Another successful Arkansas baseball season that included an SEC title and No. 3 overall seed came to a screeching halt Monday afternoon, as the Razorbacks ran into a buzzsaw and were knocked out of the Fayetteville Regional by TCU.
It was a disappointing finish for a program still searching for its first national title, but the season as a whole showed that nothing – not even injuries to 11 different key players – is slowing down Dave Van Horn.
The veteran coach has accomplished about everything there is to accomplish outside of bringing home the big trophy from Omaha. He still has his sights set on that, though, which is why he’ll quickly turn the page to 2024.
While fans argue about who needs to be fired and whether or not he’s capable of ever winning the big one, Van Horn will be busy building a roster. Here’s a checklist for what he has to do before fall ball rolls around…
1. Figure Out Who’s Returning to Arkansas Baseball
The first order of business for Dave Van Horn is figuring out which of his current players will be back in 2024 and which are moving on — either to the MLB Draft or the transfer portal.
Perhaps more so than any other college sport, this is extremely tricky for baseball. Unlike football and basketball, players don’t have to declare for the draft by a certain deadline. In fact, they can actually get drafted and return to school.
The dates you need to know for this are as follows:
- July 9-11: MLB Draft
- July 25: Signing deadline for draft picks
Only three Razorbacks are completely out of eligibility and can’t return to school even if they wanted to: shortstop John Bolton, first baseman Brady Slavens and left fielder Jared Wegner.
Everyone else could technically return, but the nature of the MLB Draft is such that the best players almost always leave after their junior year so they have leverage in contract negotiations.
That means guys like Jace Bohrofen, Caleb Cali, Hunter Hollan, Tavian Josenberger and Jaxon Wiggins are almost certainly gone because they will likely receive a much higher signing bonus in this year’s draft than next year as seniors. (Wiggins would actually be a redshirt junior, but it’s unclear when he’d be cleared to pitch, so a return seems unlikely.)
There is a solid nucleus of sophomores — Hagen Smith, Brady Tygart, Peyton Stovall and Kendall Diggs — that aren’t draft eligible, so the mystery lies with those who could technically get drafted or choose to move on, most notably:
- Ben McLaughlin: When he was in the lineup, all McLaughlin did was hit. However, finding a spot in the order was tough when everyone was healthy. Still, hitting .346 with only 11 strikeouts in 78 at bats — most of which were in SEC play — was probably enough to catch the eye of scouts. After all, Charlie Welch got drafted in 2021 with only 67 at bats, albeit with much more power.
- Peyton Holt: Similar to McLaughlin, Holt played great when he finally got in the lineup following Stovall’s injury. He ended up hitting .392 in 74 at bats, plus made several tremendous plays in the field. Was it enough for a team to take a chance on him in the 2023 MLB Draft?
- Will McEntire: This will actually be the second straight year McEntire has been draft eligible, as he’s a redshirt junior. His overall numbers — 5.07 ERA, 83 K in 87 IP — don’t jump off the page, but he came on strong as a reliever down the stretch and was a key arm on this year’s staff, as evidenced by him leading the team in innings pitched. At the same time, McEntire doesn’t have the overpowering stuff scouts typically drool over. He could also come back and still have some leverage in the 2024 MLB Draft because he’s eligible to pitch in 2025 as a sixth-year super senior.
- Zack Morris: That leverage is not something the two position players mentioned above or Morris would have. Morris was listed as a senior this year, but could be a super senior in 2024. This is his last year with leverage, but he posted a 7.64 ERA and, like McEntire, doesn’t exactly have overpowering stuff. Whether or not he returns may also depend on his desire to continue playing.
Three of those players — Holt (Greenwood), McEntire (Bryant) and Morris (Cabot) — are in-state kids who likely grew up dreaming about playing for the Razorbacks, so perhaps another year in Fayetteville would be enticing.
Holt could prove he’s capable of being an everyday starter for an entire season, while McEntire and Morris could prove they’re more like the pitchers they were in 2022 and the end of 2023 than what they showed early this season.
Still somewhat hobbled by a knee injury that required surgery during the season, McLaughlin could also conceivably benefit from another year to prove he can play a position in the field, as he was mostly a designated hitter who played some corner infield.
