There is almost always roster turnover at college baseball programs like Arkansas, but this offseason is still a bit unique for Arkansas baseball coach Dave Van Horn.
The Razorbacks are almost certainly going to return just one of their nine regulars from a lineup that helped them reach the College World Series for the third time in four tries.
With three starters exhausting their eligibility and four others likely to begin their professional careers, that number was originally two — until left fielder Zack Gregory entered the transfer portal.
Catcher Michael Turner, right fielder Chris Lanzilli and center fielder Braydon Webb were super seniors this season, granted an extra year because of the NCAA’s pandemic-related eligibility relief.
Shortstop Jalen Battles and designated hitter Brady Slavens were seniors and could use that bonus year to return, while second baseman Robert Moore is a junior and third baseman Cayden Wallace is a draft-eligible sophomore because of his age (within 45 days of turning 21), but each of them figure to hear their names called during the 2022 MLB Draft, which is scheduled for July 17-19 in Los Angeles.
That means Van Horn has a significant rebuilding — or reloading — job ahead of his 21st season at the helm of the Razorbacks.
Lone Returning Starter for Arkansas Baseball
Peyton Stovall is the last man standing from the 2022 lineup, as he was just a freshman and is not eligible to be drafted yet, but even he will be in a new spot.
After learning the position during the offseason and playing it rather well, the Louisiana native is expected to shift from first base to his natural position at second base next year.
“He’s playing second base in the Cape [Cod League],” Van Horn said. “He played shortstop his senior year in high school. He played second base as a freshman, sophomore and junior in high school and started there most of the time. He got his reps in at second with us (in practice this season), and then we’ll really get after it when he gets back.”
The move to first was necessitated by Battles and Moore giving Arkansas arguably the best double play combination in the country. Technically, Moore has left the door open for a return to school, but Van Horn said he “would be surprised” if this year’s Golden Glove Award winner chose to do that.
That’s good news for Stovall, who is projected as a second baseman at the next level. Regardless where he plays defensively, though, he’ll be in the lineup because of his bat.
Despite getting off to a super slow start at the plate, Stovall ended up hitting .295/.373/.425 with six home runs and 31 RBIs. He raised his batting average 43 points during the postseason by going 21 for 49 (.429) — and that includes him going 0 for 9 in the last two games. Prior to that, his season batting average got all the way up to .309.
Key Bench Players Coming Back
The Razorbacks do have a couple of key bench players coming back in Jace Bohrofen and Kendall Diggs, who started 24 and 15 games, respectively.
A transfer from Oklahoma, Bohrofen figured to be a key player in 2022, but he started the year hitless in his first 17 at bats before a breakout weekend against Southeastern Louisiana. Unfortunately for him, he suffered a shoulder injury about that time that kept him out for a month and steady playing time was tough to come by from that point on.
“This is a guy, we had him penciled in to start last year,” Van Horn said. “It didn’t happen. He got hurt, missed a month. Came back, did real well, then didn’t do real well. And we just kind of went with Gregory at the end.”
Diggs was a talented freshman from Olathe, Kan., whom Van Horn has long praised for having a “pretty swing.” That earned him a few spot starts and pinch-hit opportunities, highlighted by a walk-off home run against Ole Miss.
The biggest question with him is where he ends up in the field. All but two of his starts this year were as the designated hitter, with the others coming at first base.
“I think Kendall’s going to fight to get into the lineup whether it’s at first base, third base or corner outfielder,” Van Horn said. “The pro people feel like he has good speed. He has a good arm. He’s going to be a big kid. That might be his spot going forward, as far as professionally, (is) as a corner outfielder.”
Razorbacks’ Most Intriguing Position
With Turner out of eligibility, plus Dylan Leach and Max Soliz Jr. transferring out, the Razorbacks didn’t have a single catcher on their 2023 roster for a couple of days.
Soon after, though, Arkansas baseball secured a commitment from Parker Rowland out of Eastern Oklahoma State C.C. Van Horn indicated Thursday that they also landed another one, but declined to reveal a name while telling reporters, “We’re fine.”
