Jay Johnson greets a visitor in his office. The Arizona Wildcats baseball coach carries a sheet of paper torn from a notebook.
Down the left side, in blue ink, he has jotted down the names on his roster. On the right side, he has drawn a diamond and pieced together a depth chart.
Like everyone else, Johnson is still getting to know his team.
The 2019 Wildcats will have a lot of new faces. Twenty-one of the 39 players currently on the roster are newcomers, including 17 freshmen.
With less than two weeks to go in fall ball, Johnson likes what he has seen so far. Arizona will be younger than in any of Johnson’s first three seasons, but he believes the Wildcats will be deeper and more talented.
“I’m comfortable in saying we have more good players on the roster than we’ve had in any one season,” Johnson said Tuesday.
That’s a pretty bold statement. Arizona reached the College World Series finals in 2016, made the NCAA Tournament in ’17 and was one of the first four teams out last year.
Johnson has no reservations about supplementing his veteran corps with multiple freshmen.
“Not with this particular group,” he said. “I think this is the best group of talent that we’ve had in terms of new players. It’s not on them to carry the team. We have a lot of new players, but we have some important players back. It’s their job to improve on a daily basis, no different than what we say, and really embrace the development things we’re putting in front of them.
“They have the talent to accelerate their learning curve. There’s a lot of un-coachable tools in some of these guys.”
That process is further along than usual thanks to Arizona’s fall schedule. The Wildcats played a professional team from Hermosillo, Mexico, in the Vamos a Tucson Mexican Baseball Fiesta. They played a 22-inning scrimmage against Cal State Fullerton on Oct. 28 and are scheduled to play as many as 24 innings against BYU on Saturday at Hi Corbett Field.
“It gives us an opportunity to know guys a little bit better in a competitive setting, how their character’s going to respond,” Johnson said. “We have 17 freshmen on the team. Every single one of them got into the Fullerton game, and I anticipate most of them will get in on Saturday.
“You kind of get some of the initial nerves off of you. They learn how to control their heartbeat at this level and the importance of slowing the game down.”
At least three freshmen appear to be on track for significant roles in the lineup: catcher Austin Wells, first baseman/outfielder Brandon Boissiere and outfielder Ryan Holgate.
Wells and Holgate were part of Arizona’s original 2018 signing class and were among six players selected in the ’18 MLB draft. Boissiere, a former USC commit, was a late addition to the roster. All three hit left-handed.
The returning vets are led by third baseman Nick Quintana, shortstop Cameron Cannon, second baseman Jacob Blas, outfielder Matt Fraizer and catcher/utility player Matt Dyer. Dyer joined the team last year but had to sit out after transferring from Oregon.
“The first day I got here, there’s 20 new faces I didn’t know,” Quintana said. “But right off the bat I could sense this energy, this chemistry. Things were going to be fine. Things weren’t going to be awkward.
“A lot of us didn’t know each other. I had never seen any of these guys before, besides Austin Wells (who, like Quintana, is from Las Vegas).
“New group of guys. New energy. Young and ready to get after it. It’s cool.”
The pitching staff also received an infusion of fresh blood. Junior college transfers Nate Brown, Andrew Nardi and Vince Vannelle, and freshmen Bryce Collins and George Arias Jr., are among the newcomers expected to contribute to a staff that Johnson believes goes 12-deep.
“We have definitely not been in that situation in any of the previous three years,” Johnson said.
The returning arms include left-handers Randy Labaut and Avery Weems, and right-handers Jonathan Guardado, Preston Price and Zach Sherman. Price, a junior, was named Arizona’s Summer Pitcher of the Year after posting a 3.07 ERA over 41 innings in the Alaska Baseball league.
Quintana has seen them all in intrasquad scrimmages.
“I always feel like I’m going to win because of the pitchers that I have on my team — no matter who it is,” Quintana said. “The diversity of pitchers that we have, the stuff they have … we have a lot of good arms.”
Johnson has added a familiar face to his coaching staff.
Cody Ramer, the starting second baseman for UA’s 2016 national runner-up, is serving as a graduate assistant for his alma mater.
After a breakout senior season, Ramer was drafted in the 19th round by the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. He batted .266 in 335 minor-league at-bats before retiring from playing.
“He stirred the pot on getting this program where it’s at,” Johnson said. “I just let him know when the pro baseball thing was done, I’d love to have back in any capacity with our program.
“He was arguably the MVP of a College World Series finals team. That commands instant respect with the players.”
- Arizona is scheduled to scrimmage against BYU from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday. Admission is free for season-ticket holders and children 12 and younger. It’s $5 for non-season-ticket holders. Concessions will open at 10 a.m.
- Arizona will conclude fall practice with the annual Wild vs. Cats Fall World Series. The games are scheduled for Thursday-Saturday, Nov. 15-17, and are open to the public.
- Labaut, who missed most of last season after needing emergency surgery for compartment syndrome in his left leg, is “fully healthy,” Johnson said. Labaut, a redshirt junior, is a leading candidate to be Arizona’s Friday-night starter.