If those four players chose to return, joining the aforementioned sophomore core, Arkansas wouldn’t have to start from scratch as much as it did this past season.
2. Navigate the Transfer Portal
The transfer portal has only added another wrinkle to the advanced calculus that is roster management. (We won’t even go into the 11.7 scholarship limit.)
It opened up May 30 and will remain open to all players who wish to enter until July 13, which is a couple days after the MLB Draft.
Considering the caliber of players Arkansas has landed from it the last few years, most fans focus on what Dave Van Horn can add from the transfer portal. However, it’s important to remember that the transfer portal giveth…and the transfer portal taketh.
With only a 40-man roster and 50-plus players eligible to return in 2024, without any further additions, the Razorbacks are bound to lose some to the portal this summer.
“We’re going to lose some guys,” Van Horn said after Monday’s loss. “You know how it is every year now with the way everything is set up with the portal and kids coming in. You rebuild your roster every summer. It’s not going to change.”
Speculating who might leave is tricky because it’s impossible to know how each player feels and thinks about his situation, but freshmen who didn’t play much are a good starting point.
“It’s hard to bring in a freshman and keep him happy if he’s not playing,” Van Horn said. “You hope they come back.”
Jayson Jones (46 ABs) and Mason Neville (27 ABs) were the crown jewels of last year’s signing class, making it to campus despite being heralded prospects capable of making the jump straight from high school to pro ball.
They struggled in limited opportunities as freshmen, hitting .196 and .111, respectively, but have the tools to potentially develop into contributors down the road — if they’re still here.
It’ll also be interesting to see if Harold Coll comes back because he was a heralded JUCO signee who likely could have been drafted last summer, too. He was widely projected as the starting shortstop, but was beaten out by John Bolton. Will he try his hand in the MLB Draft or dabble in the transfer portal — or return and try to earn a starting spot again?
On the mound, several freshmen got an opportunity, but only Gage Wood really locked down a consistent role, and he faltered the last few weeks of the season. Ben Bybee, Parker Coil and Christian Foutch each threw double-digit innings, too, and flashed their potential. Keeping all four of them is probably a priority, as at least a couple of them are bound to make a jump as sophomores.
As always, there’s likely to be a surprise or two. The goal, of course, is that Van Horn will have a card up his sleeve as far as incoming transfers.
While he’s missed out on a few big-time transfers, like Chase Dollander (Tennessee) and Paul Skenes (LSU), Van Horn has a knack for finding more under-the-radar transfers who end up being highly productive. Examples include Trevor Ezell, Lael Lockhart, Michael Turner and, most recently, Jared Wegner and Tavian Josenberger.
“The grad transfers, portal guys, we’ve got to get just the right ones,” Van Horn said. “It’s not about getting the superstars all over the country. It’s about getting guys that are good players and good teammates.”
There’s a good chance he’ll pull another rabbit out of his hat this off-season.
Could he find another veteran center fielder to replace Josenberger? What about a shortstop to replace Bolton and/or compete with Coll? Will he stick with Parker Rowland and Hudson Polk, or is catcher a point of emphasis in the portal? Does he want a third starting pitcher to complement Hagen Smith and Brady Tygart? You could always use another bullpen arm.
3. Manage the Signing Class and the MLB Draft
The good news: Arkansas baseball has the No. 1 signing class for 2023.
The bad news: Arkansas baseball has the No. 1 signing class for 2023.
In college baseball, getting a signature on a National Letter of Intent is only half the battle. For programs like Arkansas, which consistently recruit the best players across the country, they’re not only battling other colleges, but also the 30 MLB teams.
That’s a fact Arkansas baseball fans will be reminded of next month when several of the Razorbacks’ 2023 signees get drafted and choose pro ball over college. The key will be getting at least some of them to campus – which would then likely influence how they approach the transfer portal.
“We’re going to get smoked in the draft and we know that,” Van Horn said. “We’re going to make sure that we have it covered. The guys that get through, I hope those freshmen can help us next year.”
According to Perfect Game, Arkansas has 13 signees among the top 100 overall recruits in the 2023 class. That is believed to be a record, but will likely be decimated by the draft.
