FAYETTEVILLE — Already considered one of the best in the country, Arkansas baseball has cemented itself as one of the sport’s blue bloods with its play over the past half-decade.
The Razorbacks have reached the College World Series in three of their last four tries, hosted a regional in four of the last five NCAA Tournaments, including once as the No. 1 overall seed when they failed to make it too Omaha, and produced an SEC-high 38 MLB Draft picks the last five years.
About the only thing missing from Arkansas and head coach Dave Van Horn’s trophy case is a national championship, which they came oh-so-close to achieving in 2018.
Now 11 weeks removed from coming up just short of another College World Series finals appearance, the Razorbacks return to Baum-Walker Stadium for the official start of fall practice and another chance to finally bring home that hardware.
Before Arkansas can even begin to think about the season-opener on Feb. 17, much less a potential deep postseason run in June, though, Van Horn has quite a bit to figure out about his 2023 squad, which features 29 new faces on the fall roster.
“We’ve got to learn a lot about ourselves this year, this fall, mostly in the field” Van Horn said Wednesday morning. “I am really excited to get it going tomorrow. We’ve had some really good workouts for the last couple of weeks.”
The Returners for Arkansas Baseball
The reason for Van Horn singling out the field, opposed to the mound, is because the Razorbacks lost seven of their nine primary starters. Four were drafted, two exhausted their eligibility and another transferred out.
That number could have been higher, but Brady Slavens went undrafted and opted to return to school as a super senior, likely costing himself a significant amount of money. It probably didn’t help that he was apparently hurt most of the year, as he had ulnar nerve transposition on Aug. 4.
The surgery is expected to have a 3.5-month recovery, but Van Horn said he’d still field ground balls at first base — where he’s projected to start this year after giving outfield a shot in 2022 and ending up as the designated hitter — while not swinging the bat or throwing.
It was a surprising boost to the Razorbacks’ lineup because even after going undrafted, Slavens likely could have signed as a free agent, but he decided against it after a meeting between his father, himself and Van Horn.
“We talked about playing the game and loving the game and playing with a smile on your face, and that’s what we want out of Brady,” Van Horn said. “If we get that from Brady, I think he’s going to have a great year. I think Brady put a ton of pressure on himself last year, and we don’t want him to feel that pressure.”
Barring “something crazy” happening, Van Horn said Peyton Stovall will slide over to his natural position at second base — which has been the plan all along — and replace Robert Moore.
“He kind of fools you with his quickness,” Van Horn said. “Robert was like the Energizer Bunny out there. That was his style. Stovall is more of, a little calmer, but he has some quickness, he can turn the double play and we’re teaching him a couple of different techniques there.”
He ended his freshman season strong and then went to play in the Cape Cod League this summer, so the Louisiana native is a little tired. With that in mind, Van Horn said the coaching staff would “pace him a little bit” this fall to get him recharged and ready to go for the opener.
Beyond those two players, though, it’s impossible to pencil anyone in as starters just yet. Considering the Razorbacks are replacing a whopping 74 percent of their at bats from last season, filling out the rest of Van Horn’s lineup card tops Best of Arkansas Sports’ five biggest questions facing the Arkansas baseball team entering fall practice…
1. How Will Arkansas Fill the Holes?
Outside of Stovall, the Razorbacks’ infield last season featured a pair of second-round picks in third baseman Cayden Wallace and second baseman Robert Moore and a fifth-round pick in Jalen Battles.
Their outfield included a pair of super seniors in center fielder Braydon Webb and right fielder Chris Lanzilli, plus a fourth-year junior in Zack Gregory who has since transferred to Grand Canyon.
The seventh departure was catcher Michael Turner, a super senior who also got drafted, but more on that position in a bit. Five of the spots behind the pitcher, as well as the designated hitter, are now up for grabs with an appearance at the College Baseball Showdown in Arlington — and matchups with Oklahoma State, Texas and TCU — looming Feb. 17-19 to open the 2023 season.
