ASU is one of college baseball’s most storied programs and was an Omaha mainstay at one point. However, the Sun Devils haven’t been back to the College World Series since 2010.
Devils head coach Tracy Smith doesn’t speak in absolutes, but he’d be lying if he said he wasn’t ultra-excited about the 2020 version of the Devils. They have the personnel and experience needed to finally restore order in the desert.
“We’re going to be much improved on the mound, and I think we’ll have a lot more offensive maturity,” Smith said. “I think the thing that stands out to me are the quality of arms that we have on this pitching staff. Getting Tyler Thornton was huge, and we have some impressive junior college and freshmen arms, too.
“It’s going to be tough to replace a guy like Hunter Bishop strictly from a numbers standpoint,” he continued. “But I do think we have the ability to have the best offense we’ve had since I’ve been here. I also really like where we sit from a defensive standpoint out in the outfield.”
One of the big question marks for ASU is the pitching staff. The Devils had one of the nation’s most potent offenses last season. However, the pitching staff struggled mightily outside of Alec Marsh and a select few arms. ASU’s pitching woes surfaced at the Baton Rouge regional. The Devils lost to Southern Miss, 15-3, in their opening game of the tournament before blowing a huge lead in an elimination game against Southern Miss, 13-12.
That was the final straw for the Devils, and with some big-time options out there from a pitching coach standpoint, Smith went on the prowl to fix that issue. He struck gold with the addition of heralded Washington pitching coach Jason Kelly, who was named D1baseball.com's Assistant of the Year in 2018 when he helped guide the Huskies to the CWS for the first time in program history. Kelly is currently a candidate for the San Francisco Giants big league pitching job along with a few others, so there’s a chance he could bolt for the Bay Area. But the Devils should be OK.
The Devils welcome back RJ Dabovich and Boyd Vander Kooi, who both had strong falls, while Thornton, Justin Fall and the addition of freshman Cooper Benson, among others, should pay dividends.
The Devils also are in terrific shape from an offensive standpoint. Gage Workman, Alika Williams, Spencer Torkelson and Trevor Hauver give Smith’s offense some serious firepower, while Sam Ferri and Drew Swift are ready to take the necessary steps forward from an offensive standpoint.
There are no guarantees in college baseball; ASU knows that well. But the pieces are there and the West Coast is wide open as spring is on the horizon.
Perhaps, just perhaps, it’s time for Arizona State to take the torch.
Let’s dive into ASU’s fall workouts:
The million-dollar question for the Devils is the pitching staff. ASU finished last season ranked 144th nationally in team earned run average, and that’ll need to improve to not only be a highly ranked club, but also reach their goal of making it to Omaha.
The Devils have several weapons at their disposal. Right-hander Marsh emerged as a big-time Friday night starter last year, but Marsh is no longer with the program and in the professional ranks. That means the weekend rotation is wide open, with names such as Dabovich, Fall, Vander Kooi, Thornton, Erik Tolman and Benson in the mix for starting jobs.
Let’s start with the returning arms: Dabovich, Vander Kooi and Tolman. Dabovich did some impressive things last season and took a step forward at the Cape Cod League this past summer, sitting low-to-mid 90s with his fastball and overall crisp stuff. Vander Kooi has always had potential but also has always been a step away from being one of the elite arms. He had a solid fall and his changeup is much improved, per Smith.
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Then there’s Tolman, the talented left hander who sat in the upper 80s with his fastball last season with quality stuff. The big question with him last year was his command, and that was improved this fall.
“I think Dabovich is certainly coming back with a lot more confidence after the summer he had, and Vander Kooi is better, too. That changeup has really improved,” Smith said. “I also think Tolman is an interesting arm for us. He really improved this fall and JK (Jason Kelly) has done a great job with him. The big thing for him was just controlling the strike zone. And he’s doing that, so he should be in the mix for a rotation spot.”
Thornton, Fall and Benson are newcomers that’ll make an instant impact.
Thornton, a 6-foot-3, 180-pounder, had a strong freshman season at St. Mary’s, and transferred to ASU after Eric Valenzuela took the head coaching job at Long Beach State. Thornton sat in the 89-93 and up to 94 mph range with his fastball, along with impressive competitiveness. Fall is a tall 6-foot-6, 245-pounder with a huge arm, sitting 92-96 mph from the left side with easy arm action and a quality breaking ball. Meanwhile, Benson is a 6-foot, 200-pounder, who sits in the upper-80s and can reach 90 with his fastball. He also shows excellent feel for the zone.
