As hard as it may be to shelve the what-could-have-been of 2021, Hog baseball fans, we must start that rehab together.
The Super Regional loss to North Carolina State represented an early, jarring end to what just 48 hours earlier became the program’s first 50-win season in three decades. There’s no use rehashing the lurking deficiencies that Kevin Kopps alone might have masked for months.
Kopps, newly anointed as the first relief pitcher to ever win the Dick Howser Trophy, should be on his way to a strong professional future — even if some naysayers don’t think he’s even worth a Top 100 pick.
Other veterans will exit, too, and the MLB Draft will have its usual purgative effects on the recruiting class and the returnees.
Yet, for as nasty as the sting of falling far short of a first national title is, Arkansas won’t be in any sort of decline. Dave Van Horn’s stubbornness might have elicited some naysayers as the Hogs’ championship aspirations perished, but it always wins on the recruiting trail.
Consider that Perfect Game currently has the Hogs’ 2021 class slotted third nationally. Florida and Vandy sit just above Arkansas, with LSU, UCLA and Tennessee just behind.
Arkansas baseball lineup should still bash
Again, Arkansas possessed some of the most powerful bats in the country. By season’s end, though, that aggression backfired at the worst possible time.
Despite the nation-leading home run total, the Arkansas baseball lineup also ended up having no regular hitting higher than .284. That’s not unusual for a Van Horn team, but ultimately only Charlie Welch (.388 in 67 AB) consistently produced down the stretch.
The popular Welch returns, but his position is unknown. His catching experience makes him a possible successor to Casey Opitz, which would represent a net offensive gain and defensive loss.
Max Soliz, Jr., a big (6’5″, 220 lbs) Alabama prep prospect, will see time behind the dish if he turns away the draft. Dylan Leach returns, too, and showed plenty of promise in limited duty.
The infield question marks surround first baseman Brady Slavens and shortstop Jalen Battles. Both will be drafted, but also scuffled enough in June to dissuade teams from spending high picks, despite their obvious talents.
Returning home run leader Robert Moore remains entrenched at second another year, though, and other help is forthcoming.
Max Muncy (Camarillo, CA) and Drake Varnado (Port Neches, TX) might find the lure of professional riches too great to deny. Both, however, will bring Major League-ready skills if they hold to their present commitments.
Cayden Wallace could move permanently to third base.
His bat is an undeniable asset, with enough athleticism and size for a college corner infielder. Welch could provide Matt Goodheart-like relief at either corner, potentially, with some reps.
Whether Christian Franklin’s terrible punctuation to an otherwise great year will hit his draft stock enough to bring him back to Fayetteville remains to be seen.
Texarkana, TX product Braylon Bishop is a five-star, five-tool asset who likely takes the professional path, but other commits like Conway’s Cameron Leach will compete for time with returnees Zack Gregory and Ethan Bates.
Live, inexperienced arms will be in abundance
The most withering criticism of Van Horn centered on a perceived over-reliance on Kopps.
There’s room for debate but the indisputable effect of Kopps’ workload was that other guys simply didn’t get much-needed work.
And now that Kopps’ last pitch as a Hog met its cruel fate, how does this staff rebuild under Matt Hobbs’ guidance? Patrick Wicklander’s ace-level work will also result in him taking flight professionally.
That leaves a paper-thin nucleus in terms of game experience. Peyton Pallette’s injury makes his 2022 status cloudy, too.
The good news is that the surefire returnees include Jaxon Wiggins, Heston Tole, Elijah Trest, and Zack Morris. The collective work of the four looks statistically modest, but all arrived with big expectations. They also did get SEC-level work this year, and if Caden Monke, Ryan Costeiu, and Caleb Bolden return, the nucleus is that much stronger.
It may not sound imposing, but those seven pitchers combined to go 20-5 in mixed roles, and struck out nearly 11 per nine innings. The prospects of any of them as a weekend starter, however, count as a firm unknown.
For that reason, Arkansas may end up leaning on at least a couple of incoming freshmen to survive some trial by fire. Texas lefty Hagen Smith is the jewel arm of the class after tossing five no-hitters and allowing just one run and six hits in 55 innings this spring.
But again, his arrival is threatened by the draft.
If Smith’s 6’3″ frame and easy delivery aren’t here, Eau Claire, Wisconsin product Vincent Trapani figures to work his way into the mix.
The Arkansas baseball program certainly stands ready to add more live arms in the weeks after the draft.
Unanswered Questions for Arkansas Baseball
Kopps simply can’t be replaced. Franklin’s worth as a center fielder is immeasurable, too, so if he departs the up-the-middle defense will need attention.
Opitz, Goodheart, and Cullen Smith made impressions and impact, but there would appear to be plenty to make up for their losses. The starting rotation never settled much in 2021, and it’s hard to envision what the 2022 version will look like at this moment.
Arkansas, however, still ranks among the elite national programs due to consistency. Van Horn’s worst and only losing season (2016) now seems like a distant memory, thankfully.
But any time the country’s most indispensable asset leaves your program, you cannot reasonably anticipate the effect. Kopps’ role evolved throughout the year, and the coaching staff adapted accordingly.
The Hogs will be a strong, relevant team again in 2022.
Whether we can expect them to capitalize on, and learn from, the 2021 experience is going to be heavily dictated by what transpires during the 2021 MLB Draft on July 11-13.
Like Kopps, super recruit Hagen Smith had to battle back from Tommy John surgery. Learn more here:
Feature image via Baumology (Rhett Hutchins)