Arizona State coach Tracy Smith (Aaron Fitt)


Fitt: Arizona State’s Rocky Rebuild


TEMPE, Ariz. — When five players left the Arizona State baseball program in the span of two days late last week, it was only natural for people outside the program to wonder: What the heck is going on in Tempe?

I’ve been asked that question probably 10 times in the last few days. And the short answer is this: The Sun Devils are going through some growing pains, but it’s hardly the train wreck it might appear to be based on the “exodus” of the last week. ASU athletics director Ray Anderson has given coach Tracy Smith a strong vote of confidence in the media, and that was the right thing to do, because Smith is still the right man to lead this program.

It’s no secret that the Sun Devils are having a difficult season. They’re 20-24 overall, 7-14 in the Pac-12, and they’re going to miss the postseason. The departures of five players with three weeks left in the season were magnified by the team’s struggles, but it’s hardly unusual for players to leave a team once classes end if they are injured or out of eligibility or simply looking to transfer. All coaches meet with players and have frank conversations about their futures as seasons are winding down; for a losing team without a chance to play in the postseason, what purpose does it serve to keep players around who aren’t playing and won’t be with the program next year? If they want to move on with their careers, it makes sense to get a head start.

Only one of the departures was disciplinary related: center fielder Andrew Shaps was dismissed for “failing to buy into the team culture,” as Shaps put it in a statement he posted on social media. Smith told reporters on Saturday night that he was “tired of dealing with it.”

Shaps’ roommate, Ryan Lillard, said in a statement that his “unwavering support for, and defense of, my teammates” led to his “premature departure.” But Lillard’s playing time had been reduced (he was hitting .202) and his future in the program was uncertain anyway. And his exit was not acrimonious.

The other three departures — seldom-used pitchers Zach Dixon and Chris Isbell plus fifth-year senior Jackson Willeford — were more routine. Dixon and Isbell didn’t have futures at ASU (both were told they would not be on the travel roster over the last few weeks and would have limited roles next season), and Willeford is injured and out of eligibility.

So after Sunday’s game against Stanford, Smith pushed back against the implication that the program is in turmoil.

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