FAYETTEVILLE — The MLB Draft is expected to hit the Arkansas baseball program hard next month, but it isn’t all doom and gloom.
In fact, head coach Dave Van Horn revealed Tuesday morning that there is a real possibility that Caleb Cali returns for his senior season in 2024.
It would be a welcome boost to the Razorbacks’ lineup, as Cali is draft eligible with only one year of eligibility remaining and coming off a season in which he hit .340 with a 1.034 OPS in SEC play.
“I don’t feel like he’s going to just take anything,” Van Horn said. “He does want to play pro ball. I just talked to him yesterday and it’s not all about signing. He’s not going to sign for a little bit, so to speak.”
Cali ended the year as arguably Arkansas’ best and most consistent hitter after overcoming a shaky start that saw him begin the season 0 for 12. He was benched during opening weekend and was in and out of the lineup before asserting himself as the starting third baseman, where his defensive improved tremendously throughout the season.
Even with that slow start, Cali still slashed .308/.412/.512 with nine home runs and 37 RBIs in 172 at bats last season. He had six home runs and 25 RBIs in 25 SEC starts while showcasing very good power to all fields, regularly registering triple-digit exit velocities.
Combine those things with the fact that he’s a four-year junior and Cali would usually be considered a near lock to get drafted. If he returns, he will have no leverage in the 2024 MLB Draft because he would have exhausted all of his collegiate eligibility — causing his likely signing bonus to drop from six-figures to around $10,000 or $20,000.
However, Van Horn said it’s not all about the signing bonus for Cali, but rather the organizational fit and whether he has a legitimate chance to climb through the ranks.
“He’s got to feel good about it,” Van Horn said. “There’s got to be a path. You kind of have an idea if an organization just signs you to fill a spot or whatever. They need to show you the way a little bit.”
It’s worth noting, though, that Van Horn made very similar comments about a player in a nearly identical situation as Cali last year.
Despite being the Razorbacks’ ace during a run to the College World Series semifinals, Connor Noland — according to Van Horn — was seriously considering coming back for his super senior year if he wasn’t offered the right amount of money or in a good situation.
Whether that was a legitimate possibility or just a negotiating tactic, it worked. Noland was picked by the Chicago Cubs in the ninth round and received a $200,000 signing bonus — 21.5% over slot value.
That could be the case again with Cali, but he was a relatively unheard-of prospect before this season. After spending the pandemic-shortened 2020 season at Florida State, he attended two different junior colleges before breaking out on the national scene at Arkansas this year.
Perhaps scouts would like to see another year of production at the SEC level, but even if he delivers, he almost certainly wouldn’t sniff six figures in next year’s draft.
Not the Same Story for Hunter Hollan
Shortly after the season ended, Hunter Hollan drew headlines for some comments he made on Out of Bounds, the afternoon radio show on 103.7 The Buzz.
When asked about the upcoming MLB Draft, the left-hander didn’t rule out a return to Fayetteville.
“I’m definitely thinking about it, man,” Hollan said. “Don’t get me wrong, I want to throw a baseball at Baum-Walker (again). I want to keep throwing baseballs and I want to do it at Arkansas. It depends, man. I really don’t know. I guess it’s something I haven’t thought about too much, but don’t be surprised if I’m in an Arkansas uniform again.”
Unlike Caleb Cali, though, Hollan is a known commodity amongst MLB circles and has been considered a top prospect since he came to Arkansas from San Jacinto C.C. last offseason.
In fact, he was actually drafted in the 15th round in 2021, but chose to stay in school. Now he is considered the 83rd-best overall prospect for the 2023 MLB Draft, according to MLB Pipeline.
If he’s selected in the 79-86 range, those picks come with designated slot values between about $800,000 and $900,000. For all of the reasons laid out above with Cali, Hollan wouldn’t receive anything close to that next summer because he would have no leverage.
That’s why, even after having a minor knee procedure after the season, Dave Van Horn laughed at the question about Hollan possibly returning.
“I would love to have him back — let’s just leave it at that,” Van Horn said with a smile. “I figure someone is going to sign him, but I would love to have Hunter back.”
Veteran Hitters Expected Back at Arkansas
Two years ago, Charlie Welch carved out a role with Arkansas baseball as arguably the best pinch hitter in the country. He also got a handful of starts, all at designated hitter, and slashed .388/.494/.821 with eight home runs and 25 RBIs in just 67 at bats.
Despite his lack of playing time and a true defensive position, not to mention his relative obscurity coming from junior college, that was enough for Welch to get selected in the 19th round of the 2021 MLB Draft.
