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Importance of 2018 MLB Draft has grown for ASU baseball, Tracy Smith

In his first two seasons at ASU, Tracy Smith led the team to a pair of NCAA Regional berths before putting together consecutive losing seasons.(Jack Harris/Cronkite News)

TEMPE, Ariz. — Ray Anderson wanted to make himself clear.

His vote of confidence for Arizona State baseball coach Tracy Smith, who guided the Sun Devils to back-to-back losing seasons for the first time in program history in 2017 and 2018, isn’t lasting forever. For now, ASU’s vice president for university athletics has set the timer at one year — relying on next season’s results to determine if he’ll roll it back.

Anderson said “2019 is a big year for us to show significant improvement moving forward, period. If you’re looking for ‘Do we have to win a certain number of games?’ ‘Do we have to do this, do we have to do that?’ No.

“We’re looking for significant improvement that will give us the confidence that long term we are on the right trajectory.”

The 2018 Major League Baseball Draft, which begins today, could impact that perception.

For Smith, the scrutiny is nothing new.

In his first six seasons at Indiana, a place he coached from 2006-2014 before making the jump to Tempe, the Hoosiers never won more than 32 games and played in just one regional. In the seventh year of Smith’s Bloomington tenure, though, he led Indiana to a 49-16 record and a spot in the College World Series.

The fourth-year ASU skipper has been keen on pointing out that a majority of the moves he’s been criticized for this season — most of which revolve around his insistence to keep playing hoards of freshmen despite their constant blunders, in hopes that the experience will benefit them down the road — are part of a larger plan.

“ASU pays me a salary to go out and build this thing,” Smith said after ASU’s final game Saturday. “My reputation is as a builder and we are still doing that.”

In his final press conference of the season, Smith said that he was keeping Anderson and ASU President Michael Crow informed at all times and claimed that the trio has been, “together since day one.”

On Tuesday, Anderson confirmed that notion.

“Tracy Smith has a plan he’s shared with us that will get us there,” Anderson said. “It’s not coincidental that five or six or seven freshmen started in our lineup. Last year our recruiting class at ASU baseball was one of the best in the country.”

As many learned from Anderson’s decision to fire football coach Todd Graham after the Devils beat Arizona in the 2017 Territorial Cup, the Arizona State athletic director values recruiting — perhaps above all else — when it comes to coaches. He mentioned that the football team under Graham failed to recruit at a high level while baseball has excelled in the same area.

Smith and Co. brought in the No. 5 and No. 6 recruiting classes in the country in 2016 and 2017, respectively, in Baseball America’s college recruiting rankings.

In those same rankings for the 2018 class, ASU is ranked 39th with an 11-man class that includes eight pitchers. But the rankings fail to take into account ASU’s JUCO signings — a two-man group of pitchers Darius Vines and Tyler McKay that excites Smith.

“We went with some immediate help, too, on the junior college route,” Smith said. “Because I want to make sure that we’re matching on the mound what’s going on position-ly.”

That starts in recruiting. In Smith’s two top classes, commits on the mound were few and far between — a trend that led to him playing a guessing game every time he called to the bullpen this season.

Smith thinks his recruiting has solved the problem, basically allowing for an overhaul of the Devils pitching staff. That’s the hope at least.

But with the MLB draft beginning today, Smith can only hope his class stays intact. Although he doesn’t think any of ASU’s commits will get selected in the first five rounds, a frame in which most selections will sign with a team instead of going to college, he says most of the guys fall in to the five- to 15-round range. A mystery zone.

“All of the guys that signed are going to have professional opportunities if they so choose. It’s just that (inexact) science of what’s right,” Smith said in a media availability before the Devils’ final series of the season.

“I’ve been doing this 22 years. This draft, on the pitching side, this one has as much impact on a program I’ve coached as probably any draft coming up.”

For ASU, 2019 has become an ultimatum year of sorts. ASU has fallen short before. In 2016, the Devils lost four high-caliber commits, including one — first baseman Chad McClanahan — who went in the 11th-round.

But, Smith thinks his team’s incapabilities on the mound are a good thing for his 2018 commits, even trying to give a little pitch to them through the media.

“If you’re a pitching prospect potentially coming here that’s in the class,” he said, “there’s going to be tons of opportunity.”

The most likely Sun Devils commit to take his talents to the big leagues is Vines. Before recording a 3.98 ERA for Yavapai College last season, Baseball America ranked the right-hander as the 27th-best JUCO prospect in the country (McKay was listed under “Other names to watch”).

Dustin Garcia, who was named the No. 1 outfielder in the state of Washington by Perfect Game, may also consider foregoing his ASU commitment to jump into the pros. The amount of bonus signing money a team throws at him, though, could be the difference. Baseball Draft Report listed Garcia on its 2018 MLB Draft high school outfielder follow list in October.

Smith has made it a point that ASU takes its role in sending kids to MLB very seriously. That helps build up the allure of Tempe. But part of recruiting in a tough college baseball landscape is, as Smith put it, recruiting guys that are good, but not too good.

With players like Gage Canning and Spencer Torkelson under his belt in Tempe, Smith can get it done in the living rooms, and Anderson knows that. Past struggles on the field could be blamed on the fact that some of former coach Tim Esmay’s recruits were still on the team, that the Phoenix Municipal Stadium fences aren’t the right dimensions for the current team construct.

But in 2019, Smith will have all his players and he’ll have a team he built to play in a smaller park.

“He has recruited. … A lot of the (players) you have in here when you get here have been recruited by a prior staff,” Anderson said. “The three (classes) for which Tracy is primarily responsible, he owns, we own, I own, those three classes will be competing together in 2019.

“2019, very frankly, is a very important year for us.”

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