Updates on Next Wave of Pro Baseball Razorbacks: Kopps, Kjerstad on Cusp of Big-Time Breakouts

Heston Kjerstad, Dominic Fletcher, Arkansas baseball, Pro Hogs
photo credit: Twitter/MLB Pipeline

The current era of Arkansas baseball is having an immense amount of success thanks to a steady flow of talent. Unfortunately, that talent can’t stay in Fayetteville forever. The young athletes must eventually begin their trek toward Major League Baseball by going into professional baseball. 

Given time, there will be a number of Razorbacks making it to the show because of how well the Arkansas system is churning out professionals. Players like Andrew Benintendi, Drew Smyly, Dallas Keuchel and James McCann have already established themselves in the big leagues, but the players below are worth keeping an eye on as the next wave of Razorbacks to reach that level.

In fact, two of them – Dominic Fletcher (on April 30) and Isaiah Campbell (on July 7) – saw their dreams come true this year by making their MLB debuts.

Recent Call-Ups for Arkansas Baseball

Dominic Fletcher — CF
Played at Arkansas: 2017-19
MLB Draft: 2019 (CB-B round, 75th overall)

Currently in Triple-A with the Reno Aces, Dominic Fletcher has had two separate and relatively successful stints in the big leagues with Arizona this year, with the first stretch lasting about a month and then for a week in early July. In 28 games, he hit .301 with 2 home runs, 14 RBIs and a .791 OPS. In Triple-A, he’s slashing .291/.399/.500, giving him an .899 OPS.

Isaiah Campbell — RHP
Played at Arkansas: 2016-19 
MLB Draft: 2019 (CB-B round, 76th overall)

Isaiah Campbell made his MLB debut the day after Fletcher was sent back to Reno in July. “Big Zay” has made the most of his opportunity so far, staying in the MLB since his initial call up. He has pitched 16.1 innings over 15 appearances with a 2.76 ERA and 18 strikeouts. He made a quick impact with scoreless outings in his first five games.

Zach Jackson — RHP
Played at Arkansas: 2014-16
MLB Draft: 2016 (3rd round, 102nd overall)

While Fletcher and Campbell are earning their everyday roster spot, it seems that the most recent former Razorback to do that is Zach Jackson with the Oakland Athletics.

Although an injury has kept him sidelined since May 16, Jackson has been in the big leagues since getting called up April 7, 2022. He played pretty much a full MLB season last year, making 54 appearances with a 3.00 ERA. This year he has a 2.50 ERA in 19 games, and is on his way back to the MLB soon as he is currently on a rehab assignment with the organization’s Single-A affiliate.

The Next Wave of MLB Razorbacks

Heston Kjerstad — OF
Played at Arkansas: 2018-20
MLB Draft: 2020 (1st round, 2nd overall)

With injuries derailing the seasons of Matt Cronin and Barrett Loseke, the most likely candidate to be the next former Arkansas baseball player to make his MLB debut is Heston Kjerstad with the Baltimore Orioles. The guy just keeps hitting. In only his second professional season, he is knocking on the door of the big leagues and might have made it if the O’s weren’t one of the best teams in 2023.

The former No. 2 overall draft pick had to sit on the sidelines for two years before getting his professional career started, but he hasn’t stopped hitting since then. This year, he had a .307 average with 19 home runs and 49 RBIs and a .918 OPS through 108 games across two levels. In Triple-A Norfolk specifically, he has hit .305 with 8 bombs and 26 RBIs. The last obstacle in his way is opportunity, because he has proven he can hit at every level.

There’s a chance he could be a September call-up, but finding space on a playoff team is not easy. Baltimore currently has the best record in the American League with an already young roster, so Kjerstad is just laying in wait until an opportunity presents itself.

Kevin Kopps — RHP
Played at Arkansas: 2016-21
MLB Draft: 2021 (3rd round, 99th overall)

The former Golden Spikes winner made his way to Triple-A for the San Diego Padres organization this month. Through his first four outings, Kevin Kopps pitched five innings and allowed two earned runs on four hits and four walks with six strikeouts. He started his Triple-A career with three scoreless appearances. 

Including his time in Double-A, Kopps has made 37 appearances in 2023 and pitched to the tune of a 2.72 ERA over 59.2 innings with 73 strikeouts. Only two years after being drafted, Kopps is knocking on the door of being called up. It helps that as a relief pitcher, he plays a position that can have a revolving door throughout an MLB season. 

Grant Koch — C
Played at Arkansas: 2016-18
MLB Draft: 2018 (5th round, 144th overall)

Grant Koch made it to Triple-A to start the 2023 season and has remained there, despite getting somewhat sparse playing time. For the year, he has played 44 games, hitting .268 with 4 home runs and 19 RBIs and a .742 OPS.

