It has been a rocky few years for Arizona State baseball.
An investigation into NCAA rules violations led to a dramatic, high-profile coaching change and eventually to scholarship reductions and a one-year postseason ban, which the Sun Devils will serve in 2012. Uncertainty about its postseason status hung over ASU’s entire 2011 season, and the Devils entered their final regular-season game not knowing whether or not they would be eligible for the NCAA tournament that would begin the following week.
And of course, the top freshman in last year’s recruiting class, outfielder Cory Hahn, suffered a devastating spinal injury early last spring, leaving him confined to a wheel chair.
That series of events could easily have crippled the program, but the players and coaches persevered. ASU won 43 games in 2011, winning a home regional and falling one victory shy of the College World Series. And in a striking sign of the vitality of the program, the Sun Devils look like the nation’s biggest winner in college baseball’s early signing period, which began on Nov. 9 and ends today.
Arizona State tied UCLA and Miami with the most recruits (seven) in Baseball America’s Top 100 high school prospects list for the 2012 draft. And ASU’s class stands out more than any other for its depth of impact prospects who stand a legitimate chance to show up on campus next fall.
The first time those players set foot on campus during recruiting visits, the energy and spirit of the coaches and players won them over, assuaging any concerns about the state of the program in the wake of the NCAA violations.
“It hasn’t been easy,” recruiting coordinator Travis Jewett said, referring to the tribulations of the last couple of years. “But we’ve got a choice to make every day about who we want to be and what we stand for, because all this other stuff—the history and tradition and all that other stuff—that’s never going away. There’s a strong regard for Arizona State baseball, I think. The tough questions need to be asked, and they’re all good questions. But coach (Tim) Esmay is a wonderful ambassador for the program, being an alum, and they come and see his passion for the program. They come out here and kind of feel it.
“We don’t try to recruit from afar; we want people here, to sense it and feel it. I think they walk away like, ‘Are you kidding me? I’d like to be a part of something that special.’ “
The Devils might not recruit from afar, but they land recruits from far and near. ASU’s 22-man signing class features eight in-state recruits and players from seven other states plus Canada. Of the seven players in the Top 100, three are from Arizona (No. 55 Mitch Nay, No. 73 Tony Blanford and No. 75 Willie Ethington), two are from California (No. 65 Kieran Lovegrove and No. 89 Paul Blackburn), one is from Washington (No. 30 Clint Coulter) and one is from Colorado (No. 83 Ryan Burr). Lefthander Brett Lilek is ASU’s latest gem from the state of Illinois, where the Sun Devils also found former stars Seth Blair and Johnny Ruettiger. Ryan Kellogg, an Ontario native, gives Arizona State yet another physical lefthander from a cold-weather locale.
Not many programs can recruit nationally the way Arizona State can—a testament to the enduring power of the ASU baseball brand.
“I think some of those guys were probably ready to get out of the snow,” Jewett said. “Once we get them out here, fill them in on the great history and tradition of the program and the things it stands for, and they come out here and see the weather, they see we have a bunch of good stuff going on.”
While many programs are loading up on less physical, speed-and-defense-oriented players in the BBCOR era, Arizona State is not shying away from big power hitters and big power pitchers. Coulter (a high-energy catcher) and Nay (a third baseman) stand out for their provocative righthanded power potential. Switch-hitting outfielder Cullen O’Dwyer, infielder Dalton DiNatale, outfielder Chris Beall, catcher R.J. Ybarra and two-way talents Burr and David Graybill “are all big monsters,” as Jewett put it, and all have chances to be impact hitters.
Pitching was ASU’s top priority with this class, which is loaded with quality arms. Righthanders Ethington, Blanford and Burr are all capable of reaching the mid-90s, while Blackburn and Lovegrove have quality three-pitch repertoires and have reached 93 at times. Lefties Lilek and Kellogg offer intriguing projection.
All in all, it’s a balanced class with front-line talent and depth, and it makes a major statement about the direction of the program.
“I think this class obviously speaks volumes about what kind of kids we’ve got, what kind of families we’ve got—they still believe,” Jewett said. “People are excited to be a part of it. I know I am.”
Miami’s last College World Series team in 2008 was renowned for its physicality. Between Yonder Alonso, Dennis Raben, Yasmani Grandal, Mark Sobolewski, Joey Terdoslavich and others, scouts and opposing coaches often said Miami’s lineup looked like it belonged in Double-A, not in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
That physicality has been missing in recent years, when the Hurricanes have largely relied on smaller, speed-and-contact-oriented players in the lineup. Miami has continued to make regionals, as it has every year since 1972, but the overall talent level has not been up to the program’s standards, and neither has its postseason performance.
