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Incoming recruits give Lobo baseball optimism

Lobo baseball recruits Justin Armbruester (top left), Will Armbruester (top right), Kyler Castillo (bottom left), and Harry Fullerton (bottom right).

The 2020 season will be one of change for the University of New Mexico baseball team.

Significant change.

The Lobos’ roster is undergoing a major transformation after UNM struggled to a 23-28-1 record and missed the Mountain West Conference tournament in 2019. At least 21 newcomers had either signed National Letters of Intent or announced verbal commitments to become Lobos as of Saturday, most of them with previous college experience.

UNM’s incoming group includes Junior College All-Americans, two former power conference commits, highly recruited freshmen and an unmistakable Southern drawl. Twelve of the 21 players competed at Texas schools last season.

Lobos coach Ray Birmingham won’t be fully convinced until all the newcomers actually arrive at Santa Ana Star Field for fall camp. Still, he’s undeniably optimistic.

“This group has a chance to be the best recruiting class we’ve ever had,” Birmingham said. “We went heavier than usual on (junior college) players because we had a lot of holes to fill. But I have to tip my cap to (assistant coach and recruiting coordinator) Jon Coine. He worked his tail off putting this class together and he’s done an incredible job.”

The junior college portion of UNM’s recruiting class was recently ranked 17th nationally according to the Juco Baseball Blog (TheJBB.com). Outfielder and New Mexico commit Kyler Castillo of Odessa Junior College was rated as the No. 6 player overall.

The Lobos’ recruiting class could have been even better but for two players lost to Major League Baseball’s amateur draft. Catcher Darrien Miller of Clovis, Calif., was a ninth-round pick and former La Cueva right-hander Jonathan Stroman (Central Arizona JC) was selected in the 22nd round. Both UNM commits opted to sign pro contracts.

Even so, New Mexico has help on the way at every position — and the help figures to be much-needed. Between graduation losses, injuries and a handful of transfers, the Lobos have only three starting position players returning from 2019: Infielders Connor Mang and Justin Watari, and catcher Ediberto Reyes.

UNM’s pitching staff remains more intact despite losing ace starter Justin Slaten and closer Malachi Emond, who were selected in the MLB draft. The recruiting class includes 11 pitchers, however, though two of them are also position players.

Several of the Lobos’ recruits have not yet submitted signed NLIs, including shortstop Adam Schneider who announced his verbal commitment Thursday via Twitter. Birmingham confirmed UNM is recruiting all 21 players on the recruiting list but NCAA rules prohibit coaches from otherwise commenting on unsigned players.

The overall recruiting class is another story.

“We’ll have a whole bunch of new faces and I expect us to be a much different team,” Birmingham said. “We’ll have way more talent than we’ve had the last two years. I’m excited to see what we can do with it.”

Here are tidbits about a few of the incoming Lobos.

■ Right-handed siblings Justin and Will Armbruester won’t be difficult for fans to spot. Justin, a rising junior, is 6-foot-3 and 230 pounds while rising freshman Will goes 6-5 and 225. Justin was the Northwest Conference Pitcher of the Year at NAIA Pacific Lutheran last season, striking out 121 in 88 innings. Will competed in the 2013 Little League World Series for Sammamish, Wash.

■ UNM scored twice on recruits from Odessa Junior College. Outfielder Castillo was named a first-team JC All-American after hitting .460 with 53 RBIs and 74 runs scored. Teammate Harry Fullerton, an infielder from Sydney, Australia, hit .357 with 64 RBIs and 72 runs scored.

■ Hitters in the Fort Worth area won’t be sorry to see left-hander Matt Haley leave the state. Pitching for Joshua High School, Haley tossed three no-hitters including a perfect game last season. He threw 80 pitches in the seven-inning perfecto, 60 of them strikes, and struck out 14.

■ Outfielder Jacob Guerrero also enjoyed a successful season in Texas, helping Colleyville Heritage High to a state championship. Guerrero, who hit .408, was one of seven players on his prep team to sign with Division I programs. The group included Bobby Witt Jr., the No. 2 overall pick in June’s MLB draft.

■Outfielder Brian Seamster and pitcher Collin Storms played at junior colleges last season but they’re no strangers to Division I. Seamster played a season at Ole Miss in 2017, while Storms signed with Oklahoma before opting to play at Navarro JC in Texas last season.

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