FAYETTEVILLE — The 2024 Arkansas baseball season is just around the corner and it can’t get here soon enough for a fanbase starved for a winner.
With the football team falling apart en route to a 4-8 finish and the basketball team scuffling to a 1-5 start to SEC play, it’s up to Dave Van Horn’s squad to salvage the school year for the Razorbacks’ three major sports.
Expectations are once again sky high, with numerous publications putting Arkansas baseball inside the top five of their preseason rankings.
The regular season is still three weeks away, but preseason practice gets underway Friday. The Razorbacks will scrimmage at 2 p.m. CT inside Baum-Walker Stadium. They’ll take Saturday off before scrimmaging again Sunday and Monday.
As always, scrimmages — as long as they’re in the stadium — are free and open to the public.
In the meantime, here are five “burning questions” Van Horn and his staff will try to answer before the Feb. 16 opener against James Madison…
1. Will Arkansas baseball make it to Opening Day healthy?
On paper, the Razorbacks have one of the best starting rotations in all of college baseball. Arkansas baseball fans would probably be more excited about that if they weren’t busy holding their breath about each of them making it to Opening Day.
It’s hard to blame them. This is about the time Arkansas has lost its projected ace to Tommy John surgery the last two years — Peyton Pallette in 2022 and Jaxon Wiggins in 2023. Both pitchers would have had big roles on teams that went to the College World Series and won the SEC, respectively, without them.
Right now, the Razorbacks *knock on wood* seem to be pretty healthy.
Freshman phenom Hunter Dietz did have a minor procedure at the end of fall ball, but Dave Van Horn said he should be ready to contribute by early April. He showed this fall that he has electric stuff and would be a key left-handed pitcher in Arkansas’ bullpen this season, with starter potential down the line.
Second baseball Peyton Stovall (torn labrum) and right-hander Koty Frank (torn lat muscle) are back to full health after having season-ending surgeries last year, while right-hander Dylan Carter (torn UCL) is well ahead of schedule in his recovery from Tommy John surgery and could be pitching in games as early as March.
The wildcard among Arkansas’ injured players is another freshman pitcher, right-hander Adam Hachman. Initially believed to need Tommy John surgery, he ended up getting an internal brace — an alternative to Tommy John with a shorter recovery time. As the Razorbacks begin preseason scrimmages, Hachman isn’t quite ready, but there’s a chance he could pitch at some point this season.
“We haven’t started doing anything yet as far as competing, running the bases and doing those types of things,” Van Horn said. “I’m sure something will come down the road, but we’re in good shape right now as far as injuries. Hopefully we can keep it that way.”
2. Who will emerge as the midweek/fourth starter?
Arkansas is set to open the 2024 season with a four-game series against James Madison beginning Feb. 16. While there’s very little mystery surrounding the Razorbacks’ top three starters, it’s not yet known who will get the nod in that fourth game against the Dukes.
Based on conversations with Dave Van Horn and pitching coach Matt Hobbs, it sounds like the frontrunners may be a pair of sophomores who got thrown into the fire as freshmen: right-hander Ben Bybee and left-hander Parker Coil.
They didn’t have very good numbers last season, posting ERAs of 7.24 and 6.55, respectively, but both have been praised for the strides they’ve made over the offseason.
It’s also possible that one of the several talented freshmen could make a push for that role. Left-hander Hunter Dietz probably would have been at the top of that list if he was healthy, but will instead have to wait before getting his chance.
Right-hander Gabe Gaeckle is another heralded freshman who will likely have some sort of role, possibly as a midweek starter. Left-hander Colin Fisher and right-hander Tate McGuire are two other freshmen Van Horn mentioned by name Thursday morning.
Figuring out that fourth starter is not only important for the opening weekend, but also the postseason, when the Razorbacks may need to play more than just three games to win a regional or advance in Omaha.