“We have not been where we needed to be the last three years,” Miami recruiting coordinator J.D. Arteaga said. “I really feel that 2010 recruiting class really set us back, not getting any of those guys. If you get one or two of those guys, it makes a big difference.”
The Hurricanes had a banner recruiting class lined up for the fall of 2010, but it disintegrated that summer when Luke Jackson, Christian Yelich, Nick Castellanos, A.J. Cole and Yordy Cabrera all signed for seven-figure bonuses.
The Canes learned from that experience. They’re still going after those marquee talents—their class this year includes three of the top 11 players in our Top 100, and four of the top 27—but they’re making sure they’ve got insurance.
“You don’t have a chance to get them unless you sign them,” Arteaga said. “We’ve covered ourselves with guys who will be coming to school. We did not do a good job of that two years ago with the 2010 class.
“This was a great class locally for us in South Florida—Orlando down south. The majority of them are from the city of Miami. I can’t remember a class coming out of the city this good since probably back in the 90s. There’s a lot of depth, pitching and hitting—everything you need, really. We were fortunate there, and we got an earlier start than we have in the past, so we were able to get the guys we needed and wanted.”
If the Hurricanes lose their top four recruits, Miami natives David Thompson (No. 69) and Brandon Lopez (79) could become the headliners of this class, along with Tampa’s Keon Barnum (45). Thompson, who is also committed to play football, offers mammoth righthanded power and arm strength at third base, while Barnum brings serious lefthanded juice. If Miami wants to get more physical again, that duo is a great place to start. The instinctive Lopez could be the shortstop of the future and help out in the bullpen as well.
Miami’s class also features a strong group of players who ranked outside the Top 100, led by the athletic, versatile duo of Adrian Marin and Eric Neitzel.
Of course, teams hit the lottery every year—in the last four years, 11 players who ranked in the top 10 on this list have wound up on college campuses the following year—and Miami hopes to get lucky with a couple of its blue-chippers. Flame-throwing righties Walker Weickel (No. 4) and Nick Travieso (27) have monstrous upside, as do ultra-polished outfielder Albert Almora (10) and five-tool shortstop Carlos Correa (11). Weickel, Almora and Travieso are all USA Baseball veterans, and Correa’s tool package reminds Arteaga of Alex Rodgriguez, with whom Arteaga grew up.
“If you get one of those two pitchers and one of those hitters that are going to rank that high, the hitters will hit in the middle of your lineup, and the pitchers would be Friday starter-types,” Arteaga said. “Those are guys you build around. You get one of each, that would be great. I’m very, very excited about this class.”
• College coaches have griped the last two years that professional teams have been more aggressive signing high school players away from college scholarships, perhaps because the new collective bargaining agreement had the potential to institute significant draft changes. To wit: just 43 members of last year’s Top 100 list made it to college campuses this fall, after 40 showed up the previous fall. Over the previous four years, an average of 50.25 players from the Top 100 made it to school. Also worth noting: colleges are dramatically more likely to land players from the second half of this list than the first half. Last year, just four of the top 25 and nine of the top 50 wound up in college, while 34 of the 50 players in the second half of the list got through the draft. That is a major reason Arizona State’s class—which includes seven signees that rank between No. 30 and No. 90—looks so strong.
• UCLA got burned by the draft in 2011 but did not back down from targeting elite talents. High school teammates and UCLA signees Lucas Giolito and Max Fried rank among the top seven prospects in the nation and seem like long shots to arrive on campus next fall. The same is true of lefty Hunter Virant (No. 21), but the Bruins could get lucky with one of that trio as they did with Gerrit Cole in 2008. And even if UCLA fails to land any of the three, the rest of the class is strong. Daniel Robertson (36) and Ty Moore (85) give the Bruins a pair of potential impact bats, while Cody Poteet (40) and Felipe Perez (72) are projectable righthanders to build around.
• Mississippi has shifted to a much more aggressive approach to recruiting in the last two years. The Rebels were rewarded this fall, reeling in the nation’s No. 5 class, and their 2012 class has similar upside. Catcher Stryker Trahan (No. 5), shortstop Gavin Cecchini (8) and power righthander Ty Hensley (22) were all teammates for the same summer ball team, the SE Texas Sun Devils.