FAYETTEVILLE — It has been a longer-than-expected offseason for Arkansas baseball after an early exit from the postseason.
The Razorbacks have reloaded for what they hope to be another big year in 2024 and they’ll finally return to the field Friday afternoon for the start of fall ball.
An intrasquad scrimmage that will start around 2:30 p.m. CT will open up their 45-day window for practice. All practices and scrimmages inside Baum-Walker Stadium are free and open to the public. The only time they are closed is when weather forces them inside the Fowler Center.
Even though his team won’t face any outside competition, this is an extremely important stretch for head coach Dave Van Horn. What he sees in practice will go a long way in determining his lineup, pitching rotation and bullpen when the season rolls around next February.
Here are the top six questions Best of Arkansas Sports has for the Razorbacks as they enter the fall…
1. Which transfers will emerge as starters in the field?
Dave Van Horn hit the transfer portal hard this offseason. Including the Razorbacks’ lone signee from the JUCO ranks, they added 10 players with collegiate experience and eight of them play in the field.
That group features four outfielders and a fifth who could also play in the outfield. Not to state the obvious, but there are only three spots in the outfield, so someone is going to get left out — especially with Kendall Diggs seemingly locking down one of the corner spots.
As transfers from Missouri who’ve produced in the SEC, Ty Wilmsmeyer and Ross Lovich could be considered the frontrunners. They are far from locks, though. Arkansas baseball also brought in Will Edmunson from the JUCO ranks and Lincoln Riley from Eastern Illinois.
Wilmsmeyer and Riley have the most experience in center and will probably battle it out there, while Lovich and Edmunson are options as corner outfielders — as is Jack Wagner from Tarleton State.
However, Wagner told Best of Arkansas Sports that he’s going to start out at first base, which is where the two-time transfer played last year, rather than in the outfield like he played earlier in his college career at Kansas.
Among the transfers, the closest thing to a lock is Wehiwa Aloy from Sacramento State starting at shortstop. Of course, there was a similar feeling about Harold Coll last season and he ended up being beat out by John Bolton, so he still needs to go out and win the job this fall.
The Razorbacks’ final addition from the portal was Jared Sprague-Lott from Richmond. He was primarily a third and second baseman last year and could factor in at either spot depending on how the returners shake out.
Hudson White was another important transfer for Arkansas, but we’ll touch on him below in our section on the catchers.
2. Where do Arkansas baseball’s returning bats end up defensively?
Not including catchers, Arkansas baseball is returning just seven position players from last year’s roster, with only two of them being starters.
If there’s a lock in this group, it’s Kendall Diggs starting in one of the corner outfield spots — likely right field. After being forced to play it some because of injuries last season, he got a lot of work there in the Cape Cod League this summer and grew into a pretty solid defender capable of making highlight reel plays.
Assuming he makes a full recovery from offseason shoulder surgery, Peyton Stovall is a lock to start at second base. Dave Van Horn seems to be confident that’s what he’ll do, but labrum injuries can be tricky — just ask Matt Goodheart and Trevor Ezell.
If there are any issues at all, Stovall could easily slide over to first base. That is where he played, and played well, in 2022. Of course, that would knock Jack Wagner out of the position and his bat might be good enough to stay in the lineup either as an outfielder or designated hitter.
The biggest question marks are probably with Peyton Holt and Ben McLaughlin, both of whom were forced into action in 2023 because of injuries and hit at a very high level in SEC play.
Holt is a logical fit at second base, but that only works if Stovall slides over to first. Van Horn has said he could play anywhere, calling him a “utility guy,” while McLaughlin is more of a first baseman/designated hitter type of player.
The other key guy is Jayson Jones, who struggled as a freshman, but came to Arkansas with a lot of hype and ended the summer on a tear in the Northwoods League. If he can carry that bat into the season, then he’ll be tough to keep out of the lineup. It just remains to be seen if he can field well enough to play third or second base.
The other two returners — outfielder Hunter Grimes and corner infielder Reese Robinett — probably face an uphill battle for playing time. Between the transfers in the outfield and returners in the infield, there are more capable players than there are spots. The fall will be critical for Van Horn to sort it all out.
3. How will the starting rotation shake out for Arkansas baseball?
Unlike the last few seasons, there’s very little mystery surrounding which three pitchers will make up the Razorbacks’ weekend rotation. In fact, Arkansas baseball has a case for the best rotation in the SEC and country.
Left-hander Hagen Smith has been a staple of the pitching staff since stepping on campus as a freshman. His role has fluctuated based on the needs of the team and he was arguably the best pitcher in the SEC not named Paul Skenes last season.
Right-hander Brady Tygart transitioned from the bullpen to a starting role after returning from injury last season and it went exceptionally well. In six starts of gradually increased lengths, he posted a 2.37 ERA in 19 innings.
That was already a dynamic 1-2 punch and then Dave Van Horn went out and added one of the best available starting pitchers from the transfer portal — left-hander Mason Molina from Texas Tech. Pitching in the Big 12, he was the Red Raiders’ ace in 2023 and posted a 3.67 ERA and 1.18 WHIP with 108 strikeouts in 83 1/3 innings.