“We have got to figure out who to play where and the sooner the better,” Van Horn said. “I don’t think I’ve ever been a part of so many position players that played big roles the previous season being gone.
“This is going to be a big challenge to figure this out before opening day next year because we are not starting out with some teams we should be able to beat right away if we are not really, really ready to roll. The schedule is really good.”
The Razorbacks do have a couple of key bench players returning who could take on larger roles this season. Most notably, Oklahoma transfer Jace Bohrofen started 24 games and occasionally split time with Gregory in left field when he was healthy.
Unfortunately, that qualifier has followed the former top-50 recruit around. A left-handed hitter with a lot of power, Bohrofen — who missed time in 2022 because of a freak injury suffered when he crashed into the wall during pregame warmups — posted a solid .865 OPS in the Cape Cod League this summer, but only played in 18 games because of injuries. Even now, Van Horn said he’s still dealing with some issues with his knees.
“I think the key for him is to get healthy,” Van Horn said. “If we can get a healthy Jace Bohrofen for one year, I think there would be a lot of pro interest in him…but he’s got to stay healthy and he’s got a lot of competition, but that’s our plan, is for him to be out there.”
The other is Kendall Diggs, who fans remember for hitting the walk-off home run to beat Ole Miss. That came in one of his 15 starts as a freshman last year. Most of those came as a designated hitter.
This year, the Kansas native is in the mix at third base and first base, where me made two starts in 2022, plus he’ll get a look as a corner outfielder this fall. Van Horn said he could have some ups and downs defensively, but his bat is what could keep him in the lineup — especially if he makes the usual jump from freshman to sophomore year.
“When he was good last year, he took his walks, fouled off a ton of pitches,” Van Horn said. “He was just a really tough out, and that’s the kind of guy we need.”
All of the position possibilities for Diggs is a common theme entering fall ball.
Van Horn mentioned that junior college transfer Peyton Holt, a Greenwood native who began his career at Louisiana-Lafayette, has been playing a lot of second base behind Stovall, but he played third base at Crowder C.C. and could also play some corner outfield. For Hunter Grimes, another junior college transfer, the possibilities are shortstop, third base and center field, while freshman Jayson Jones will get a look at both corner infield spots.
Other candidates at shortstop include junior college transfer and former top-100 recruit Harold Coll, Austin Peay transfer John Bolton and redshirt freshman Jude Putz.
“I just want the most consistent guy to play there,” Van Horn said. “If he’s not the most consistent, he’s really going to have to hit. So we’ve got four or five, six weeks to figure this thing out a little bit and then we’ll really work at that in the offseason.”
In the outfield, Kansas transfer Tavian Josenberger, freshman Mason Neville and Grimes are the top candidates to patrol center, while Creighton transfer Jared Wegner is another prime candidate to take one of the corner outfield positions.
2. Who Will be Behind the Plate?
This position deserves its own section because catcher is such an important position and one where Arkansas baseball fans have been spoiled for the last six years, as the Razorbacks have transitioned seamlessly from Grant Koch to Casey Opitz to Michael Turner.
Each of those players had excellent careers in Fayetteville and ended up being taken in the top 10 rounds of the MLB Draft. They were also pretty obvious starting candidates when they took over behind the plate.
Arkansas does not have that this year thanks to backup Dylan Leach transferring to Missouri and reserve Max Soliz Jr. also hitting the portal.
With no catchers on the roster, the Razorbacks went out and signed three. They got Hudson Polk and Cal Kilgore out of the portal, from Oklahoma and New Mexico State, respectively, and landed Parker Rowland from the junior college ranks.
“I feel real good after seeing those guys in here,” Van Horn said. “They all bring a little bit of something to the table. … I think it will be some good competition, which is healthy and will make those guys better.”
However, as mentioned above, none of them is a clear frontrunner. Rowland put up the best numbers of the group, slashing .408/.509/.668 with 12 home runs and 78 RBIs in 51 games as a switch-hitter, but that was at Eastern Oklahoma State C.C.
