a senior with 43 career appearances and 20 starts, will be back after missing all of this season following Tommy John surgery.
“We’re really excited for Crawford to be back,” Dalbec said about his teammate. “He was the one setting it up in the (College) World Series (in 2012). He could be a Saturday / Sunday guy. He gets outs.”
Lopez said he has also talked to Mathew Troupe about coming back after two injury-plagued seasons. So the Hi Corbett faithful who thought they were saying goodbye to the last of the national champions during Moore’s final at-bat may still be able to cheer for 2012’s setup man and closer.
Top college baseball teams aren’t usually built around seniors, especially not seniors returning from an eighth-place team. The key is having a few stars to lead the way.
Lopez called out first baseman J.J. Matijevic as a guy who could make a Dalbec-like leap between his freshman and sophomore seasons. Freshman Rio Gomez, who spent most of this season as a situational lefty out of the bullpen is another guy with star potential. He made the most of his one start this year by throwing a two-hitter over seven innings to beat Abilene Christian on Thursday.
Dalbec the Hitter is already a superstar. If Dalbec the Pitcher can become a true ace who can match up with the best of the Pac-12, a team stocked with seniors could help Arizona Baseball take another step forward in 2016.
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