The trio’s combined numbers from last season are pretty incredible, as they posted a 3.59 ERA and 1.21 WHIP, averaged 12.4 strikeouts per nine innings and held opponents to a minuscule .206 batting average.
So why is this a top question for Arkansas baseball this fall? Well, only one of them can start on Fridays.
Van Horn and pitching coach Matt Hobbs must figure out the best order of them. Do they go left-right-left? Lefties on back-to-back days to start a series? Open with a righty and then end with two lefties?
This is a great problem to have.
4. How many second-year arms can Arkansas depend on?
Arkansas baseball signed eight freshman pitchers last offseason and six of them found their way onto the mound in 2023. Only one really established a steady role, though, as right-hander Gage Wood was the closer for a chunk of the season.
Three others — right-handers Christian Foutch and Ben Bybee and left-hander Parker Coil — certainly flashed at times, but struggled with consistency. That group didn’t even include right-hander Cooper Dossett, the highest-rated of the bunch coming out of high school.
The good news for Arkansas is that each of those guys went out this summer and got a lot of innings with some good-to-great results.
Coil had a very successful summer in the Cape Cod League, while Bybee dominated the California Collegiate League. If they can carry that into their sophomore campaigns, they’ll definitely have a role out of the bullpen this season.
Foutch and Dossett actually pitched together in the Northwoods League and racked up a lot of strikeouts, even if their ERAs weren’t that impressive. Part of that is because they were asked to do more this summer than they probably will be asked to do in 2024 with the Razorbacks.
If Wood can bounce back to his midseason form, that is five legitimate options for Dave Van Horn and Matt Hobbs. Whether or not they can count on all five next season remains to be seen and this fall will go a long way in determining the most dependable of the group.
5. How many freshmen will assert themselves as contributors in 2024?
Even after the MLB Draft did its best to pick it apart, the Razorbacks’ 2023 signing class included a historic haul.
They lost six of them to the pros, but still got seven top-100 prospects to campus — believed to be a record since Perfect Game started ranking high school players in 2002, topping the six LSU got to Baton Rouge last season.
The group is heavy on pitchers, featuring right-hander Gabe Gaeckle (No. 51) and a trio of left-handers in Hunter Dietz (No. 57), Adam Hachman (No. 58) and Tucker Holland (No. 87). The others are catcher Ryder Helfrick (No. 46), shortstop Nolan Souza (No. 70) and catcher/first baseman Ty Waid (No. 90).
Dave Van Horn seemed most excited about those arms when talking to reporters this summer and each of them will have a chance to carve out a role as freshmen. That includes Hachman, who was previously believed to be a redshirt candidate because of an injury, but is actually going to try to play in 2024.
When you throw in five other freshman pitchers who were viewed as potential draft prospects out of high school or top-300 recruits, plus everything Arkansas has returning, it is shaping up to be an extremely deep pitching staff.
In the field, each of the top-100 position players have a chance to compete for playing time in 2024, but they may have a harder time getting the opportunity because of all the transfers.
Helfrick could push for action behind the plate because that’s a position that does see some rotation, but the Razorbacks return their top two catchers from last season and added a heralded transfer. In summer ball, he also played some center field and second base, so he may be a versatile piece if he can swing it well enough to get in the lineup.
It’s a similar story for Souza, who could play multiple spots in the infield, but finds himself going up against a talented group of returnees and transfers. Waid is viewed as more of a first baseman than a catcher at the college level, but it’s his bat that could give him an opportunity to play as a freshman.
Once again, that’s a lot of pieces for only a limited number of spots, so this fall will be critical for them to prove they’re worthy of immediate playing time.
6. Can Bobby Wernes work his magic again?
Remembered by most Arkansas baseball fans as a slick-fielding third baseman who evolved into a bonafide threat at the plate on the 2015 College World Series team, Bobby Wernes is back in Fayetteville as a coach.
Promoted into the third full-time assistant role created by the NCAA this summer, he spent the last three years as the Razorbacks’ volunteer assistant. During that time, Wernes has earned a reputation for developing catchers behind the plate.
Casey Opitz didn’t need a lot of help in 2021, but Michael Turner didn’t have an abundance of experience at the position when he transferred in and became a really solid presence back there in 2022. This past season, Parker Rowland struggled offensively, but was above-average defensively during the season after initially struggling upon his arrival from junior college.
Rowland — and backup Hudson Polk — are actually back this season. However, the projected starter is Hudson White, a heralded transfer from Texas Tech.
While he is undoubtedly an upgrade from an offensive perspective, the Razorbacks would probably like to see Wernes work his magic with him defensively.
Even though scouts and Dave Van Horn insist he’s a very good defensive catcher, statistics indicate otherwise. Of course, traditional stats don’t always paint the best picture of how good someone is at this position. He may be excellent at framing pitches or handling a pitching staff, but it’s hard to know those things without watching him in person.
Perhaps he has all the tools to be a great defensive catcher and all he needs is one fall with Wernes to put it all together.
More coverage of Arkansas baseball from BoAS…