He began his career at Arkansas State, where he went 13 for 78 (.167) with 28 strikeouts. However, he looks completely different, as he was listed at 6-foot-1, 235 pounds as a freshman in 2020 and is now listed as 6-foot-3, 215 pounds.
Polk played at the highest level of the bunch, serving as the backup on Oklahoma’s national runner-up team last year, while Kilgore has the most Division I experience with 33 starts — including two in the NCAA Tournament — as a true freshman at New Mexico State.
3. What Will the Starting Rotation Look Like?
This may have been the single biggest question facing Arkansas baseball going into the 2022 season and it is once again a question mark this offseason — but for vastly different reasons.
Last season, the Razorbacks were returning (after Peyton Pallette went down) only 22.2% of the starts on the mound from their historic 2021 campaign. This year, they not only have 62.7% of their starts back, but they return pretty much everyone but Connor Noland among pitchers seen as starters by the end of the year.
Left-hander Hagen Smith was Arkansas’ Saturday starter for much of his freshman season, right-hander Will McEntire emerged midway through the year and worked his way into the rotation, and left-hander Zack Morris came on strong down the stretch and eventually made two starts in the NCAA Tournament.
Throw in right-hander Brady Tygart, who had eight saves as the Razorbacks’ closer and was always seen as a future weekend starter, and you have the four pitchers Van Horn identified as those who “jump out” as potential starters. He then added that he believed Jaxon Wiggins, the ubertalented right-hander who was the Sunday starter most of the season before struggling down the stretch, will be “better than ever.”
Van Horn also said he believes right-hander Austin Ledbetter, the former two-sport standout from Bryant, will make a jump in his sophomore year. He started a couple of midweek games last year and also threw 2 2/3 scoreless innings in Omaha.
Arkansas will have left-hander Nick Griffin available, as well. He was a top-100 recruit who needed Tommy John as soon as he arrived on campus, but is now in his second year removed from the surgery. Van Horn has previously said he viewed Griffin as a potential SEC starter during the recruiting process.
On top of those seven guys, the Razorbacks added left-hander Hunter Hollan, the ace of junior college powerhouse San Jacinto J.C., and right-hander Cody Adcock, who started a couple of games as a freshman at Ole Miss — including one against Arkansas in the SEC Tournament — before transferring to Crowder C.C.
Another name to watch is right-hander Koty Frank, who Van Horn described as a “do-it-all” guy who can pitch in any role and has “some attitude” on the mound. He started seven games at Nebraska last year and is now a super senior.
“It is going to be a good fall for our hitters to face this type of pitching every day,” Van Horn said. “I think it’s going to help us develop a little quicker with the bats.”
Not only will it help the Razorbacks’ hitters get better, but it also gives Van Horn and pitching coach Matt Hobbs a plethora of options to fill various roles. Before they can do that, though, they need to figure out which three will be in their weekend rotation and who can start the midweek games.
4. Which Transfers Will Contribute?
Several of them have already been mentioned, but the Arkansas baseball team landed eight players out of the transfer portal this offseason. Two of them — Jordan Sprinkle from UC-Santa Barbara and Julian Bosnic from South Carolina — were ultimately drafted and signed professionally, leaving six who actually made it to Fayetteville.
Out of that group, it sounds like Van Horn has been most impressed by Jared Wegner, the outfielder from Creighton. He said he was surprised no one picked him in this summer’s 20-round MLB Draft because he put up big numbers (.343/.459/.635, 11 HR, 53 RBIs) in his first season fully healthy.
The professional ranks’ loss is the Razorbacks’ gain, though, as Van Horn said he sees him starting in a corner outfield spot and hitting in the middle of their order this year, much like Wake Forest transfer Chris Lanzilli last season.