Koch is part of the struggling Pittsburgh Pirates franchise, so if he continues to produce at the plate, he could earn an opportunity sooner than later. However, the Pirates did call up their top catching prospect this season, so it could be a while for Koch to get his opportunity.

Jax Biggers — SS
Played at Arkansas: 2017-18
MLB Draft: 2018 (8th round, 239th overall)

Jax Biggers played for the Texas Rangers’ Triple-A team for about a week in early August. In that time, he played 5 games and went 5 for 14 (.357) with two walks, four RBIs and two runs. That stretch was brief, but seemingly successful.

On the season, though, Biggers is hitting only .239 with 11 home runs and 50 RBIs with a .739 OPS in 96 games. His production is solid, but not breathtaking, which is why it could take a while for him to get an opportunity in the big leagues. Texas has one of the top offenses in the MLB and is led by shortstop Corey Seager, who signed a massive contract prior to the 2022 season. 

Arkansas Baseball Players in Double-A

Casey Martin — SS
Played at Arkansas: 2018-20
MLB Draft: 2020 (3rd round, 87th overall)

After a slow start to his professional career, Casey Martin has improved his game this year. He hit below .200 in his first two pro seasons, but he started this year off hitting .280 with 6 home runs and 21 RBIs through 52 games. That was enough for him to get the call up to Double-A in the Philadelphia Phillies organization. In 47 games there, he is hitting .212 with 5 home runs and 16 RBIs.

Patrick Wicklander — LHP
Played at Arkansas: 2019-21
MLB Draft: 2021 (8th round, 251st overall)

Patrick Wicklander is another former Razorback who made the jump to Double-A this year, doing so in the Tampa Bay Rays organization. Similar to Martin, he had a strong start to the year which triggered him getting the call-up, but hasn’t had the best results since then.

He started the year in High-A, making 7 starts with a 3.41 ERA and 33 strikeouts over 29 innings. In his time at Double-A, he has a 4.71 ERA over 65 innings with 56 strikeouts. As a guy who has been in pro ball for only two years, he has time to figure it out and make the leap to the next level.

Lael Lockhart Jr. — LHP
Played at Arkansas: 2021
MLB Draft: 2021 (9th round, 282nd overall)

Lael Lockhart got traded from the Dodgers organization to the Tigers in May and it has made a huge difference for him. Still in Double-A, his ERA has made a drastic improvement. He had an 11.40 ERA in 15 innings with the Tulsa Drillers, but in his new home of Erie, he has posted a 2.81 ERA over 64 innings with 77 strikeouts, including a 1.93 ERA in July.

His play has improved and so has his opportunity to climb the ladder quickly. He went from a winning team with a loaded pitching staff to a struggling franchise who could use pitching. Lockhart could find himself in Triple-A or even the big leagues if he keeps posting similar numbers.

Cayden Wallace — 3B
Played at Arkansas: 2021-22
MLB Draft: 2022 (2nd round, 49th overall)

On his 22nd birthday earlier this month, Cayden Wallace was promoted to Double-A in the Kansas City Royals organization. That means he gets to play his pro baseball in Northwest Arkansas for the Naturals.

He played 97 games in High-A and hit .261 with 10 home runs and 64 RBIs with a .772 OPS. He is still on the learning curve for Double-A, but it’s been only 16 games. He is hitting .254 with one home run and eight RBIs and a .694 OPS. It’s worth noting, though, that he is 5 for 14 with a home run and five runs scored in his last four games. 

Cayden Wallace looks like he’ll be in the big leagues in no time. He has been successful at every level so far and he is playing for a franchise in desperate need of a spark with a bad farm system already.

Jalen Battles — SS
Played at Arkansas: 2021-22
MLB Draft: 2022 (5th round, 164th overall)

Jalen Battles has played in three levels of minor league baseball this season and as of Aug. 22, he is in Double-A for the Tampa Bay Rays. While he was productive in High-A, his glove has always been his best attribute and is likely carrying him through the minors. He did hit .232 with six home runs and 31 RBIs in High-A. So far in Double-A, he is 8 for 26 (.308) with four runs scored. 

A door may have opened for Battles with the Wander Franco controversy in the MLB. Franco was leading the MLB in defensive runs saved before his suspension, so now the Rays need a new slick fielding shortstop to fill that role. As a smaller market, the Rays are known more for building talent through their farm system than signing big free agents.


More coverage of Arkansas baseball from BoAS…

Facebook Comments