Coming to Grips with Arkansas’ “Year of the Injury” Claiming Latest Victim

Jaxon Wiggins, Arkansas baseball
photo credit: Baumology

FAYETTEVILLE — Projected weekend starter Jaxon Wiggins needs Tommy John surgery and will miss the entire 2023 Arkansas baseball season, the UA announced Thursday.

The date of the surgery has not yet been set, but it will be performed by Dr. Keith Meister, the head team physician for the Texas Rangers.

“We feel bad for Jaxon,” head coach Dave Van Horn said in a statement. “He worked incredibly hard over the offseason and was prepared to lead our rotation. While we are certainly disappointed that he won’t be able to see the results of his hard work on the mound this season, our priority is his health and recovery.”

The news comes just a few days after a UA spokesperson told local reporters that Wiggins was held out of this weekend’s intrasquad scrimmages with “soreness.” The right-hander had pitched just one inning the weekend before, which was the start of Arkansas’ preseason practices.

Wiggins had an MRI on Wednesday, which confirmed the Razorbacks’ worst fear: a torn UCL.

It is a significant blow to the Arkansas pitching staff because Wiggins was expected to be the Friday night starter after a dominant fall leading up to his junior campaign.

This marks the second straight year Arkansas has lost its projected ace to Tommy John less than a month before Opening Day. Last year, it was Peyton Pallette who needed the surgery.

What Arkansas Baseball is Losing

Part of the ultra-talented 2020 signing class, Jaxon Wiggins likely had a chance to get drafted straight out of high school and immediately begin his professional career. After all, he was the No. 129 overall recruit, according to Perfect Game, plus his 6-foot-6 frame, athleticism and strong arm made him very desirable to scouts.

However, he made it to Fayetteville and immediately established himself as a contributor on the 2021 team that was ranked No. 1 for much of the season. Wiggins was also the Sunday starter for much of last season, when the Razorbacks reached the semifinals of the College World Series.

That said, it has been a very up-and-down two years for Roland, Okla., native. He’s flashed why he is so coveted among scouts, but struggled with consistency. That has led to his career numbers — 6.17 ERA and 1.60 WHIP — not looking anything like a potential SEC ace.

This fall, though, Wiggins looked like a different pitcher. He showcased a very good breaking ball and changeup to go along with his elite fastball, which can nearly touch triple digits.

“I remember facing him in that Fall Classic,” teammate Peyton Stovall said last month. “He was the starter for the other team, and I just remember seeing him, and I think the first pitch he threw to me got on me quick. I’m kind of shaking my head like, ‘This dude, he looks different.’”

The result was a 0.75 ERA and 0.58 WHIP in the intrasquad scrimmages attended by the media. He also had 22 strikeouts with only two walks and five hits allowed in 12 innings, as opponents hit just .111 against him.

It was such a strong performance that Wiggins moved ahead of guys like left-hander Hagen Smith and right-hander Will McEntire in the race to start the Feb. 17 opener against Texas.

“Now we’re kind of seeing that guy turn the corner,” Dave Van Horn said last month. “I just think that from what we saw in the fall, unless something doesn’t go good the next three or four weeks, why shouldn’t he get the ball right out of the gate?”

All signs were pointing to Wiggins experiencing an Isaiah Campbell-like breakout season in 2023.

What it Means for Jaxon Wiggins

Unfortunately for Arkansas baseball and Jaxon Wiggins, that “something” mentioned by Van Horn did happen. Not only will he miss the entire 2023 season, but he likely won’t pitch for the Razorbacks ever again.

Because the surgery is happening so close to the start of the season, Wiggins probably wouldn’t be ready to pitch — much less at full strength — until several weekend into the 2024 season, when he’d be a redshirt junior. It’s not uncommon for pitchers to need two years to return to where they were prior to the injury. That was the case for Arkansas reliever Cody Scroggins a few years ago, as he was much better in 2019 than in 2018 after missing most of 2017 because of Tommy John surgery.

What is much more likely, given his status as a prospect, is that he follows the same route as Peyton Pallette last year and sign professionally this offseason.

Pallette was a projected first-round pick entering the 2022 season and was still taken in the second round of the MLB Draft even after missing the entire year. He received a $1.5 million signing bonus from the Chicago White Sox.