“Thornton … the thing we had always heard about him is that he’s a big-time gamer. We wanted to see how he would do against outside competition,” Smith said. “He would kick it up there in the 90-94 mph range at times, and he was pretty good fall. He’s good, but I also want to see what he does when the lights are on in the spring.
“Fall is definitely going to make some noise for us. A lot of guys were wondering how a guy like him ended up at a Division I school this semester. It’s an easy 92-95, and he touched 96 this fall. Based on what I’ve seen so far, I really like him. But again, like our other guys, let’s see what he does against outside competition in the spring.”
Smith continued, “As for Benson, he comes well documented as a talented arm who’s really competitive. He won at a high level at a lot of those national events, and it really shows. He’s further ahead where many pitchers his age are at this point in their careers. The thing I really like about him is that he’s 87-90 with his fastball, and that he can put multiple pitches where he wants them in the zone.”
The barrage of quality arms doesn’t stop there for the Sun Devils. Other pitchers to watch include rising sophomore right-hander Will Levine, right-hander Blake Burzell and freshman right-hander Cam Dennie.
Levine is a 6-foot-2, 200-pounder, who’s ready to take a massive step forward. He was one of the surprises of the fall, sitting 93-96 mph with his fastball and quality overall stuff. Burzell is another power-armed righty who showed flashes last season. He has shown more consistency with his breaking ball but must carry that into the spring. Meanwhile, Dennie is a 6-foot-2, 180-pounder, who has easy arm action with a fastball sitting 89-91 and up to 92, along with a quality slider.
“Levine really opened some eyes this fall. He was up and down for us last year – mostly down – but he came out this fall and really showed off his power arm. I’d be lying to you if I said I saw it coming. He looked really good,” Smith said. “Burzell is going to be a real weapon for us, I think. JK’s plan was to slow it down with him and then build that stuff back up. Once he gets back to that, he’s going to be in the mix. He’s got size and he’s athletic. There’s also Dennie. He’s a young guy who impressed me as much as any of the young guys this fall.”
Arizona State is once again in terrific shape from an offensive standpoint. Torkelson remains one of the nation’s premier hitters and perhaps the top prospect for the 2020 MLB draft. Torkelson played some third base during fall workouts but will man his usual first base position in the spring.
“He is who he is. The key for us is making sure we protect him in the lineup,” Smith said. “He has the ability to do what he does so well, but we still have to maximize what we can get out of him with good hitters around him.”
Williams and Swift will be up the middle. Williams has always been a smooth defender and solid hitter, but Smith said he’s a bit more physical than he was last season. Swift, another premier defender, struggled with the bat last season but showed improvements this fall.
ASU also welcomes back Workman over at third base. Workman put together an impressive 2019 campaign and looks to take yet another step forward in the spring.
“Alika (Williams) had a really solid fall and Swift has always been known for his defense and a little light with the bat. But he was stronger this fall and showed more offensive potential.
“And Workman was already good, but he was very good this fall,” he continued. “He was already a complete player, but he did the things he needed to do to be an even better player.”
Ferri is back behind the plate, but also keep an eye on junior college transfer Nick Cheema. Cheema is a 5-foot-11, 195-pounder who turned himself into a legitimate offensive threat during fall workouts.
“Cheema went to a JC, came back, and I’d truly say that he’s one of the most improved players I’ve ever seen in my career,” he said. “He’s turned himself into a legitimate offensive threat and I’m really impressed with what he’s done.”
In the outfield, Hauver returns to left field and is expected to put together yet another productive offensive campaign. Meanwhile, Hunter Jump is expected to occupy one of the other spots out there. Jump is another player who went to ASU, transferred to a junior college and is now back in the mix. Jump had a standout freshman campaign for the Devils before transferring to Central Arizona. The draft didn’t pan out as he’d hoped and is back with the Devils. Smith said he was very impressive from an offensive standpoint this fall.
Senior Myles Denson is back for another campaign and freshman Sean McLain and sophomore Dusty Garcia also did some impressive things this fall. One thing is for sure: Smith expects this to be a much better outfield from a defensive standpoint. Others to watch include Seth Nager and Nathan Baez.