If constructing a Division I baseball roster was like college algebra before, it has evolved into full-blown advanced calculus thanks to Major League Baseball and Dave Van Horn isn’t particularly happy about it.
Coaches have always had to figure out how to stretch 11.7 scholarships across 27 players receiving at least 25 percent of a scholarship, plus find eight additional walk-ons to fill out a 35-man roster.
That’s enough to make your eyes gloss over, but now they also have to deal with unknown variables — who’s actually going to be on campus — right up until seemingly the last second with the MLB Draft scheduled for July 17-19, coinciding with All-Star Week in Los Angeles.
“What a horrible time for the draft,” Van Horn said. “It makes no sense at all. No one likes it except the owners. They think it’s cool to have the draft during the All-Star game. Nobody cares. Have the draft last week, let us get to work, get our rosters right, treat the kids right, give the ones that are not going to be able to come in more time to find a place to play. I mean, it’s a joke.”
Van Horn isn’t alone in his criticism, either.
“I’ll give you my opinion: this is horrendous for us as coaches,” LSU baseball coach Jay Johnson said last month.
“The timing is terrible,” UCLA coach John Savage said last month. “You’re guessing. Everything is mistimed.”
Traditionally an early-June event, the MLB Draft used to regularly conflict with the NCAA Tournament, leading to players getting selected while playing in the biggest games of their lives. Last year, it was moved back to mid-July, but in doing so, the powers that be just made it worse.
Speaking to reporters Thursday, Van Horn said he thinks the draft should have been last week — at the start of the month — at the latest. He went on to say he believed the perfect time would be the Tuesday after super regionals, which would have been June 14 this year.
In that scenario, there’s only a slight chance anyone would be playing during the draft, as that’d require a rainout pushing a super regional game back to Tuesday, and the three-day event would be done before the College World Series, in which only eight teams are still alive.
That’d give college coaches an extra month to sort through their roster for the upcoming year, while also giving people at the professional level their vacation back, as the All-Star Week is usually their only time off during the 162-game grind that lasts more than eight months if you include spring training.
“The GMs, the scouts, they all want the draft earlier; it doesn’t make any sense,” Van Horn said. “But the owners think it’s a production to have the draft around the same time the All-Star Game’s going on. I really don’t get that. It’s not like the NBA.”
The veteran Arkansas baseball coach, who just guided the Razorbacks to their seventh College World Series in his 20th season at the helm, described the roster management issues created by the draft as “ridiculous.”
Not the Only Issue Facing Arkansas Baseball
Those issues are further amplified when combined with the NCAA’s pandemic-related eligibility relief and subsequent flexibility allowing larger-than-normal rosters.
While the 11.7 scholarship limit has mostly remained in place, with the exception of super seniors not counting toward that limit in 2021, the roster cap has fluctuated over the last couple of years.
In college baseball’s return for the 2021 season, the 35-man roster cap was completely eliminated. This past year, a cap was reintroduced, but increased to 40. Both years, the 25% scholarship minimum was also erased, meaning coaches could divvy up their scholarships in smaller portions.
Things are a bit more complicated for the upcoming season. In 2023, the 25% minimum returns and the roster cap is back to 35 — with no more than 27 receiving part of a scholarship — but those latter two numbers are allowed to expand by as much as five with the caveat that those spots be filled with players who were on the roster during the pandemic-shorted 2020 season.
Throw on top of that the transfer portal, which had more than 2,400 players in it by the end of June, and the still-new NIL opportunities for players, and it can get chaotic trying to finalize a college baseball roster.
But there is light at the end of the tunnel. Players who get drafted have until Aug. 1 to sign a professional contract. Otherwise, they’ll be at school a few weeks later and the Razorbacks will be able to put the finishing touches on their squad ahead of fall ball.
“That’s when the smoke will clear,” Van Horn said. “Hopefully within a couple days after that, we’ll have a final roster. There could be a lot of changes.”
The Portal Giveth…
One major aspect Arkansas is having to navigate this summer is the aforementioned transfer portal.
While some coaches admonish those who abuse the portal, Van Horn acknowledged that it’s a necessity “if you’re going to survive” in today’s world of college athletics.
“You don’t want to go crazy on it, you don’t want to disrupt everything, but at the same time, you’re trying to strengthen your roster as best you can,” Van Horn said. “There’s a fine line there.”
Arkansas tried to shoot its shot with some of the high-profile transfers, but most of them are headed elsewhere — such as North Carolina State’s Tommy White landing at LSU and Kansas’ Maui Ahuna at Tennessee.
Van Horn hinted that some more transfers could be “coming down the road” depending on how things play out and also indicated the Razorbacks have already secured commitments from more than the three publicly known as of Thursday morning.
So far, outfielder Jared Wegner, a first-team All-Big East selection from Creighton, is the only transfer whose paperwork has been completed and Van Horn is allowed to talk about.
“He’s a very strong, athletic outfielder,” Van Horn said. “He runs really well. I wouldn’t say he’s a base stealer. He has power. Should be a seasoned player who’s ready to step in and contribute right away.”
Nebraska right-hander Koty Frank and Kansas infielder/outfielder Tavian Josenberger have also announced their commitments to Arkansas, but haven’t filed all of their paperwork.
Regardless of who else joins them, Van Horn said he feels like they’ve done a good job with the portal to this point.
“I feel like for us, it’s about what we think these players are all about, really, as a player and we’re trying to get good people in with our culture and our locker room,” Van Horn said. “In some cases, it’s maybe not the big splash, that big name out there — which, that’s fine if you get those guys — but we’re trying to go after the guys we feel are going to help our lineup or help our pitching as far as depth or a role.”
…The Portal Taketh
Of course, the college baseball transfer portal is a two-way street and the Razorbacks have seen their fair share of players leave the program, as well. By last count, there are 10 Arkansas baseball transfers who went through the 2022 season in the portal, with six already finding new homes.
Included among those departing are Zack Gregory and Dylan Leach. Those may have been the most eye-raising position players considering Gregory was the primary starting left fielder and Leach was the backup catcher who was seemingly in line to start next season.
On the mound, sophomore right-handers Heston Tole and Gabriel Starks deciding to leave probably caught most fans off guard considering the potential they’ve flashed over the last two years.
However, Van Horn said he was neither surprised by nor disappointed with any of their decisions, but rather understanding of why they chose to do what they did.
“They understand, we understand what’s going on now with the portal and opportunity to play,” Van Horn said. “These are guys that have been in the program a couple of years and hadn’t played much. As a coach and maybe even them evaluating themselves, it was a big risk for them to come back and play, so really in most cases — or probably all cases actually — it’s probably for the best.”
On Friday, the Hogs landed their best portal addition yet. More on the top-150 draft prospect in this updated piece:
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first piece in a three-part series examining Arkansas’ 2023 baseball roster and the challenges Van Horn faces in putting it all together. Part 2 will look at the Razorbacks returning from this year’s team and Part 3 will look at players coming in from the JUCO and high school ranks.