Wiggins isn’t quite as high on draft boards as Pallette was at the time of his injury, but he is still No. 55 on MLB Pipeline’s list of the top 100 draft prospects for 2023. That would put him firmly in the second round, which comes with a seven-figure slot value.

It’s disappointing that he won’t get the opportunity to cement himself as a legitimate first-round prospect, but Wiggins has already shown enough potential to still garner a high pick and large signing bonus in July.

What it Means for Arkansas Baseball

Losing a player like Jaxon Wiggins would be tough for any college baseball team, but the good news for the Razorbacks is they are incredibly deep on the mound this season.

Left-hander Hagen Smith and right-hander Will McEntire are back after ending last season as starting pitchers, as are a pair of key relievers in left-hander Zack Morris and right-hander Brady Tygart. Plus, they added several transfers who are expected to have big roles in 2023.

That surplus of arms led to Dave Van Horn giving his pitching staff quite the compliment when he met with reporters last month to preview the upcoming season.

“Well right now, it’s the best I’ve ever had,” Van Horn said about his pitching depth. “Is that honest enough for you? That’s the way I feel about it. I mean, we’ve got depth. But what you see on paper, we’ve gotta get it done on the field.”

It was during that press conference that Van Horn indicated his rotation, at least at the start of the season, would likely consist of Wiggins, Smith and McEntire. He also mentioned that there are several other pitchers on the staff who he believed we’re capable of being starters.

Leading that group is left-hander Hunter Hollan, a JUCO transfer. He was the ace for one of the premier junior college programs in the country, leading San Jacinto J.C. to the NJCAA World Series.

He has been very good since arriving in Fayetteville and was expected to have a large role on this year’s team even before Wiggins’ injury. Now, it seems as though that role will be as a starter, as Van Horn told reporters following the monthly Swatters Club meeting on Monday that he’d probably be in the rotation on opening weekend.

D1Baseball ranked Hollan as the seventh-best JUCO transfer in college baseball this season and he checks in at No. 83 on MLB Pipeline’s list of the top 100 draft prospects.

Other candidates include fellow JUCO transfer Cody Adcock, a right-hander who began his career at Ole Miss, as well as Tygart, Morris and Nebraska transfer Koty Frank — the last three of which are expected to remain in the bullpen.

Year of the Injury Continues

Not only is this the second straight year the Arkansas baseball team has lost its projected ace just before the start of the season, but losing Jaxon Wiggins also continues an unprecedented string of bad luck for the Razorbacks across all sports.

In fact, Arkansas has now lost a potential first-round pick to an early season-ending injury in all three major sports in the same calendar year.

That stretch started on the gridiron, as preseason All-American safety Jalen Catalon re-injured the same shoulder that required season-ending surgery midway through the 2021 season. It happened just 43 snaps into the season, occurring early in the third quarter of the season opener against Cincinnati.

On the hardwood, Missouri transfer Trevon Brazile was in the midst of a breakout year when he collapsed to the floor with what proved to be a torn ACL in the first half against UNC Greensboro — the ninth game of the season. His high-flying dunks, 3-point shooting and versatility as a defender already had him creeping into several first-round mock drafts, with the potential to even climb into the lottery.

Then, as mentioned above, Wiggins goes down before a pitch is even thrown in the 2023 season. He was already viewed as a second-round prospect, but had shown signs of a breakout year that could have easily vaulted him into the first round.

Beyond those season-ending injuries, the Razorbacks’ secondary was plagued with numerous issues that contributed to it ranking dead last in the FBS in pass defense and quarterback KJ Jefferson either missed or was clearly not 100% in three of their six losses.

It’s hard to speculate how much the injured defensive backs impacted the win-loss record, but it’s pretty easy to point to the LSU and Liberty losses as games a healthy Jefferson could have swung in favor of Arkansas.

Of course, the most publicized injury during the 2022-23 academic year has been to Nick Smith Jr., who has missed all but five games for “right knee management.”

The No. 1 overall recruit in the 2022 class, according to 247Sports, Smith is a legitimate top-10 prospect for the upcoming NBA Draft. Unfortunately, he missed the start of the year before returning and ultimately tweaking the injury again.

There had been some concern that he might not ever play again for the Razorbacks, but Eric Musselman has announced that he is back at practice and Smith revealed on Instagram Live that he’d be available to play Saturday against Mississippi State.

All of that news unfolded Wednesday — the same day an MRI revealed Jaxon Wiggins had a UCL tear that required Tommy John surgery.


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