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ASU Baseball: Breaking down the Sun Devil starters

Friday night, Sun Devil Baseball’s 2018 campaign will be underway, with the lights shining bright on Phoenix Municipal Stadium. The Devils kick off their season with a four-game series against head coach Tracy Smith’s former team (player: 1985-1988, HC 1997-2005), the Miami (Ohio) Redhawks.

Below is the full breakdown of the projected 2018 starters.

Catcher

There was never much doubt that sophomore Lyle Lin would be slotted into the starting lineup on a daily basis after his superb freshman season. But with Zach Cerbo now graduated and sophomore Sam Ferri set to miss all of 2018 with a torn UCL, Lin will be behind the dish for the majority of games, whereas last season he spent more time at first base than catcher. Lin received Freshman All-American honors in 2017, along with a Pac-12 Honorable Mention. He hit .290 for the year, finishing second on the club in hits with 62, to go along with nine doubles.

When Lin gets a day off from catching duties, freshman Luke Leisenring will likely fill in. Graduating a semester early from high school to play in Tempe, Leisenring was rated the No. 1 catcher in the state of Colorado, while also being selected as a 2017 Perfect Game Underclass All-American.

First Base

With Lin squared away at catcher, Tracy Smith shifted junior infielder Jeremy McCuin across the diamond this offseason. McCuin spent the majority of his time in each of his first two seasons in Tempe at third base and shortstop. The Gilbert product fielded just 92.7 percent of the balls hit his way last season, which was one of many factors in the position change.

McCuin discussed how he would rather start at a less familiar position than be a backup somewhere else and at 6’1″ he fits the profile of a first baseman, size-wise. He started 48 of the 49 games he played in 2017, hitting .256.

Second Base

There is a shiny-new double-play combo in town for Arizona State and half of it will be filled by freshman Alika Williams. After turning down pro ball when he was drafted in the 32nd round by the Yankees, Williams came to ASU and quickly developed a strong relationship with many of his teammates through summer workouts and team bonding. It didn’t take him long to have his performance level raise the eyebrows of several returning players.

Williams brings a hot bat, hitting .374 with 68 RBI’s in his high school career at Rancho Bernardo in San Diego. He has also unofficially been named to the roster of the Bourne Braves of the Cape Cod Baseball League for the 2018 summer.

Shortstop

Roaming the six hole and rounding out what is an all-freshman middle infield will be Chandler native Drew Swift. It has not taken the Hamilton High School graduate long to make his presence felt in Tempe. After a senior campaign where he racked up 118 hits with a .355 batting average, Swift was named the Preseason Pac-12 Freshman of the Year, according to Perfect Game. He has also impressed Smith and the rest of the coaching staff beyond expectations in the fall with his baseball maturity and ability to play at such a high level at a very young age. Because of this, he has garnered a starting role to begin the season.

Swift and Williams have already developed great chemistry and look to be key puzzle pieces in a revamped infield defense after the Devils committed over 50 errors around the diamond last season.

Third Base

After a stellar freshman year in which he batted .270 and collected 16 multi-hit games, sophomore Carter Aldrete will finally have one position to solely focus on in 2018. Aldrete spent his freshman season playing a mixture of second base, shortstop and third base, while starting all 55 games.

Despite the durability and his commendable campaign at the plate, Aldrete will look to improve with the leather after committing nine errors last season, the third-highest total on the ballclub. He’ll also work to cut down on punchouts, striking out a team-high 48 times in 2017.

But Smith made the change with oozing confidence in the sophomore. With an extra two months under his belt at third base this past summer for the Newport Gulls of the New England Collegiate Baseball League, Aldrete feels he is ready for whatever comes his way at the hot corner.

Left Field

This is one of the two position battles that is still in the works. And the field hasn’t exactly been cut down. According to Smith, there are still 4-6 players trying to earn the job, despite Trevor Hauver being named the Opening Night starter at Tuesday’s media availability.

There are three freshman in the mix for the gig, specifically Hauver, Gage Workman and Spencer Torkelson. All three are naturally bred infielders, but each of them is looking to adjust to the new position, hungry to work their way into the lineup in any way they can.

Hauver and Torkelson are capable of quickly contributing on offense. Hauver hit over .400 in his junior and senior seasons at Perry High School and was the No. 1 rated shortstop in Arizona. Torkelson will likely find his name somewhere in the lineup, whether it be in left field or at DH, due to the offensive showcase and impressive power he has displayed thus far. In fact, at practice Feb. 6, Torkelson hit a ball that hit Van Buren Street, clearing the second fence on the back field at Phoenix Municipal Stadium.

Workman will likely play a super-utility role if nothing else, taking reps at a handful of positions all offseason. He also has the ability to switch hit, adding to his versatile arsenal, which should give Smith diverse matchup options late in games if Workman were to come off the bench.

