JONESBORO — Arkansas State doesn’t figure to have many newcomers in the lineup entering Tommy Raffo’s 13th season as head baseball coach.
As Raffo quickly points out, the Red Wolves’ Sun Belt Conference rivals will have a familiar look, too.
The NCAA Division I Council voted to allow athletes in spring sports such as baseball an extra season of eligibility after the 2020 campaign was cut short because of the coronavirus pandemic last March. Players who would have exhausted their eligibility a year ago could return this spring, depending on their institution.
The Major League Baseball draft was also shortened from 40 rounds to five last year, limiting the options for draft-eligible players.
“What you’re looking at is not only are the COVID seniors coming back in the Sun Belt, but you also had juniors that with the draft only being five rounds, now the typical rounds maybe where a Sun Belt player gets drafted, maybe rounds 11-40, they didn’t get picked up either,” Raffo said. “These rosters across the Sun Belt and across the country are absolutely loaded in college baseball.
“It’s not a talent glut, but the level of competition across college baseball is going to be high. The incoming players, obviously the incoming freshmen, they’re not maybe counted on as quickly because of that impact.”
ASU returns six players who were seniors on last year’s squad, which had a 7-9 record when the season was shut down just before the start of Sun Belt Conference play, and all six are key players for the Red Wolves.
Right fielder Tyler Duncan, center fielder Drew Tipton and designated hitter Sky-Lar Culver were also fixtures in ASU’s lineup last year. Zech Jarrard, Jack Jumper and Kollin Stone will have important roles on the pitching staff.
The Red Wolves, who are set to open the season Tuesday at Ole Miss, also have experience elsewhere around the diamond on a 40-player roster.
“From an offensive, defensive and pitching standpoint, I don’t think there’s really something that says, ‘Hey, this is unbelievable,’” Raffo said when asked about his team’s strengths. “I think it has to be complementary for us to do well in the league, to win the championship. We have to be able to score runs to help our pitching and defense, and vice versa.
“I think sometimes if you have too much of one strength, it becomes a detriment maybe toward teams figuring it out later in the season, or if your strength gets hurt via injury. I think it’s a very complementary team.”
Raffo said junior catcher/infielder Liam Hicks has probably drawn the most interest from professional scouts.
A left-handed hitter who will catch more this season, Hicks batted .327 last season with a team-high four home runs. Raffo said Hicks, who had a .526 on-base percentage last year, is likely to begin the season in the leadoff role.
“He’s kind of like a Joe Schrimpf or Zach George-type of hitter who can hit the ball to all fields, get on base, get guys in,” Raffo said, using two former ASU standouts as a comparison. “He can do all that.”
Junior third baseman Ben Klutts had a team-high .364 batting average while starting all 16 games in 2020. Klutts also drove in 10 runs and belted two home runs.
Raffo said Klutts has also attracted interest from pro scouts.
“The JUCO to D-1 jump, you always have some issues, but we felt like the first 16 games he had worked through some,” Raffo said. “It’s just a transition, but he was making it a lot faster than maybe a freshman would.”
Freshman Jake Gish took over at shortstop just before the season was halted. Gish started the final three games, going 5-for-12 at the plate, and finished with a .316 batting average in eight games.
Culver was off to a slow start last season, finishing at .228, but he had a .316 batting average with 14 doubles and 45 RBIs while playing all 55 games in 2019. Tipton was batting .220 when last season was halted, but he finished at .276 in 2019 with 30 RBIs and 27 stolen bases.
Duncan had a .321 average when the 2020 season was stopped. Junior left fielder Jaylon Deshazier, who had a .220 average in 16 games, has 11 career home runs and was 6-for-6 with six RBIs against Mississippi Valley State last year.
Raffo said freshman Jared Toler will likely start at first base, with Culver and sophomore Will Huber also in the picture.
Junior Blake McCutchen is expected to play second base once he returns from an elbow procedure, with freshman Jacob Hager and junior college transfer Garrett Olson other possibilities. ASU’s depth at catcher also includes freshmen Parker Rowland, John Hoskyn and Brandon Hager.
ASU’s outfield depth also includes sophomore Eli Davis, freshman Brandon Ulmer, junior Andrew Leggo and freshman Sam Fagan.
Behind Hicks, Raffo projected Klutts, Duncan, Gish and Culver in the top five of the batting order. “Obviously we had some guys in the lineup last year for the first time and now you feel like they’re not really first-timers,” Raffo said.
On the mound, Raffo said the Red Wolves might use several pitchers on Friday nights before settling into Saturday and Sunday matchups for weekend series.
Jumper might start for a couple of innings in an “opener” role on Friday nights, Raffo said, and then be available for relief work on Sundays. While he started slowly in 2020, Jumper had a team-best 1.87 earned run average in a relief role in 2019.
Weekend starting possibilities include juniors Jared Wilson, Carter Holt, Brandon Anderson and Will Nash, plus freshman Max Charlton. Anderson struck out 13 batters in a victory over Mississippi Valley State last year; Nash had a 1.32 ERA in 13.2 innings pitched; Wilson had a 4.50 ERA in limited action; and Holt sat out last season because of injuries.
Freshmen Jake Algee and Brandon Hudson are expected to work in relief. Raffo described junior Will Gilmer as a one-inning reliever while Stone is expected to pitch in the late innings as a setup reliever or closer.
Jarrard, who had a 1.76 ERA in 15.1 innings last season, is slated to be the closer.
“He can close with two or three innings left in a game or one, so he’s very versatile in that regard,” Raffo said. “We’ve seen him start, but he can be dominant at the end. His stuff is filthy.”
ASU’s pitching depth also includes juniors Max Gehler, Bryce Bartlett and Andrew McGlynn along with freshmen Josh Albat, Phillip Bryant, Tristan Camp, Jaden Woolbright, Tyler Jeans, Will Gross and Walker Williams.
“We have options and we have capabilities. We know we’re not very left-handed, either, and that’s a problem,” Raffo said of the pitching staff. “We have one left-hander in Williams, and he’ll be more of a left-on-left matchup, so we have to give teams different looks. We can’t give the same look the third time through the lineup.”