Coming off a dominant showing in the postseason, Connor Noland has a major decision to make within the next month — return to school for another year with Arkansas baseball or begin his professional career.
Even though the right-hander was a senior this season, the option to come back is on the table because of the extra year of eligibility granted by the NCAA in response to the pandemic.
Whether or not Noland takes advantage of that remains to be seen, but there is definitely “a possibility” he plays for the Razorbacks again in 2023, he said in an interview on The Morning Rush radio show Wednesday morning.
“I haven’t made any final decisions yet, but I’ve got a couple options and I’m excited to see where it takes me,” Noland said. “Obviously the draft is coming up and we’ll see on that end, but I’d never say, ‘No,’ that I wouldn’t come back.”
The MLB Draft is scheduled for July 17-19 in Los Angeles. For the second straight year, it’ll be only 20 rounds with 616 total picks. Players who get selected would then have until Aug. 1 to sign with the team that drafted them.
The bonus year of eligibility from the NCAA applied to all players who were in college baseball during the shortened 2020 season, so that means Jalen Battles, Brady Slavens and Evan Taylor could also potentially return in 2023.
However, those three — especially Battles and Slavens — are widely expected to begin their professional career. Of the group of true seniors, Noland is the most likely to come back for a “super senior” season.
That said, nothing is certain with the MLB Draft less than two weeks away. Noland said on The Morning Rush that “there’s a lot of factors that go into” his decision, so we here at BoAS decided to take a stab at the pros and cons of each option.
Why Connor Noland Should Go Pro
Even though he hit a rough patch at the end of the regular season, Connor Noland was still very good for the Razorbacks this year.
He started all but one of his 20 appearances and went 8-6 with a 3.65 ERA, 1.23 WHIP, 113 strikeouts and only 34 walks in 116 innings. Those numbers don’t really do him justice, though, as his season could really be broken into three segments.
Through the first 10 weeks of the season, Noland had a 2.54 ERA and was dominant through six SEC starts, compiling a 1.93 ERA and holding opponents to a .178 batting average in nearly 6 1/3 innings per outing.
His last five starts before the NCAA Tournament, however, cost him any chance of All-SEC honors, as he had a 7.62 ERA and opponents hit .343 — and slugged .500 — against him, but Noland turned things around when it mattered most.
Outside of a blown save against Oklahoma State on very short rest in his lone relief appearance, he was incredible in the postseason. Noland went at least 6 2/3 innings in each of his four starts and compiled a 1.53 ERA in 29 1/3 total innings. The loaded lineups of Grand Canyon, North Carolina, Stanford and Ole Miss managed to hit just .236 (25 for 106) with him on the bump.
All of that is to say that Noland’s draft stock will likely never be higher than it is heading into the 2022 MLB Draft. Baseball America has him at No. 470 in its ranking of the top 500 prospects.
If Noland is selected around there, that’d put him in the 15th or 16th round. Teams are allowed to give signing bonuses up to $125,000 in the 11th round and beyond without it counting against their salary pool.
Typically, college seniors do not get anywhere close to their slot value because they have no leverage in negotiating. MLB teams will usually draft college seniors within the top 10 rounds in order to save money to use on other picks that require going over slot.
Last year, there were 25 players taken in the top 10 rounds who signed for $30,000 or less, including 11 who received no more than $10,000.
Noland would technically have the extra year of eligibility working in his favor, but he’s nearly 23 years old — which is pretty old in the MLB Draft world — and isn’t getting any younger. Just last year, even as the most dominant player in college baseball, a 24-year-old Kevin Kopps signed for just $300,000 — a little over half of his slot value at pick No. 99.
Simply put, leaving this year would help Noland maximize whatever signing bonus he’d get from the MLB Draft.
Why Connor Noland Should Return in 2023
While he’ll likely sit down with his parents and advisor — college baseball parlance for “agent” — with additional feedback from head coach Dave Van Horn and scouts to determine a set number he’ll tell teams he wants, Noland was sure to mention it’s not the No. 1 driving factor.
“I don’t think it’s all about the money,” Noland said. “That comes eventually. You really don’t get your money until you make it to the big leagues.”
Noland has a point. Past that initial signing bonus, minor leaguers are notoriously underpaid. Many players have to work other jobs in the offseason because their annual salary playing baseball is below the federal poverty line.
On top of that, the facilities and resources at Arkansas are better than a lot of minor league teams, plus he’d be playing in front of massive crowds every weekend opposed to the occasional sell-out on $1 beer nights in the minors.
It may not seem like it considering the current state of college athletics, but Noland is also still a student-athlete. He’s already finished his management degree with a small business and entrepreneurship concentration and now he’s working on his master’s in operations management.
“I’m working on my master’s right now, so that’s a big factor,” Noland said. “I’ve always held my education highly and that would be kind of big to finish up.”
There’s also the fact that Noland is an in-state kid from Greenwood. A four-star quarterback and top-500 baseball recruit coming out of high school, he likely could have gone anywhere for college, but chose to stay home and play for the Razorbacks.
Wearing an Arkansas uniform clearly means a lot to Noland and, having already been on two College World Series team and another that was No. 1 in the country, he may want to try to be part of the team that finally gets the Razorbacks over the hump and wins a national title — much like Mississippi State and Ole Miss the last two years.
“I’m kind of thinking about everything,” Noland said. “I’m going to test the water and see what it’s like and make the decision after that.”
What It Means for Arkansas Baseball
The Razorbacks are going to have to replace almost their entire starting lineup, with only Peyton Stovall expected back in 2023, but they appear to be loaded on the mound.
Even so, it’d be hard to understate how significant it’d be for Arkansas to get Noland back for another year.
Not only would he be a returning ace, which are a rare breed in the SEC, but he’d provide veteran leadership on a pitching staff that will still be relatively young and inexperienced in 2023.
That was on display in Omaha, when THV11 sports reporter Tyler Cass noticed him follow freshman Brady Tygart down the tunnel and bring him back to the dugout to be with the team after his rough outing against Ole Miss.
As good as he is on the mound, that kind of leadership would be hard to replace.
From a pure pitching perspective, though, Noland would give the Razorbacks five legitimate options for the weekend rotation.
Potential Razorback Pitchers in 2023
Left-hander Hagan Smith has the look of a star in the making after an SEC All-Freshman Team season as the No. 2 starter.
Tygart, a right-hander who also landed on the SEC All-Freshman Team, was dominant as a closer for much of the season and Van Horn has openly discussed his future as a starter.
He didn’t even pitch until halfway through the season, but right-hander Will McEntire emerged as arguably the second-best starter down the stretch and he’ll be a redshirt junior.
Then there’s Jaxon Wiggins, the hard-throwing right-hander who has first-round potential, but has struggled with consistency in his first two years at Arkansas. If he puts it together, he could also be an SEC starter.
Of course, there’s a chance right-hander Peyton Pallette could return, as well, but that doesn’t appear likely at the moment. Despite having Tommy John surgery, he’s still projected to be a high pick in this month’s draft and, even if he didn’t go pro, there’s a good chance he wouldn’t be back to full strength by the time next season rolled around.
That doesn’t even include transfer Koty Frank, a right-hander who started seven games at Nebraska this season, or any of the incoming freshmen in a pitcher-heavy class.
Noland’s full interview on The Morning Rush can be watched in the video below, beginning at the 1:18:05 mark…
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