Arizona lost the bulk of a batting order that led the Pac-12 in hitting, and while it returns most of its pitching staff that group was among the worst in the league. Put those two things together and you get picked to finish ninth out of 11 teams, as the Wildcats were by the Pac-12 coaches.

Chip Hale gets that rationale, but also believes his third UA team is more than capable of exceeding those expectations.

“We have a good feeling about our club,” Hale said Thursday. “They’ve done a great job in the weight room all fall, they’ve come together as a group, as a team. The pitching staff, especially, has been way more together than we have in the past. It’s been very noticeable.”

Arizona’s pitching approach has been completely overhauled, with longtime assistant Dave Lawn let go and Hale bringing in Kevin Vance as pitching coach and John DeRouin. Vance was at Boston College the previous two seasons, while DeRouin was part of the Detroit Tigers’ development staff in 2022 and 2023.

That duo spent the summer, fall and this preseason putting UA pitchers through an analytics-heavy lab to maximize their best attributes. It was music to the ears of junior right-hander Anthony ‘Tonko’ Susac, one of five pitchers in at least their third year in the program.

“They speak my language,” said Susac, the cousin of ex-Wildcat star Daniel Susac. “They have unbelievable knowledge and they’re able to communicate it to you in an effective way and they’re able to get their point across. In my three years here this may not be the most talented pitching staff, but it’s definitely I think the best pitching staff and deepest pitching staff. Vance and John will really find the way to get the best out of each of us.”

Hale said Arizona’s experienced pitching depth, bolstered by the addition of veteran right-handers Clark Candiotti (Wichita State) and Kyler Heyne (Kansas State), may be asked to carry the load early on as a younger batting order comes into its own.

The Wildcats return four hitters who had 100 or more at-bats last season, led by infielder Mason White. As a true freshman he batted .313 with 10 home runs and 35 RBI in 53 games, playing mostly second base, but this spring he’s moving to shortstop in place of departed Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year Nik McClaughry.

White is also moving up in the order—he said he expects to bat leadoff or third—which will put extra pressure on the guys that bat behind him to provide protection.

“You can call it pressure, but I think pressure is a privilege,” said junior Garen Caulfield, who will play second this season.

Caulfield and senior right fielder Emilio Corona (.336, 11 homers, 44 RBI in 38 games) will be playing the role of Kiko Romero, who last season batted behind eventual first-round pick Chase Davis. Davis was often pitched around, while Romero capitalized in driving in a school-record 89 RBI.

“They’re going to have to show that they can do damage when they pitch around (White),” Hale said.

One of two preseason all-conference selections, along with senior righty Dawson Netz, White is ranked by Baseball America as the 14th-best collegiate prospect for the 2025 MLB Draft. He called those recognitions “cool” but his focus leading up to the season has been fixing holes in his swing.

“I’m chasing a lot, I’ve really struggled with that,” said White, who had 26 strikeouts in 100 at-bats in the Cape Cod summer wood-bat league after whiffing 56 times in 208 at-bats as a freshman. “I need to tighten up my zone and swing at my pitches.”

The only other “lock” in the field is junior Tommy Splaine, who after splitting catching duties last season is expected to be the full-time first baseman. He could still end up behind the plate but that job will mostly be shared by transfers Blake McDonald (Saint Mary’s) and Adonys Guzman (Boston College).

Hale said there’s been a “battle” for third base between Richie Morales, a transfer from State College of Florida, and true freshman Andrew Cain, with redshirt freshman Xavier Esquer also able to play third, second and short.

Corona has right field locked down, while sophomore Brendan Summerhill has the leg up in left and center will be either JUCO transfer Brandon Rodgers or freshmen TJ Adams or Easton Breyfogle. The DH spot could be a rotation of any of the previously mentioned players as well as freshman Kade Huff, per Hale.

“Young kids are gonna get a chance early,” Hale said. “We think they can all be very successful. But when you get two, three weeks into the season you’re not going to have 12-13 guys playing. Probably whittle down those to eight, nine or 10 with two catchers getting the bulk of the catching time.”

Arizona has its Meet the Team scrimmage on Saturday—if the weather doesn’t prevent that—and other intrasquad games Friday and Sunday. The season opener is Feb. 16 at Hi Corbett Field against Northeastern, a team that’s in several preseason Top 25 polls and which features a projected first-round pick in outfielder Mike Sirota.

“It’s going to end up being a great team to play,” Hale said. “They’re going to test us, which we need. It’s almost like football. I think if you ask football coaches, there’s a time when you have to hit somebody else. It’s time for us to have somebody else on the other side, because it’s getting intense. There’s a lot of banter going back and forth, so we’re ready for the banter to go to the other team.”

The ninth-place prediction is the lowest for Arizona in the Pac-12 since 2016, when it reached the championship series of the College World Series.

“I like being the underdogs,” Susac said. “They have no clue what kind of weapons we have.”

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