Arizona State baseball: Season preview

Arizona State's baseball season begins Friday as the Sun Devils open the 2017 campaign with a doubleheader against the Northwestern Wildcats.

The alarm clock that is set to 2 p.m. on Friday afternoon is about to blare, signifying the start of another Arizona State baseball season.

June 5, 2016 was the last time the Sun Devils took the field during a game, and entering the 2017 season, there are new faces all across the diamond.

Constant changes are just another aspect of the business of college baseball. However, for ASU this season, the amount of adjustments the Sun Devils have to make will practically increase tenfold compared to previous years.

That said, head coach Tracy Smith remains confident that the team he will trot out on the field will be the best he has fielded over his three seasons in Tempe.

With a late-week schedule change forcing the Sun Devils to play a doubleheader on Friday, anxious fans will get two opportunities to watch ASU play on Opening Day.

Earlier this week, Smith provided a rundown of where the Sun Devils stand heading into the season, touching on the relative inexperience of his team as there are plenty of newcomers poised to make an impact at each position on the diamond.

Catcher

At a Monday press conference, Smith was not shy about naming freshman Sam Ferri his starting catcher to begin the season.

Ferri, a 38th round selection of the New York Yankees in the 2016 MLB Draft, was the projected starter throughout the fall.

Senior Zach Cerbo appeared to be gaining ground on Ferri during the early part of the spring, but Smith’s confirmation of Ferri as the starter is an extreme vote of confidence for the catcher to handle a young pitching staff.

Ferri is thought of as a defense-first catcher who was named the No. 8 prospect in the state of Illinois by Prep Baseball Report.

On the other hand, Cerbo, who Smith mentioned has stepped up as a leader, is one of just four seniors on the team. Despite this valued experience, he has been rather light-hitting (.129 over his Sun Devil career), but his clubhouse presence has rendered him a popular figure among the team.

Another freshman, Lyle Lin, is also expected to be in the mix behind the plate. Having come to the United States from Taiwan just a few years ago, Lin has been using the offseason to get acclimated to his team. The learning curve has caused a minor setback for him, but it is not anticipated to be something that significantly reduces his playing time.

“The beautiful part about this year’s catching corps is that we have three guys who we think are legitimate No. 1 guys at the Pac-12 level,” Smith said. “We feel pretty good about that.”

Infield

Due to unforeseen circumstances, an infield picture that had clarity just a few weeks ago has become murkier over the past several days.

Smith insisted that Taylor Lane, Jeremy McCuin, Carter Aldrete, Jackson Willeford, and Andrew Snow would receive 98 percent of the starts in the infield, yet a recent mistake from Smith and the ASU coaching staff will force Lane to sit out the first game of the doubleheader on Opening Day.

Lane played in an exhibition game against Central Arizona College, which was not allowed per the wording of his transfer. The transfer specified that a certain amount of games had to pass before he could play, and as a result, Lane was assessed a one-game suspension.

Lin will fill in at first base on Opening Day, according to Smith, who maintains that Lane is the long-term first baseman.

A natural third baseman, Lane been a revelation at first base, a position he ended up at by accident during an intersquad scrimmage.

“We slid him (Lane) over there one day and our whole entire coaching staff was just like ‘Holy Cow that’s probably his future,’ Smith said. “He’s done a really good job there.”

Another roadblock has been an injury to Willeford, who is expected to lead off and maintain a veteran presence at second base. He is questionable for Opening Day, but if he does not play, Aldrete will likely fill in for him.

One of the more highly touted freshmen on ASU's roster, Smith has done nothing but laud the work Aldrete has put in during the spring.

“If you watched Aldrete in the fall, he did not swing the best bat, but he has swung the best bat for us this spring,” Smith said. “What has that done? It has forced our hand."

In terms of raw home run power, Aldrete ranks near the top of the team, along with projected designated hitter Sebastian Zawada. Additionally, Aldrete's gap power is among the best of his ASU peers.

The surest bet in the infield appears to be Snow, who has started each of his first two seasons at second base, but will move to the hot corner for his junior year. Snow experienced some unexpected regression last season as his batting average dropped 24 points and he turned into a bit of a liability defensively.

A position change over to third base may benefit him in the long run, as this is a make-or-break season for Snow in regards to his professional hopes.

Amid all of the uncertainty, McCuin has the hottest seat of any of the infielders, and after a tough freshman campaign, he will have Aldrete breathing down his neck at shortstop once Willeford gets healthy.

The 6-foot-1 former third baseman hit .163 and slugged .239 in 92 at-bats in 2016, and with the hype surrounding Aldrete, a fast start may be imperative if McCuin does not want to be the odd man out in the infield.

Outfield

ASU's group of outfielders features more established players than any other position group.

Both Andrew Shaps and Gage Canning played in 57 games last season, but Shaps will be absent for at least the opening series against Northwestern due to a violation of team standards.