3. How will the position battles get resolved for Arkansas baseball?
With the season now just three weeks away, most of the defensive roles have been sorted out. However, as we see it, three position battles remain and these upcoming preseason scrimmages will go a long way to determining the winner…
- Catcher: This is arguably the most intriguing position on the team entering the season, as Arkansas has four catchers who could legitimately start on Opening Day. Parker Rowland and Hudson Polk are back after being the primary starter and backup, respectively last year, and seemingly made massive strides offensively this fall. The Razorbacks also added Hudson White out of the transfer portal and got freshman Ryder Helfrick to campus — both of whom are projected as top MLB Draft prospects in their respective classes.
- First base: This is apparently a two-man battle between returner Ben McLaughlin and transfer Jack Wagner. Both are relatively new to the position, as McLaughlin was a third baseman in junior college before primarily playing as a designated hitter last season and Wagner was a corner outfielder before making the move to first at Tarleton State last year. One perk of this battle is that Wagner hits right-handed and McLaughlin is a lefty. That could open the door for platooning and situational substituting.
- Left field: Based on the fall, JUCO transfer Will Edmunson may be the frontrunner to lock down the third outfield spot, but Dave Van Horn acknowledged on Thursday that Missouri transfer Ross Lovich (who hit .305 in SEC play last season) wasn’t fully healthy in the fall. Jayson Jones is also transitioning to the outfield, similar to Kendall Diggs a year ago, and would bring a power element to the table unlike the other two options, if he can be consistent enough at the plate.
4. Can Aloy and Stovall develop chemistry up the middle?
In typical Dave Van Horn fashion, the first thing he brought up when asked about specific goals to accomplish before Opening Day was establishing the chemistry between shortstop Wehiwa Aloy and second baseman Peyton Stovall.
No Division I team has turned more double plays over the past three seasons than the Razorbacks and a major reason for that has been their play up the middle. In 2021 and 2022, they had arguably the best double-play tandem in school history in Jalen Battles and Robert Moore. Last year, John Bolton evolved into an excellent defensive shortstop and both Stovall and Peyton Holt were very good second basemen.
It would be unfair to expect the Aloy-Stovall tandem to be as good as Battles and Moore, but it has the potential to still be one of the best in the country this year. With Stovall missing the fall as he recovered from offseason surgery, though, these preseason practices will be critical for them to develop timing and rhythm.
“Getting (Stovall) and Wehiwa to play together, play catch together everyday, get to know each other (will be big),” Van Horn said. “Because you just want the middle infielders to just kind of know what they’re doing before it happens.”
5. What will be the specific roles of pitchers in the bullpen?
Barring injury, Arkansas’ weekend rotation is pretty much set with Hagen Smith, Brady Tygart and Mason Molina. As mentioned above, there’s some mystery surrounding the midweek/fourth starter, but there’s a good chance whomever it is will also have a role out of the bullpen.
Best of Arkansas Sports will go more in-depth on this topic in a later piece, but figuring out which pitchers can do what is another top priority of the coaching staff. Some of this is already coming together.
For example, Dave Van Horn mentioned Kansas transfer Stone Hewlett as a left-on-left specialist. The Razorbacks also believe right-hander Will McEntire could pitch twice in a weekend or give them extended innings. Considering they’ve been mentioned as potential starters, Ben Bybee and Parker Coil could be long relief options.
Several other arms are still up in the air. How many of the freshmen can Arkansas count on? Is flame-throwing right-hander Jake Faherty finally able to put it all together? Who will be the closer? Could it be last year’s closer, Gage Wood? Will Koty Frank and Dylan Carter be able to eat up innings like they did before getting hurt last season? What about lesser-used second-year guys like Christian Foutch and Cooper Dossett?
The good news is that because the Razorbacks have so many arms available, they don’t need every single one of those pitchers to live up to their preseason expectations. If only five or six emerge, that should be plenty — when paired with the starting rotation — for Arkansas to have one of the strongest pitching staffs in the country.
Watch Arkansas baseball coach Dave Van Horn’s entire press conference previewing preseason practice and the upcoming season:
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