With less than four months to go until Opening Day in college baseball, fall ball practices have started to gain steam for Arizona State. It’s head coach Tracy Smith’s third year at the helm of the Sun Devils' program and he has already assembled a formidable group that appears poised to compete for a spot at or near the top of the Pac-12.
The series of fall practices allow Smith and his staff to gain insight into what they have to work with this season. A big point of emphasis is finding stability within the pitching staff, which posted a collective 4.19 ERA last season, just one year removed from losing top-five round draft picks Brett Lilek, Ryan Burr, and Ryan Kellogg.
The Sun Devils only suffered two major losses on their pitching staff, but both players were considered starters last season.
Hever Bueno, ASU's 2015 Opening Day starter, battled multiple injuries last season and only threw 6 and 1/3 innings. The Rangers selected Bueno in the ninth round of the MLB Draft.
The bigger loss, though, is the ever-reliable Seth Martinez, who will be hard to replace in the rotation.
“We move on,” Smith said. “Every year we lose good pitchers. The nice part about Seth was that you knew he was going to give you a quality start on Fridays.”
Martinez was the star of the show seemingly every Friday for ASU, and will be sorely missed for good reason.
Smith mentioned the importance of pitchers stepping up into new roles and that the added experience that this year’s staff gained due to Bueno’s injury will be an advantage for the Sun Devils.
ASU isn't in a position right now in which it has a player in mind that can fill the void left by Martinez, but Smith said that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
“We don’t have that frontline top draft pick guy yet,” Smith added. “But we have a lot of guys, 8-10 guys who are all pretty good, so I think that gives us a little more depth too, which creates more ability to match up out of the bullpen during the game.”
After an impressive 2015 campaign, junior Eder Erives stands in a class of his own. He was the jack-of-all-trades last season for the Sun Devils, starting three games, saving ten, and often pitching multiple innings.
Erives practically became ASU’s equivalent of Cleveland Indians' reliever Andrew Miller; eating up innings while filling multiple roles.
Because there is so much time between now and Opening Day, there is no solidified role for Erives yet.
“We have a lot of baseball to be played between now and then,” Smith said. “What I like about him is that you can put him in any different role, but if he can consistently command the zone with three different pitches, he will get strong consideration.”
The questions surrounding Erives’ role might not be answered by February, as there is still a possibility that he pitches in the multiple roles he occupied last season.
Outside of Erives, there are not many major standouts from last season, but as Smith and his staff have emphasized, the team's depth is improving.
“We have three guys that have pitched a lot on the weekends that are coming back,” pitching coach Brandon Higelin said. “You have Eli (Lingos) who threw a lot of Saturdays, (Ryan) Hingst who threw a no-hitter and Zach Dixon, who threw a shutout against Cal on the weekend and threw eight innings in a must-win regional game.”
Hingst was also someone who caught Smith's attention. The development of a secondary pitch has been a key for him over the fall, as he relied almost solely on his fastball during his no-hitter against Utah last season.
Hingst had 31 strikeouts in 32 and 1/3 innings last season, pitching to the tune of a 3.09 ERA.
Outside of Martinez, Lingos was the most effective and consistent weekend starter for the Sun Devils. He's on the coaching staff's radar for a large role because of his strong outings last season. Lingos made 12 starts, which is most among the returning pitchers and six more than the next highest pitcher on ASU's staff.
“He had been one of our most consistent guys last year,” Smith said about Lingos. “But he’s looked even sharper this year so I think he’s got a chance to be in that rotation.”
Sophomore Zach Dixon, whose postseason effort was lauded by Higelin, came seemingly out of nowhere toward the end of the season to become an effective Sunday starter, is also someone who will make a strong case for a big role.
The biggest question is Dixon's stamina, as he threw just 29 and 2/3 innings last season in nine games and six starts.
Fellow sophomores Fitz Stadler and Chris Isbell were also mentioned by Higelin as pitchers who have made clear strides over the fall.
Transfer Jake Godfrey is the most buzz-worthy name among ASU's new pitchers. He brings experience pitching at a high caliber program (Louisiana State) that doesn’t come around very often.
Godfrey won seven games in 2014, his freshman year, for LSU as their weekday starter before transferring to Northwest Florida State for his sophomore season.
“He (Godfrey) brings experience playing at a high level,” Smith said. “He’s been able to locate and throw three pitches for a strike.”
Two freshmen that have stood out to Smith and Higelin are Spencer Van Scoyoc and Alec Marsh. Van Scoyoc was rated as the Sun Devils' top incoming recruit, according to Perfect Game.
In his two years in Tempe, Smith hasn’t immediately inserted freshmen into the weekend rotation, but strong work from either player during the rest of the fall and into the spring practice slate could force his hand.
Because the loaded freshman class looks like an effective complement to the more experienced group of sophomores and juniors, ASU's overall fall forecast on the mound is optimistic.