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TEAM PROFILE: Arizona Wildcats
2011 record: 39-21 (NCAA Regional)
Final 2011 PG ranking: NR
Top returning players: P Nick Cunningham, P James Farris, P Tyler Hale, P Kurt Heyer, INF Alex Mejia, INF Seth Mejias-Brean, OF Robert Refsnyder, OF Joey Rickard, OF/C, P Konner Wade, INF/OF Johnny Field
Notable departures: P Kyle Simon, P Bryce Bandilla, 1B Cole Frenzel, SS Andy Burns (did not play last season), P Matt Chaffee, C Jett Bandy, OF Steve Selsky, 3B Bryce Ortega
Areas of concern: The Wildcats put together a good 2011 campaign that ended with a trip to an NCAA Regional title game. Though the Wildcats fell short against Texas A&M, the run the program went on last season could’ve been a precursor to something even more special. Arizona is stable offensively and when it comes to the weekend rotation. The bullpen is the biggest concern facing this club between now and February. The Wildcats had two productive relievers last season in Bryce Bandilla and Matt Chaffee. Both signed this past summer and leave behind a combined 68 appearances and over 50 innings of work. Arizona could go the distance next June should the bullpen step up.
What we think: Arizona coach Andy Lopez is a realist, so when he says there are plenty of reasons to be excited about this club, it’s important to listen. The Wildcats return an offensive lineup that is led by talented sluggers such as Joey Rickard (.347), Alex Mejia (.335), Robert Refsnyder (.320) and Seth Mejias-Brean (.313). On the mound, the weekend rotation is in good hands with stud ace pitcher Kurt Heyer and rising arm Konner Wade providing a stout one-two punch. But again, the Wildcats’ ability to have a great campaign that ends in Omaha comes down to the bullpen’s ability to be consistently good. The Wildcats certainly know their potential.
What they’re saying: “I really like this club right now. The back end of the pitching staff isn’t yet where I want it to be, but we’ve got some good candidates. I feel very good about the front end of our staff with Kurt Heyer and Konner Wade leading the way. We’ve got some guys I really like.” – Arizona coach Andy Lopez.
CB TICKET: More Arizona inside scoop
Arizona has reached the College World Series 15 times and captured three national titles. But you’d never know – recently speaking – that the Wildcats were once a perennial power. After all, they haven’t made it to Omaha in seven seasons.
Long-time Wildcats coach Andy Lopez is ready to change that trend in a positive direction, and he might just have the team capable of doing so in 2012.
“I’m excited about this team right now,” Lopez said. “We’ve got some guys hitting really well this fall, though, I’m not real sure if that’s great for our hitting or bad for our pitching. Either way, I like what I’m seeing for the most part this fall.”
The Wildcats entered the fall with extra motivation. They had a good 2011 campaign, but finished just short of an NCAA Super Regional appearance with a tough NCAA Regional title game loss to Texas A&M.
Now, with the return of several key players, the Wildcats very much expect to experience more success when the spring arrives. Anything but a trip to Omaha will be considered a disappointment by this club, and for good reason.
Offensively, the Wildcats, as with most teams this time of year, do have some holes to fill. For instance, they’re without Bryce Ortega, last year’s leading hitter, Cole Frenzel, Jett Bandy and Steve Selsky. Bandy and Selsky only finished last season with batting averages of .266 and .215, respectively, but that was primarily because of injuries.
The Wildcats should still be very productive at the plate. They welcome back five of seven leading hitters, including leaders Joey Rickard (.347/4/37), Alex Mejia (.335/0/42) and Robert Refsnyder (.320/6/55). Refsnyder is hitting over .800 so far this fall. Other returnees include Seth Mejias-Brean (.313/0/25) and Johnny Field (.297/3/32).
“I feel the best about our returning guys right now. We have some guys who are very hot at the plate as fall workouts continue,” Lopez said. “Offensive production definitely isn’t our concern at this point.” There are some intense position battles to watch the next few months. The catcher position is a focus with Bandy’s departure. Riley Moore and Daniel Schuknecht are the primary candidates for the opening, with Moore currently having the upper hand. Schuknecht is at Arizona this fall despite getting drafted by the Rockies (12th round) this past summer.
“Moore is absolutely pounding the baseball this fall. If you asked me right now who would start tomorrow, I’d go with Moore,” he said. “However, Schuknecht is a guy we’ve also been pleased with. He’s very sound behind the plate.”
At other positions, Brandon Dixon is expected to occupy first base, while newcomer Trent Gilbert is making a splash at second base.
“I think Gilbert is going to be a pretty good player for us in 2012, but he’s going to be a special player for us before he leaves here in a couple of years,” he said. “He’s a left-handed bat with a nice eye on the defensive side of things. He’s hitting .430 this fall.”
With the Wildcats shaping up to be solid offensively and in the field, much attention this fall has been on the pitching staff, primarily the bullpen.
The Wildcats welcome back one of the nation’s premier pitchers in Kurt Heyer, who finished last season with a fabulous 2.41 ERA in 138 1/3 innings. Sophomore right-handed pitcher Konner Wade (3-0, 3.21) will join Heyer in the rotation, with the No. 3 spot in the rotation still up for grabs.
“I really like the front end of our rotation with Heyer and Wade. Heyer has been 87-88 at times this fall, while also throwing 90-91 at times,” he said. “Wade came on really strong at the end of last season, and I think he’s primed for a big-time campaign. We have a few guys we’re looking at for the final rotation spot.”
Candidates for the final rotation spot include seasoned pitchers Tyler Hale and Nick Cunningham, RHP James Farris and RHP Mathew Troupe, who was one of the top pitching prospects in California as a high school senior last season.
Farris is healthy again after a tough injury in last year’s NCAA Regional, while Cunningham is shut down the rest of the fall because of elbow tenderness.
“Cunningham and Hale have been here for a few years and showed some good moments. However, they now need to show a little consistency,” he said. “Troupe also could grab that spot. He’s got a legit curveball and is a two-way guy with good makeup. I think he’ll be able to handle some of the things we want him to do.”
Whoever doesn’t capture the final spot in the rotation likely will assume the role of either key setup man or closer.
“It’s a safe bet that whoever doesn’t get the starting spot will be in the thick of the race for the closer’s role,” he said. “I really like our chances in the spring if we can get the back end of the bullpen figured out between now and February.”
Arizona feels good as spring approaches. It welcomes back arguably its best team in a few seasons, and moves down the street to newly-renovated Hi Corbett Field, former spring training home for the Rockies.
The Wildcats have the personnel to go the distance even with some bullpen question marks. They also finally have a facility worth being proud about.
All that’s missing now is another trip to the CWS.
Kendall Rogers is the college baseball managing editor for Perfect Game USA and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org