Some of his draft class may be headed to the majors, but UA coach Jay Johnson is working with one of the best offenses in the nation from last season and some foundational pieces on the mound.

The Arizona Wildcats stand to lose some pitchers Jay Johnson was hoping to have on the 2020 staff. Such are the vagaries of the MLB draft.

But Johnson loaded up on arms in this year’s recruiting class — including a key graduate transfer — to offset those losses. He firmly believes the newcomers and a returning core of hurlers will combine to cure what ailed the 2019 Wildcats.

Next year’s team won’t have right-hander Andrew Dalquist, whom the Chicago White Sox selected in the third round of this week’s draft. It probably won’t have Sahuarita High School righty Jose Dicochea or veteran lefty Randy Labaut either.

But righties Quinn Flanagan and Vince Vannelle return as foundational pieces. And Johnson likes the makeup of newcomers Garrett Irvin, Ian Churchill, Davis Vainer, Dawson Netz and Chandler Murphy, among others.

“I think the impact of competitive, winning-type pitchers still stands really strong for us,” Johnson said Thursday. “I think we have winners in this group. Honestly … an attitude reboot is important. I think these guys fast-track that a little bit.”

Arizona had one of the best offenses in the nation this season. The Wildcats failed to make the NCAA Tournament for a second straight year because of their struggles on the mound. Arizona finished 10th among 11 teams in the Pac-12 with a 6.21 ERA.

Dalquist would have been an instant-impact addition to the staff, but he bloomed as a prospect this spring and became a hot commodity in a draft lacking in high-end arms. The Redondo Beach, California product elevated his velocity from the upper-80s last summer to the mid-90s this season. The White Sox drafted several college seniors, including UA lefty Avery Weems, to free up bonus money for Dalquist.

“They must think highly of him,” Johnson said. “We certainly did.”

Johnson and his staff also thought highly of Dicochea, whom the Oakland Athletics selected in the eighth round.

Sahuarita coach Sam Gelardi said the hard-throwing right-hander is still “weighing his options,” but the expectation is that Dicochea will sign with the A’s.

The same goes for catcher-first baseman Will Bartlett of IMG Academy, a UA signee taken by the Cleveland Indians in the ninth round. Johnson isn’t planning to have Dicochea or Bartlett on next year’s roster as of now.

Cleveland drafted Labaut in the 35th round. The left-hander went 8-3 this season and had one more year of eligibility remaining. Johnson isn’t expecting him back at this point.

“I would guess he’s going to sign with the Indians,” Johnson said. “I don’t want to say a whole lot more about it.”

Although it probably would have been advantageous for Labaut to return for a fifth season, he also knows how fleeting a baseball career can be. Labaut missed a large chunk of the 2018 campaign after undergoing emergency surgery for compartment syndrome. His best friends on the team, Alfonso Rivas and Cesar Salazar, left for the pros at the end of the 2018 season.

Johnson expects Irvin, a left-hander from Riverside (California) City College, to join righty Flanagan in the rotation next year. Churchill, a lefty from Santa Barbara City College, should be in the starting mix as well. He recently was named the California Community College State Pitcher of the Year after going 8-2 with a 1.96 ERA and 98 strikeouts in 82º innings.

Netz, meanwhile, posted an ERA of 0.47 over his four-year career at Maranatha High School in Pasadena, California. Johnson considers Netz, a right-hander, “the best high school pitcher we will have gotten to campus” since taking over the UA program in June 2015.

Murphy, a right-hander from Peoria Liberty High School, was drafted by the Houston Astros in the 36th round but is expected to honor his commitment to Arizona.

Fifteen rounds earlier, Houston picked Vainer, who announced last month that he’d be transferring from Alabama to Arizona.

Johnson has big plans for Vainer, who’d be immediately eligible as a graduate transfer. He struck out 43 batters in 29º innings for the Crimson Tide this season.

“He’s a big, hard-throwing right-hander that will pitch important innings in high-leverage situations for us and gives us a dynamic I feel like we’ve been missing the last couple years out of the bullpen,” Johnson said.

Vannelle emerged as the Wildcats’ closer this season but could evolve into “one of those swing-type guys” who starts and relieves, Johnson said.

He’s also counting on improvement from returnees such as Randy Abshier, George Arias Jr. and Gil Luna.

“The development of those guys, along with adding the pitchability and competitiveness of this (new) group, gives us a chance to be significantly better on the mound,” Johnson said.

Dyer’s new role

The biggest draft “win” for the 2020 Wildcats came early on Day 2. That’s when Johnson received a call from Matthew Dyer, who informed the coach that he would be returning for another season.

Dyer excelled in his first year at Arizona after transferring from Oregon. Playing four positions — catcher, first base, left field and right field — Dyer batted .393 with a .480 on-base percentage.

While he will continue to share catching duties with Austin Wells, Dyer might expand his responsibilities next season. Johnson said Dyer “legitimately” could play all eight defensive positions in 2020.

“That really gives him a chance to highlight his athleticism,” Johnson said. “No position for him will be off the table.”

Dyer is 6-4 but might have been the fastest player on the 2019 squad.

Interest in Brown

The many coaching changes in college baseball, especially on the West Coast, could affect the UA staff.

After Brian Green left New Mexico State to become the coach at Washington State, reported that Arizona assistant Sergio Brown could be a candidate for the NMSU job.

Brown also has ties to Cal State Northridge, which recently fired Greg Moore. Brown served as an assistant at coach for the Matadors in 2013.

“He’s done a good job here, and I think schools should look at him to be a head coach,” Johnson said of his ace recruiter and infield coach.

“He should be a candidate for all those positions. Schools would be making a mistake not to look at him.”

Inside pitch

  • Shortstop Jacob Blas, who missed 39 games this season because of personal issues and a knee injury, is making good progress with the latter, Johnson said. “There is a chance that we may get him out the back half of the summer to start playing again,” Johnson said. “Real positive news on that front.” The UA has applied for a medical-hardship waiver for Blas, who’d be a redshirt sophomore next season if it were granted.
  • Johnson on having three of his players (Cameron Cannon, Nick Quintana, Matt Fraizer) picked in the first three rounds of the draft: “All three of those guys were drafted out of high school and significantly improved their position by playing at Arizona. I just think it speaks to what we want to be about in terms of player development.”
  • A conference-record 70 Pac-12 players were drafted, including No. 1 overall pick Adley Rutschman of Oregon State. All 11 schools that participate in baseball had at least one draftee. UCLA led the way with 13.


Michael is an award-winning journalist who has been covering sports professionally since the early '90s. He started at the Star in 2015 after spending 15 years at The Orange County Register. Michael is a graduate of Northwestern University.