Editor’s note: The Star’s Zack Rosenblatt is counting down the 50 best athletes on the University of Arizona campus right now, with help from athletes, coaches and those close to the program.
No. 20: Cesar Salazar
The details: Salazar is a 5-foot-9, 190-pound catcher from Hermosillo, Sonora, who played high school baseball at Sahuaro. Salazar’s path to Arizona was certainly a unique one — after a series of personal connections placed him with some talented club baseball teams, Salazar eventually moved from Mexico to Tucson and lived with a legal guardian so he could play at Sahuaro. The Arizona Interscholastic Association deemed Salazar ineligible due to a strange AIA rule that deems international students only eligible for non-varsity level of competition. Salazar played 18 games as a senior — where he hit .613 and committed to play at Arizona for coach Andy Lopez before he retired — until the AIA deemed him ineligible again and he missed the rest of the season. Salazar initially considered turning pro but ultimately picked college baseball instead.
“I think I grew up as a human being a lot due to that experience,” Salazar said last year. “I became more mature. That helped me get tougher, too … That’s one of the biggest (reasons) I’m here. I overcame that adversity.”
The numbers: Even with the limited high school playing time, Salazar has been Arizona’s starting catcher both years he’s been at UA. As a freshman, he hit .276 with 28 RBIs and 30 runs. As a sophomore, his numbers improved across the board, including a .284 average, two home runs and 34 RBIs. Both seasons, Salazar had a .992 fielding percentage, with only four passed balls each year while throwing out a combined 21 of 52 attempted base stealers.
The value: Salazar was eligible for this year’s MLB draft, but decided instead to return — as did outfielder Cal Stevenson — for his junior season at Arizona, which is a huge development for UA heading into 2018. Salazar is expected to be a team captain, he’s a talented defensive catcher and a consistent hitter for the Wildcats.
With Arizona losing pitchers Cameron Ming and J.C. Cloney to the pros, Salazar’s game managing abilities will be particularly important with a new starting rotation, likely headed by Cody Deason and Michael Flynn, taking over next season. Plus, Arizona also lost stars Jared Oliva and J.J. Matijevic from its lineup, meaning Salazar will have to step up at the plate, too.
Why Salazar? Even if his hitting numbers aren’t flashy, Salazar is one of Arizona’s most clutch and consistent hitters of the last two seasons. His true value, though, comes in his defense and ability to manage the pitching staff. Pitchers have long raved about his abilities in that regard.
“The mind he has for baseball just comes naturally for him,” pitcher Nathan Bannister said during Arizona’s College World Series run in 2016. “I don’t know where he got it. We’re thankful that he has it.”
Proof he’s good: Salazar was just a true freshman during Arizona’s remarkable 2016 run through Omaha, but the Wildcats partly only got there because of him. In the 11th inning of the Super Regional final against Mississippi State, Salazar came up to bat with two outs and the bases loaded, and singled home Kyle Lewis to give the Wildcats the win, clinching the program’s 17th trip to the College World Series.
“It didn’t hit me that we won against Mississippi State and that we were going to the College World Series until we got on the plane to Omaha,” Salazar told ArizonaWildcats.com in October. “During some of the big moments, I just tried to stay relaxed.”
What Salazar can accomplish: Salazar was one of five Wildcats to make the Pac-12’s large, 32-person All-Pac-12 team, and there’s no reason to think he can’t do it again in 2018. Salazar would also seem to be a prime candidate for the conference’s All-Defensive team, and some improvement at the plate should help Salazar improve his draft status for next year.
Coachspeak: “Cesar goes ‘Coach, I’m going to get you to the College World Series.’ True story. It was the way he said it, with such conviction. I loved it … This is the kind of guy I want in the program,” he said. “He’s one of those foundational guys.” — Johnson about Salazar in 2016
He said it: “I don’t try to think too much about that. I just work my butt off and overcome adversity. That’s basically what my whole life has been based off.” — Salazar about being an undersized catcher