“I thought somebody would sign him,” Van Horn said. “Now that I have him to campus, nobody hits the ball harder than him on our team at this time. He looks like he should lock down one of those outfield positions. But time will tell.”
He’s still somewhat hampered by lingering back issues, which likely contributed to his dip in production from his freshman to sophomore season, but Tavian Josenberger also has a shot to play this year if he can get healthy. He was a second baseman last year, but will focus on center field — where he played in 2021 — at Arkansas.
In addition to the portal, the Razorbacks also signed 10 players from the junior college ranks. Two of them were pitchers and one was catcher — all three of which were previously discussed — while the other seven were infielders, many of whom are capable of playing multiple spots. Several of them were on teams that made it to the NJCAA World Series and played big roles in those runs.
“I don’t normally take a lot of transfers as far as the junior college level, but the guys we got, it’s a good mix,” Van Horn said. “It’s pitching and hitting — a little more on the offensive end. But these guys are first-team All-Americans, second-team All-Americans. Hit right-handed, left-handed.”
“I feel like we’re bringing in some guys that are physical,” Van Horn said. “I don’t feel like they’re going to be intimidated by the competition. Are they going to be able to hit Division I pitching? I think so because they’ve faced a lot of guys that are going to Division I.”
Among that group of players, Connors State C.C. transfer Tyson Fourkiller will be limited this fall because of a broken foot that he played through most of last year. He could hit some, but Van Horn said he has yet to run or get field work.
That will put Fourkiller behind the others, who are all vying for a finite number of positions. It will be interesting to see just how many of the transfers — both out of the portal and from JUCO — end up carving out roles on this year’s team.
5. Which Freshmen Will Contribute?
When asked about this summer MLB Draft and whether or not there were any surprises, Dave Van Horn pointed to Jayson Jones and Mason Neville — two of his three top-100 signees — making it to campus.
Both players had the opportunity to sign professionally straight out of high school, but neither did. Jones pulled his name out of the draft after Day 1, while Neville got picked by the Reds in the 18th round and turned them down.
As mentioned above, Jones could play first or third base. The Razorbacks are “working on really getting him in shape,” Van Horn said, but he could get early playing time because “he can hit the ball a long way.” He added that Neville — who’s contending for the starting job in center — has hit balls off his office window in the new facility beyond right field.
“They’re still freshmen; it’s going to take some time,” Van Horn said. “We’ve got to try to find a way to get them in the lineup. We’ve got to try to find a way to win with freshmen in the lineup. Get them ready for the end of the season, get them ready for their sophomore and junior year.”
Another name to watch among the freshmen is in-state signee Easton Swofford out of Bee Branch. Ranked the No. 124 overall recruit in the 2022 class, he is a natural middle infielder, but — like several others — is also getting a look at the corner outfield spots.
Innings will likely be tough to come by, but the Razorbacks also added eight freshman pitchers — five righties and three lefties. Out of that group, Van Horn said they were most worried about losing Parker Coil to the draft.
“We were concerned about Parker Coil, left-handed freshman out of Oklahoma that maybe our fans don’t know a lot about, but I think they’re going to,” Van Horn said. “Skinny lefty, really can throw the breaking ball. Got a good arm, going to be in the 90s, low-90s now.”
The other two lefties are Jordan Huskey out of Greenbrier High School and Sean Fitzpatrick from Texas. Three in-state products — Gage Wood from Batesville, Cooper Dossett from Springdale Har-Ber and Josh Hyneman from Jonesboro — are among the righties, as well as Christian Foutch from Colorado and Ben Bybee from Kansas.
Van Horn didn’t mention any of them by name, but acknowledged a contributor or two could emerge from that group.
“Obviously we have some guys with some really good arms that you can kind of see the future a bit if they stay healthy,” Van Horn said. “Throwing a bullpen is one thing, pitching when guys are on base when the stands are full is a little different. But as far as talent and potential, I see a lot there.”
Check out everything Dave Van Horn had to say about Arkansas baseball on the eve of fall ball:
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