FAYETTEVILLE — Losing projected starter Jaxon Wiggins to a season-ending injury before the season was certainly a blow to Arkansas baseball, but Dave Van Horn still sounds confident in his starting rotation heading into 2023.
Left-hander Hagen Smith will start Friday’s opener against Texas, followed by right-hander Will McEntire against TCU on Saturday and left-hander Hunter Hollan against Oklahoma State on Sunday at the College Baseball Showdown in Arlington, Texas, the veteran coach announced Wednesday.
The first two of those games — which will be played at Globe Life Field, the home of MLB’s Texas Rangers — are scheduled for 7 p.m. CT, while the finale will start at 2:30 p.m. The event will be streamed on FloSports.
Wiggins likely would have started against the Longhorns after a dominant fall put him in position to be the staff ace, but the right-hander found out last week that he has a torn UCL and needs Tommy John surgery, ending his junior season before it started.
“It’s pretty much just about every year you’re going to lose somebody,” Van Horn said. “We’re not going to use it as an excuse. It didn’t help us, that’s for sure.
“I’m really disappointed for Jaxon and his family. I know he was really looking forward to pitching for the Razorbacks and having a big year. It’ll be a challenge, but we just have to have some other guys step it up and play really good baseball.”
That injury will have ripple effects that touch the entire staff, but the most immediate impact is making room for Hollan to move into the starting rotation. Described by Van Horn as a “strike-throwing lefty,” he is a transfer from JUCO powerhouse San Jacinto J.C. who is already viewed as a top-100 draft prospect by MLB Pipeline.
The Razorbacks considered using him as a closer in the fall because he’s capable of throwing 95-96 mph for an inning and could be automatic in that role, but when they returned from Christmas break, Van Horn decided wanted to use him more. There was a real debate as to whether Hollan or McEntire would start, but Wiggins getting hurt opened the door for both of them to be in the rotation.
“I don’t feel like he’s intimidated by too much,” Van Horn said about Hollan. “He knows this is a big year for him personally. He’s worked extremely hard and takes it serious. He wants to have a big year.”
The odd-man out was Cody Adcock, who pitched at Crowder C.C. last season after beginning his career at Ole Miss. A right-hander from Texarkana, he could slide into the rotation if needed, but will still be a key arm for the Arkansas baseball this year.
“There are some guys battling,” Van Horn said. “I thought Cody Adcock has thrown really well, but he’s very versatile, so we can use him out of the pen. Then obviously Wiggins would have been in the rotation. Those were probably the five or six guys we were looking at.”
Bullpen Roles Taking Shape
Although Dave Van Horn is on record saying this is the deepest pitching staff he’s ever had, it remains to be seen exactly how each of Arkansas’ pitchers will be used in 2023.
The closer role is still up for grabs even though right-hander Brady Tygart is back after being a Freshman All-American last year. He struggled down the stretch, though, and has been inconsistent in scrimmages this offseason, while also showing glimpses of improvement.
“His season dating back into the fall until now has been a little bit up and down,” Van Horn said. “He’s really shown some pitch-ability as far as more than just a breaking ball. His fastball is good and it’s got movement. He’s learning how to pitch more with three pitches instead of maybe two.”
Left-hander Zack Morris had the final — and most important — save of last season, working out of a bases-loaded jam to keep Arkansas’ season alive against Ole Miss in the College World Series, and Van Horn mentioned him as a candidate to close games as a senior.
Two other intriguing options are freshman right-handers Gage Wood and Cooper Dossett, both of whom are in-state prospects out of Batesville and Springdale Har-Ber, respectively.
Dossett seems to be on a similar track as Tygart last year. Much like Tygart, Dossett was a heralded recruit who didn’t pitch at all in the fall because of an arm injury. Van Horn even mentioned him as a redshirt candidate back in October, but he’s since returned to the mound and shown why he was the No. 156 overall recruit in the 2022 class.
In addition to having a good breaking ball and changeup, Dossett’s fastball has some carry, which makes it hard to get on top of, plus Van Horn praised him for working really hard to get healthy and ready for the season.
“We knew the arm strength was there if he’s healthy,” Van Horn said. “He’s always had a great arm…but there’s a difference between arm strength and being able to pitch. You’ve got to get people out. And he can pitch.”