Nine of those players are included on MLB Pipeline’s list of the top 200 prospects for the 2023 MLB Draft, which includes college players:
- 12. Aidan Miller – 3B
- 28. Walker Martin – SS
- 52. Nazzan Zanetello – SS
- 60. Kendall George – OF
- 97. Adam Hachman – LHP
- 139. Hunter Dietz – LHP
- 150. Barrett Kent – RHP
- 158. Gabe Gaeckle – RHP
- 197. Ryder Helfrick – C
A top-200 ranking in that list obviously doesn’t guarantee being drafted that high, but the slot values for picks in that range are all above $250,000. Each of the top 72 picks has a seven-figure slot value.
Throw in the fact that they’ll have a ton of leverage as high school kids with a commitment to a program like Arkansas, they’d have to turn down very large signing bonuses to come to college. For example, Peyton Stovall was a projected first-round pick and likely turned down close to $2 million to join the Arkansas baseball program.
The good news for the Razorbacks is that Stovall is part of a growing trend in baseball.
Last year’s MLB Draft saw 46 of Perfect Game’s top-100 recruits go undrafted and another 11 who got drafted but didn’t sign. That means more than half of that list – 57 players, to be exact – made it to college baseball.
A decade earlier, in the 2012 MLB Draft, the number of top-100 recruits who didn’t sign professionally straight out of high school was just 33.
If last year’s rate of 57% holds steady and applies to Arkansas’ 13 top-100 signees, that’d mean about seven or eight of them make it to Fayetteville.
4. Scour the JUCO Ranks
Dave Van Horn’s ability to find under-the-radar prospects in the transfer portal also applies to the JUCO ranks. He brought in 10 junior college transfers last off-season and several of them played huge roles on the 2023 team.
Some of them, like right-hander Cody Adcock, were committed and signed with the Razorbacks for a while, but Van Horn also did a great job of adding some late in the process to fill holes in the roster.
Parker Rowland didn’t commit to Arkansas until June 29 and he ended up as the starting catcher. Caleb Cali committed on July 1 and was one of the team’s best hitters, in addition to the starting third baseman.
They may not be as sexy as transfer portal additions from other Division I schools and it’s harder to project how they’ll translate into the SEC, but they’ve been a big part of Van Horn’s success.
So far, the Razorbacks have just one JUCO commitment – Will Edmunson from Hutchinson C.C., the same program that produced Ben McLaughlin last off-season.
It’s not too much of a stretch to think Van Horn will find another player or two from that level to join the freshmen and any portal additions as newcomers in 2024
5. Get Healthy and Summer Development
Finally, after the injury-plagued 2023 season, it is important for Arkansas to get as healthy as possible this summer.
Most notably, Peyton Stovall will be recovering from surgery to repair his torn labrum, with Van Horn saying the hope is for him to return at some point late in fall ball.
Peyton Holt was dealing with back spasms during the Fayetteville Regional, but was able to pinch hit late in Monday’s loss. Some time off to get fully healthy and ready to go, assuming he returns next season, will be big for him.
Unfortunately for the Razorbacks, the timing of Dylan Carter’s injury and subsequent Tommy John surgery makes it unlikely he’ll be ready for next season. His surgery was May 5 and it typically takes at least a full year to recover.
Any other nagging injury needs to get healed up over the summer, but many of those who are healthy – especially the younger players – will be heading off to summer ball.
Whether it’s the Cape Cod, California, Northwoods or any other league, summer ball is a critical time for development and could do a lot of good for guys who didn’t play a ton in 2023.
Most recently, Jace Bohrofen used a strong showing in the Cape Cod League to catapult himself into a huge junior season that will earn him a lot of money in this summer’s MLB Draft.
Will McEntire and Dylan Carter have each honed their craft in the Northwoods League, while Christian Franklin and Caden Monke are just two examples of players who benefited from playing in the California League. It was in the Coastal Plain League that Kevin Kopps first started showing signs of dominance.
The Razorbacks could also have players selected to play for the Collegiate National Team. Hagen Smith and Brady Tygart each went through Team USA tryouts last summer.
On the flip side, there are also success stories of players who chose to stay in Fayetteville over the summer and work out – Razorbacks like Andrew Benintendi, Isaiah Campbell and Connor Noland.
Van Horn must figure out the best developmental option for each of his players and, if that means summer ball, help get them placed in a league.
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