“The beautiful thing about college is sometimes when you compare it to professional sports, there can still be lessons taught,” Smith said. “Andrew (Shaps) is going to be suspended for things I am not going to comment on necessarily. There are things with our program that he has to get better on and will get better on, so we are preparing for the first few games without him.”

As for Canning, he will move over to center field after occupying right field for most of last year.

“Gage Canning, we’ve moved over (to center field),” Smith said. “If you’ve watched any of the intersquads we have him out there. He’s played a really good centerfield. I think down the road it’s probably going to make us a little bit better. Some guy is going to emerge, some guy is going to get experience that they wouldn’t normally get, so we feel comfortable with Canning out there.”

That “some guy” might turn out to be Hunter Bishop, who is regarded as the crown jewel of the Sun Devils’ freshman class. Bishop has raw power that is off the charts with loads of potential to develop into one of the top hitters in the Pac-12.

Due to Shaps’ absence, Bishop may find himself as the right fielder on Opening Day.

Fellow freshman Myles Denson and sophomore Tyler Williams are also candidates to play right field.

It seems as if junior Ryan Lillard will finally be getting regular playing time in a Sun Devil uniform. He has been mired with injuries and inconsistencies during his first two seasons, but after getting reps at first base earlier in February, Lillard will move to left field.

Lillard has played all around the diamond in the past on the quest to reach his untapped potential that he entered Tempe with.

Lillard has “shown consistency” according to Smith during many of the practices and scrimmages.

Rotation

ASU's entire coaching staff agrees that one of the biggest improvements made by ASU from last year is that the starting rotation options are significantly deeper.

Smith has already named his trio of pitchers that will start on the weekend, but he has confidence in a bevy of players who he feels can get the job done.

“We don’t feel like we have that top first round guy coming out on Friday night,” Smith said. “What we do feel like is that we have eight-to-10 guys who are all about the same. All about the same, but that’s being pretty good.”

For now, Eli Lingos is going to be “the guy” at the top of the rotation. Lingos had an up-and-down season in 2016, posting a 4.50 ERA, but had an impressive showing in nonconference matchups as well as the postseason.

Lingos doesn’t have overwhelming stuff, and Smith’s admission that the Sun Devils don’t have a first round guy could mean that the official role of the “ace” is still up in the air.

Smith has already been announced that Ryan Hingst and Spencer Van Scoyoc will fill the other two weekend rotation slots. The latter is a freshman who arguably has the best stuff on the team and has an advantageous 6-foot-4 frame.

“I think he is going to push some guys for the top end too,” Smith said on Van Scoyoc. “He’s been getting better and better every week.”

Hingst is another option that doesn’t jump off the page, but he has been efficient when healthy. He has worked during the offseason to develop a secondary pitch in his arsenal.

As for the depth, Zach Dixon and Jake Godfrey are top options to start on the weekday as well as serve as the replacement weekend starters if there are struggles or an injury.

Dixon has a pedigree that screams starting pitcher after he came out of nowhere to post a 3.34 ERA in 29 and 2/3 innings last season. He appears to be the odd man out right now, but like Godfrey, who played at LSU in 2014, playing time might not be a long-term issue.

“What you will probably see from me, in the past where I may be going a little bit longer with somebody, I don’t have to do that anymore,” Smith said. “Guy doesn’t have it, boom we get him out of there and turn it over to somebody else, so I like that.”

Bullpen

Eder Erives has always been productive during his Sun Devil career, but he has never had one solidified role. That could all change this season.

Once thought of as the Friday starter, Smith is using the depth on the staff to his advantage by planning to move Erives to the closer’s spot.

The El Paso, Texas native led the staff with 10 saves last season, but also pitched as a starter and in a set-up role.

His role will be dependent on what the depth looks like as the season progresses, but his stamina will allow him to stretch out for save opportunities that go beyond three outs.

Outside of Erives, there are not many proven go-to guys at Smith’s disposal.

Freshman Chaz Montoya has received some hype, and for good reason. His fastball has touched the mid-90s and he gives ASU a left-handed weapon out of the bullpen that it has been missing in the Smith era.

James Ryan, Grant Schneider, Chris Isbell, and Fitz Stadler all have experience, but none of them have wowed at the NCAA level yet. Still, they could get early looks as middle relievers. Dixon and Godfrey could be used in long relief if they are not starting.

Nonetheless, Smith is confident the bullpen will sort itself out under his guidance as pitching coach, which has brought him back to his roots.

“I always pride myself on being able to mix it up with the guys,” Smith said. “There are things as a head coach that take you away from it, but I said when I did this stuff that I was going to dive in with the pitchers and be the pitching coach. It has allowed me to get back and do the things that I started out this career doing, which is coaching and working with the guys.”

ASU will kick off the regular season with three games in two days at Phoenix Municipal Stadium against the Northwestern Wildcats before heading on the road to Fort Worth to play No. 1 TCU.


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