When it comes to middle or long relief, the Razorbacks could use the aforementioned Cody Adcock, as well as sophomore Austin Ledbetter, Nebraska transfer Koty Frank or freshman Parker Coil. The first three of those pitchers are right-handed, while Coil is a left-hander who doesn’t have overpowering stuff, but throws a lot of strikes and has a good breaking ball.
Another left-handed freshman who could carve out a role on this year’s team is Sean Fitzpatrick, but he is likely a situational guy. The Razorbacks have groomed him for that in their preseason scrimmages, throwing him multiple times a weekend.
“We feel like he kind of throws a high-carry fastball,” Van Horn said. “It’s not overpowering. He’s got a good slider. He’s different. More side-arm and herky-jerky. Kind of hard to pick up. If he could be a guy who can come out of the pen and just get us some lefties a few times a week, that’d be great.”
There’s a strong likelihood that at least a handful of those freshmen — Dossett, Wood, Coil and Fitzpatrick — end up being significant contributors, but it’s hard to pinpoint exactly which ones will and how it will look.
“We’re going to have to put some of these guys out into the fire early and just see what they can do,” Van Horn said.
Arkansas Baseball Injury Report
Aside from losing Jaxon Wiggins to Tommy John surgery, the Razorbacks are pretty healthy heading into the first weekend of the season.
Dave Van Horn spoke broadly of some minor foot injuries and regular sickness, but didn’t sound very concerned about any of it impacting the College Baseball Showdown.
Sophomore Kendall Diggs is likely who he was referring to about the foot injury, as he did not run in Arkansas’ scrimmages this past Saturday and Sunday.
The sickness might have been in reference to freshman Jayson Jones because he missed Sunday’s scrimmage. However, it’s worth noting that he also left Saturday’s scrimmage early with an apparent injury.
Asked specifically about left-hander Nick Griffin, who struggled in his lone appearance in the preseason scrimmages leading up to the season, Van Horn said there’s a good chance he redshirts because his “arm’s bothering him a little bit.”
Coming out of Monticello High School, Griffin was a top-100 recruit and heralded MLB Draft prospect who made it to school, but quickly needed Tommy John surgery. That caused him to miss the entire 2021 season and then he made only seven appearances last year.
Starters Solidified for Arkansas Baseball
Entering the three-week preseason, the two biggest position battles were on the left side of the infield and both seem to have been settled — at least for now.
Dave Van Horn said junior college transfer Caleb Cali will get the nod at third base and Austin Peay transfer John Bolton earned the right to start at shortstop.
With Cali starting at third base, Kendall Diggs will be the Razorbacks’ designated hitter. In our projected lineup released before Christmas, Best of Arkansas Spots had those guys flipped — with Cali at DH and Diggs at third.
At shortstop, we had penciled in JUCO transfer Harold Coll, but Bolton beat him out with more consistent defensive play and also hit better in the preseason.
One position battle BoAS correctly predicted was Oklahoma transfer Hudson Polk starting at catcher over JUCO transfer Parker Rowland. However, Rowland closed the gap with a solid preseason at the plate, but Polk will get the nod because he’s been better behind the plate. Van Horn said both would likely catch some this weekend.
Dominic Fletcher in World Baseball Classic
A few weeks after the start of the college baseball season, but before the start of Major League Baseball, players from around the globe will participate in the fifth World Baseball Classic.
The event, which was pushed back from 2021 to 2023 because of the COVID-19 pandemic, features 20 national teams — one of which has a former Arkansas baseball player on its roster.
Dominic Fletcher, who played centerfield for the Razorbacks from 2017-19, will play alongside his brother, David Fletcher, with Team Italy. Natives of Cypress, Calif., they had never visited the country until this offseason, but their mother grew up in Florence and taught them Italian when they were younger.
It’s a cool honor for Dominic Fletcher, who reached Triple-A last season and hit .301 in 101 games.
“He’s excited to play with Team Italy and just to get to play more baseball and represent and just be a part of that whole thing,” Van Horn said. “I truly believe that Dom’s going to play in the big leagues and I think it’s going to be sooner than later.”
Watch Dave Van Horn preview the Arkansas baseball team’s first weekend of the 2023 season:
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