Catcher has always been an important position under Van Horn. He most values what they bring to the table defensively, such as receiving and their catch-and-throw ability, and the intangibles of handling a pitching staff and general leadership. How well they swing the bat comes last in the pecking order of importance.
With that in mind, Van Horn said he’d like to have “two and a half” catchers on the 2023 roster, with the “half” catcher being one who also plays another position or can really hit — similar to Charlie Welch — but that’s easier said than done.
“In this modern day Division I baseball, it’s hard to have three,” Van Horn said. “It’s hard to put more than two on a scholarship, and sometimes even more than one, unless you find a guy that’s got outstanding grades or can get him some help somewhere else or whatever you need to do. In a perfect world, it would be nice to have three guys that can get back there.”
Potentially Loaded Pitching Staff
While the cupboard is bare in the field, Arkansas appears to have an embarrassment of riches on the mound — and might end up even richer than expected.
Of the nine pitchers who threw at least 15 innings last season, only two — super seniors Kole Ramage and Zebulon Vermillion — are definitely not returning. Left-hander Evan Taylor could return for his bonus COVID-19 year, but is expected to get drafted.
Three others, SEC All-Freshman selections Hagen Smith and Brady Tygart and sophomore Jaxon Wiggins, are not draft eligible, plus redshirt sophomore Will McEntire is expected to return.
Following the season, Smith and Tygart were invited to try out for USA Baseball’s Collegiate National Team. They each pitched once for Team USA before returning home because, as Van Horn said, they “hit the wall” after having key roles on this year’s team. They were originally slated to pitch in the Cape Cod League.
For Wiggins and McEntire, the plan all along was to stay on campus to work out and get stronger.
“We just feel like, in their case, I don’t know that for them to go out and pitch is going to really be what they need to do,” Van Horn said. “They just need to come in and have a good fall. And I think both of them will.”
Pending Arkansas Baseball Draft Decisions
The other two pitchers in that group are wildcards: senior Connor Noland and junior Zack Morris. Both of them could get drafted and begin their professional careers if they want, but they could also play another season with the Razorbacks.
The duo’s return would actually benefit Arkansas since they wouldn’t be one of its 27 scholarship counters or go toward the overall 35-man roster limit because they were on the team during the pandemic-shortened 2020 season. The NCAA will allow up to five such players for each team in 2023.
Whether or not they take advantage of that remains to be seen, but Noland — the staff ace this year — has been very open about the possibility of him returning as a super senior.
“I don’t think Connor’s just going to go because somebody says ‘Hey, we’re gonna give you a little bit of money and go play,’” Van Horn said. “It’s going to have to be a situation where he feels really good about it, the organization is serious, and if not, you could see him back. And obviously we’d love to have him back.”
It’s a similar situation for Morris, but he would still have an additional year of leverage if he returned because of the COVID-19 bonus year. As of now, Van Horn said they’re planning on having him back.
“I don’t think he’s going to sell himself short,” Van Horn said. “I think he’ll come back unless he gets pretty good money. We’re hoping he comes back. We’re planning on it right now. But we also know that he has a decision to make.”
It’s worth noting that right-hander Peyton Pallette, who missed the 2022 season with Tommy John surgery, is another arm that could bolster the staff, but he is still widely expected to get drafted — most outlets include him among the top 100 prospects — and sign a professional contract.
Those Razorbacks’ final decisions won’t be known, though, until after the MLB Draft and, potentially, the Aug. 1 signing deadline.
Even if all of them move on, Arkansas should have plenty of arms to choose from in 2023. In addition to the aforementioned group, the Razorbacks have landed a pair of key transfers — right-hander Koty Frank from Nebraska and left-hander Julian Bosnic from South Carolina — and signed a pitcher-heavy class.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second piece in a three-part series examining Arkansas’ 2023 baseball roster and the challenges Van Horn faces in putting it all together. Part 1 – linked below – looked at how the timing of the MLB Draft complicates things and how the Razorbacks have done in the portal so far. Part 3 will focus on the players coming in from the JUCO and high school ranks.
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