The Razorbacks have two players who had similar success — albeit with not as much power — in small sample sizes this past year and could also potentially get drafted this summer.
Peyton Holt slashed .392/.489/.581 with two home runs and 17 RBIs in 74 at bats, the bulk of which came after Peyton Stovall’s season-ending injury, while Ben McLaughlin slashed .346/.442/.487 with two home runs and 14 RBIs in 78 at bats, the bulk of which came while the Razorbacks had injuries that forced Kendall Diggs to move from designated hitter to the outfield.
Both of them came to Arkansas from the JUCO ranks and are draft eligible — Holt as a fourth-year junior and McLaughlin as a true junior — but Dave Van Horn believes they’ll be back in 2024.
“We want to keep those guys,” Van Horn said. “We feel like…they’re going to be a big part of our team next year.”
McLaughlin is expected to compete for a starting job at first base or designated hitter, Van Horn said. He pitched some in 2023, but that was out of necessity because of injuries on the staff and he isn’t expected to do that next year. Van Horn also didn’t mention third base, but that was his position coming to Arkansas and he played some there this season.
Holt played primarily second base in Stovall’s absence, but Van Horn said he’s a utility guy who could play anywhere. His goal this offseason is to work on his flexibility.
“I think he’ll be battling to play and getting the lineup a lot,” Van Horn said about Holt. “That’s what you want. You want guys that really want to get after it and play and Holt’s that guy.”
Both players are sticking around Northwest Arkansas this summer, playing in the Marucci Midwest Arkansas Collegiate League that plays its games at the Tyson Complex in Springdale.
Van Horn said another key for them is getting healthy. Holt didn’t start the last three games of the season after tweaking his back and McLaughlin is still recovering from the knee injury that required a procedure that kept him out for a couple weeks during the season.
Veteran Arms Also Likely to Return
They didn’t put up the kind of numbers that Peyton Holt and Ben McLaughlin did, but veteran pitchers Zack Morris and Will McEntire also have a decision to make.
After posting ERAs of 7.64 and 5.07, respectively, neither of them is likely to get taken in the 20-round MLB Draft, especially considering neither has the elite velocity coveted by pro scouts. However, after four years of school, they could be ready to try their hand at the pros via a free agent deal or move on with their lives — but it doesn’t sound like that’s the case.
Morris, a left-hander from Cabot, was a senior this past season, but has told Dave Van Horn and pitching coach Matt Hobbs that he’d like to use his super senior season.
“Zack indicated to us that if he doesn’t sign a professional contract, that he is not ready to stop playing baseball or not play at Arkansas,” Van Horn said. “I would say unless something changes from my conversation with him — and Coach Hobbs has had a couple of conversations with him — that he is going to be playing baseball, whether it is professional or here, next year.”
Despite his poor overall numbers, getting a player like Morris back would be big for a team expected to bring in a lot of freshman arms. He was a team captain last season and has pitched on the biggest stage, so at a minimum, he’d be a steady veteran presence in the locker room.
At best, Morris could return to his 2022 form, when he went 6-1 with a 2.31 ERA in 35 innings across 22 appearances. He showed signs of that late in the year, when the threw eight straight hitless innings against Lipscomb, Mississippi State and Vanderbilt, but struggled again in the postseason.
McEntire, a right-hander from Bryant, was a redshirt junior in 2023. He technically has two years of eligibility remaining, including the bonus pandemic year, so he’d actually still have leverage if he returns next season.
That is what Van Horn expects to happen, barring a pro team making him a good offer. He’s in Fayetteville this summer and working camps.
There’s probably more of a chance of McEntire having a larger role on next year’s staff than Morris, as he came on strong down the stretch when the Razorbacks moved him to the bullpen.
“Obviously we want him back,” Van Horn said. “I think that is the role he liked — the first guy out of the pen, gets the fifth and let’s see if he can go the distance. You can close him. You got to see when he only had to throw one inning that he can get the ball up there a little bit.
“He pitched really well (in) the second half. We had a great season and we wouldn’t have had it without Will kicking it into gear.”
From the Texas A&M series through the end of the year, McEntire posted a 4.03 ERA and 1.11 WHIP while holding opponents to a .225 batting average. His strikeouts also jumped from 7.3 per nine innings to 10.2.
Having a dependable long reliever capable of pitching multiple times in a weekend would be a good weapon to have in next year’s bullpen.
Watch Dave Van Horn’s full press conference discussing the 2023 MLB Draft and other offseason topics here:
More coverage of Arkansas baseball from BoAS…