After finishing 37-23 (16-14 in Pac-12 play) in 2015, Arizona State is tasked with replacing many of the team's critical middle-of-the-order bats that helped the Sun Devils reach the postseason for the fourth straight season last year.
Friday marked the beginning of the program's preseason practice slate, and the buzz around Phoenix Municipal Stadium signified that Opening Day is a mere three weeks away.
With the departures of multi-year starters David Greer, Colby Woodmansee, and Brian Serven to the MLB Draft, the rebuilding of sorts within ASU's offense has begun to take shape. Despite the turnover in star power, Smith believes this team can compete just like his squads did during his first two years at ASU.
“I like the vibe in the clubhouse,” Smith said. “We’ve had some very talented players the first couple years here. We don’t have as many experienced guys on the roster as years gone by, but I like the vibe, I like the way guys are working. It will be interesting to see how we come together once we start playing games.”
Of those few experienced players, junior Andrew Snow could be one of the biggest wildcards on the roster. The veteran hitter had an up-and-down campaign in 2015, and combined with the strong first impression from senior transfer Jackson Willeford, Snow may not return to his starting spot at second base, which he had locked down during the previous two seasons.
Instead, Snow's new home could be at third base, where he started during Friday’s scrimmage. Junior Taylor Lane, another transfer, is contending with Snow for playing time at that spot.
“I’m just trying to do the best I possibly can,” Snow said. “I’m trying to show off some power. Let people see that I can hit the ball far.”
During Friday's scrimmage, the rest of the Sun Devils' first-team infield took shape with junior Ryan Lillard occupying first base and sophomore Jeremy McCuin manning shortstop. After fall practices, McCuin held a slight edge at shortstop over freshman Carter Aldrete, but with 20 days until Opening Day, Aldrete still has plenty of time to push for a larger role.
The Sun Devils' outfield appears more stable than the infield, and that was further solidified by Friday’s scrimmage in which freshman Hunter Bishop played in left field, junior Andrew Shaps manned center field, and sophomore Gage Canning started in right field. The younger brother of former Washington outfielder Braden Bishop, Hunter Bishop has the potential to become the star of the ASU offense, and was one of the more heralded recruits of the freshmen class.
The trio should start the year with the loftiest expectations of any position group on the team, and Shaps, for one, has a few specific goals that he's hoping to achieve this season.
“I want to be in double digits for steals,” Shaps said. “I want to show a little more power. I don’t want to set a number because I don’t want to change my swing or anything, but I think steals would be my main goal.”
Behind the plate, a job that once appeared to be locked up by freshman catcher Sam Ferri is now up in the air. According to Smith, Ferri “was really strong early, but tapered off towards the end” of the fall practice slate.
Nonetheless, Ferri started for the Sun Devils' first team during the scrimmage. Lyle Lin, another freshman catcher, started at first base for the second team which featured most of ASU's backups. First base could end up being a home for Lin if Ferri earns most of the starts behind the plate.
On the mound
In the month of December, which is typically one of the quiet stretches of the offseason in college baseball, the Sun Devils made some uncharacteristic noise, letting go of pitching coach Brandon Higelin. Higelin's departure marked the first changing of the guard within the ASU coaching staff since Smith took the reigns in June of 2014. Entering the year, Smith plans to work double duty and will fill the role of pitching coach.
Of everything Smith said Friday, the biggest hint he gave concerning the team moving forward was his assessment of the pitching rotation, which loses reliable Friday night starter Seth Martinez from last season. Smith indicated that junior Eli Lingos, senior Eder Erives, and junior Ryan Hingst are the three in pole position for the weekend rotation at this point. Not coincidentally, those are the three pitchers who have the most starting experience on the team.
“Our pitching is much deeper than it was last year,” Shaps said. “Even last year, we held our own. We didn’t win the Pac or anything, but we stuck around until the bitter end. I think we’re only deeper this year, so it looks good.”
Junior transfer Jake Godfrey, sophomore Zach Dixon, and freshman Spencer Van Scoyoc also could enter the rotation mix. Van Scoyoc, Zane Strand, and Chaz Montoya were named by Smith as the freshmen pitchers who have impressed the most thus far.
A deeper pitching staff will allow Smith to have more flexibility in the bullpen, which is as big of a question mark as the Sun Devils have right now. Erives, who was most often given the ball in the ninth inning last season, is open to whichever role he's thrust into.
“As long as I get the ball and help the team win,” Erives said. “That would be my role, and I will embrace it, and get the win or the save, whatever it is.”
Erives' flexibility may turn out to be crucial for the pitching staff, but Smith may keep his most experienced arm in just one role to make him as comfortable as possible
Although optimism is understandably in the air for the Sun Devils, Smith admitted there are still some kinks that need to be worked out between now and February 17, when ASU opens up its season against Northwestern.
“I think we are going to hit enough,” Smith said. “I think our pitchers are going to throw strikes. Our season is really going to be dictated by whether we pick up the baseball or not. So team defense is something that I can identify as pivotal.”