“We’re excited to play, excited to compete. We’re excited with the returners, excited with the talent.” It is safe to say that Arizona Head Coach Jay Johnson was enthusiastic when talking about his 2021 squad with College Baseball Nation.
The sixth-year head coach has good reason for his enthusiasm. Starting pitchers Garrett Irvin, Chandler Murphy, Quinn Flanagan, and Dawson Netz all return from a successful 2020 rotation. The four pitchers combined to start all of the Wildcats’ 15 games.
Also returning are relief pitchers Preston Price and Vince Vannelle, who both turned down free agent deals to return to Arizona for another season. Blake Peyton and Ian Churchill, with 11 appearances in 2020 between them, provide even more returning pitching depth. “I was pleased with how we started on the mound,” said Johnson of his pitching staff. “They did a good job at controlling the strike zone.” According to Johnson, the key for the pitching staff will be “how steady our returning pitchers are.”
Additionally, Johnson is eager to see how new faces will perform. Arizona is bringing in talent on the mound that will challenge for spots in the rotation. Junior college transfer Chase Silseth is the most advanced arm in the class. With a mid-90s fastball that can push 97 mph and three other developed pitches, including a plus changeup, Silseth will provide immediate impact on the mound for the Wildcats.
New talent will also play an impact behind the plate for Arizona. After losing two catchers to the 2020 MLB Draft (Austin Wells in the first round and Matthew Dyer in the fourth round), incoming freshman Daniel Susac will have an opportunity to contribute. Said Johnson, “Daniel is regarded as one of the top defensive catchers in the country and has limitless potential as a hitter.” Johnson is also pleased with the development of second-year freshman Kaden Hopson, giving the Wildcats multiple options behind the plate.
Chase Davis is another highly-touted talent from the incoming recruiting class. Joining Susac in MLB.com’s top 100 prospects for the 2020 MLB Draft, Davis was a question mark for whether he would make it to campus. The outfielder offers at least plus power and has been clocked at 99 mph on throws from the outfield.
Johnson understands that the type of players that Arizona recruits may be lost to the MLB Draft, but he thinks his program has something to offer them. “We’re here for their individual development as well. Everyone who comes to Arizona wants to play professional baseball.”
In terms of the 2021 season, Johnson recognizes that the young talent will need to contribute. “The key is turning talent into wins,” Johnson shared. That is especially true for next season because the expectations are high for Johnson’s squad. The Wildcats check in at number 14 in College Baseball Nation’s Fall Top 25, the second highest of teams from the Pac-12.
Arizona is not likely to shy away from the national spotlight. “We embrace expectations,” Johnson emphasized. “We want to be a team that that’s said about. We’re fired up.”
The Wildcats offense should be just as threatening as their pitching staff. Losing Wells and Dyer leaves some holes in the lineup, but there are plenty of talented hitters in Tucson. Ryan Holgate, currently ranked 49th in College Baseball Nation’s Top 50 2021 Prospects, and Donta’ Williams both hit over .340 in the shortened 2020 season with an OPS over 1.000. Joining them is second-time freshman Mac Bingham who slashed .361/.478/.500 last season. “We can produce runs in a lot of different ways,” said Johnson of his offense.
As for most teams around the country, it is still unclear what Arizona’s 2021 schedule will hold. Johnson, like many coaches, said he is hoping for as “normal of a season as possible and as many games as possible.” The Pac-12 has yet to make any official announcement on the 2021 season.
Regardless of schedule, the ceiling is high for the 2021 Arizona Wildcats, as they look to return to Omaha for the first time since 2016 when they finished as College World Series runner-up.