Senior Taylor Lane and sophomore Myles Denson will also get their fair shot. Lane spent his junior season as a utility infielder, where he posted a .262 average with two home runs and 12 RBI’s. Denson made a handful of starts in the early going of 2017 but finished the season with just 16 starts and 13 hits, batting .226.

The short version of this position battle is that there may be no clear-cut starter anytime soon. It could very well go by committee to start 2018 until someone takes a firm grab on the position and runs with it.

Center Field

Hunter Bishop began last season as a role player, being described as a freshman with tons of untapped potential. But that potential rapidly transformed into pure ability. Bishop became one of the most impactful players in the Devils’ lineup in no time, finishing second on the squad with five home runs, while hitting .301, slugging .484, and earning a Pac-12 Honorable Mention.

Bishop did have the second most strikeouts among Sun Devil hitters last year with 44. But for a player that possess so much power and struck out at high rate, his plate discipline is very underrated. He walked 15 times in 2017, the third highest total on the team and second most among returning players.

The 6’5″ 210 lbs. Palo Alto native comes into his sophomore season expected to be the everyday center fielder, despite spending most of his days last year in the corner outfield spots. If the swing and miss total can slightly decrease, the sky is the limit for the season he could turn in.

Right Field

It’s safe to say this position should have minimal competition. After all, when a player leads their team in almost every offensive category the previous season, finishes second in the nation in total triples, and earns First-Team Pac 12 recognition, it’s very difficult to imagine anyone else overtaking the role.

Junior Gage Canning will roam right field in 2018 and strive to build on what was a monster 2017 crusade, in which he hit .332, held a .904 OPS, and had six outfield assists, while committing no errors.

Starting Pitching

The rotation was a handicap for ASU last season, having to mix and match their starting pitching on a weekly basis, with 11 different pitchers making a start for the Sun Devils in 2017. Their team ERA of 5.53 ranked second-to-last in the conference (only USC trailed) and a large part of that rested on the shoulders of the starters.

Friday Starter

Sophomore southpaw Spencer Van Scoyoc comes into 2018 as the expected Friday night starter. Van Scoyoc’s Achilles’ heel last year was the high walk rate, allowing 30 free passes and nine hit batsmen in just 28 innings of work. He finished 0-2 with a 3.86 ERA. But the Cedar Rapids, Iowa native made remarkable strides in the offseason, in large part to new pitching coach Mike Cather. Not only has Van Scoyoc’s arm slot changed, but Cather has worked with his fastball command and attacking the bottom of the zone, which has resulted in the vast improvement of his craft, being leaps and bounds ahead of the freshman form of himself.

Saturday Starter

Eli Lingos returns to the team for his senior year and is tentatively slotted to be the Saturday starter. Lingos started 2017 as the Friday night man and shot out of the gate like a rocket. He was nothing short of dominate in four of his first five starts, which included shutouts against Northwestern and Loyola Marymount. In addition, he added an outing of six innings while allowing two runs at TCU and a seven-inning, two-run start against Oregon State, two teams that finished the season with a top five ranking.

Lingos struggled to sustain that level of high-performance the rest of the year, sprinkling in just three quality starts over his final 11 appearances. He possesses the capability to be a very effective starting pitcher for Arizona State, it’s a matter of maintaining the consistency.

Sunday Starter

Senior right-hander Jake Godfrey and freshman Boyd Vander Kooi are expected to compete for the Sunday duties in the rotation.

Godfrey spent his junior season in the bullpen for the Sun Devils, never throwing over four innings in a single appearance. But Godfrey has very high upside, with a fastball that sits in the mid to high 90s. He also spent a portion of 2017 battling injuries. But Godfrey said that this winter is currently the best he’s felt in some time, and that he is ready for a breakout campaign.

Vander Kooi was named the Arizona Gatorade Player of the Year in 2017 and came in as the No. 1 rated right-hander in the state. While it took him a while to get on the same page as Cather, Vander Kooi is now firing on all cylinders. He is working toward using his electric stuff to propel his way into a rotation spot and robust freshman season.

The midweek starter will likely be filled by a combination of senior Ryan Hingst, sophomore Chaz Montoya and the runner-up to the Sunday job, with a couple of unexpected candidates likely to emerge as the season progresses.

Closer

Left-handed junior Connor Higgins will find his way to the back end of the bullpen once again in 2018, filling the closer role. Higgins was the most valuable and efficient Devil reliever last season, posting a 3.92 ERA and collecting four saves, a club high. It led to him being the only team member selected in the 2017 draft, being taken in the 35th round by the Rangers.

Higgins returned to the valley, creating speculation about him moving into a starting role after he posted a 2.75 ERA in 19.1 innings as a starter last summer in Cape Cod. However, Smith ultimately decided his best use was as a closer, with some worries about his stamina. But the versatility and starting experience he brings should not be overlooked. Higgins was stretched out for more than an inning 12 different times last season, allowing more than a run in just two of those appearances. Expect to see various multiinning saves from Higgins this upcoming spring.

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