Arkansas sure looks like a team ready to make a third-straight trip to the College World Series.
The Razorbacks have become an Omaha mainstay during the Dave Van Horn era, and the last two seasons have been special. The Hogs finished as the national runner-up two seasons before not skipping a beat last season with right-hander Isaiah Campbell and others stepping up with the team making yet another trip to Omaha.
Once again, the Hogs fell just short of a national title. But there’s no time for sulking in Fayetteville, as Van Horn’s club looks like a national contender yet again. Sure, there are some question marks. The Hogs might not have that bonafide Friday night ace they had the last two seasons with Campbell and Blaine Knight before that, but they have plenty of options with right-hander Connor Noland and left-hander Patrick Wicklander.
Everything else looks to be in outstanding shape for the Hogs.
“You know, after the fall, as coaches, we feel great about the depth of our pitching staff. I think it’s one of the deeper staffs we’ve had,” Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn said. “Obviously the big question right now is who is going to step in and take Campbell’s spot? That’s a good question. We’re not sure we have that guy just yet, but I’m also not sure anyone expected Campbell [last fall] to be as good as he was in the spring, so there’s still plenty of time.
“It’s really hard to evaluate the offense right now because we had some guys hurt this fall, we took things easy with guys like Casey Opitz and things like that,” he continued. “But if we have everyone healthy and playing, I think our offense will be right where it was last season in terms of production. But again, right now, it’s about finding that No. 1 guy on the pitching staff. We’ll keep running guys out there until we find a fit.”
From an injury standpoint, the Hogs will be ready to go in the spring. Casey Martin continues to come back from a hamate bone injury, Matt Goodheart will be ready to roll following an offseason shoulder procedure and highly touted junior college product outfielder Braydon Webb was off to a hot start this fall before hurting his shoulder diving for a ball back in September. None of those injuries are expected to be lingering issues into the 2020 campaign.
There are no guarantees in the always rugged SEC, but the Hogs looks like a team ready to compete with a stout top of the lineup and a multitude of options on the mound.
Now, it’s about putting all the pieces together. Let’s check out the Hogs this fall:
Heston Kjerstad put together yet another outstanding fall for the Razorbacks. He looks like someone ready to be a high first-round draft pick next summer. Kjerstad hit well over .300 this fall and slugged five or six home runs. What’s interesting about Kjerstad, though, is that Arkansas played him at first base 80 percent of the time this fall. It’s not that the Hogs are dead set on moving him to first base, but Van Horn wants to get creative with the positional assignments at time in the spring. He said there’s a chance he plays first.
“He did nothing but hit … as usual,” Van Horn said. “I played him at first base about 80 percent of the time, so we can see how he looks in case we decide to put him over there at times. He did fine over there. There are some little mechanical things we can fix, and it’s not overly smooth, but he made every play. He catches the ball really well.”
Casey Opitz has been a productive player throughout his Arkansas career, but took a massive step forward as a sophomore last season. In addition to showcasing his talents behind the plate, he also developed into a strong offensive contributor. Opitz only caught about 10 percent of the time this fall as the Hogs were resting him, but Van Horn says his strides in other areas was noticed. For instance, Opitz gained around 15 pounds of muscle after the season until now and is up from around 160 since he arrived in Fayetteville to 198 now. For the record, a scout recently told me Opitz was viewed anywhere from a second-to-fourth rounder for next summer.
“We put him in some scrimmages at times here and there,” he said. “He knew he had to get stronger and he’s done that. He looks like a big-time pro guy now. The ball is totally different off his bat right now. Now that he’s gotten his size, he’s hitting for power and there’s no doubt in my mind he’ll catch in the big leagues. He’s just so good back there. That’s the way I feel about him.”
Casey Martin has had some bad luck with injuries over the past few months. Van Horn revealed that he played the final few weeks of the season with a shoulder injury before breaking his hamate bone this fall. Though his fall wasn’t filled with opportunities, he showed some strides in some key areas.
“He didn’t play much this fall, but he’s had some tough luck. That shoulder was really bothering him at the end of last season,” Van Horn said. “He was having a good fall. He knows that his battle is cutting down on strikeouts and putting the ball in play more often, and he was doing that before he got hurt.”
Matt Goodheart didn’t play this fall after having offseason shoulder surgery, but Van Horn said he’ll be ready to go in the spring.
Another injured player this fall was Grayson (TX) transfer Braydon Webb. Webb put together an outstanding 2019 campaign in the junior college ranks, hitting .450 with 14 home runs and 66 RBIs. He hurt his shoulder diving for a ball early this fall and didn’t play again. However, Van Horn saw all he needed from the talented outfielder.
“He had a great fall when he played and was a really athletic left fielder for us,” he said. “He’s just now getting back from that cracked bone in the back of his shoulder, but he was starting. He’ll start. The way he approaches the game — he kind of has that same type of twitchiness that Casey Martin had.”
Former Freshman All-American Christian Franklin appears to be Dom Fletcher’s replacement out in center field. Though Fletcher was a premier defender who took outstanding routes and had great instincts, Franklin is much faster. He also took a step forward with the bat this fall, showing more consistency and hitting the ball with authority.
“He’s really taken a step forward with the bat,” Van Horn said of Franklin. “He’s hitting the ball with authority and everything is better with the bat. He’s a great runner and, though he’s likely to be our center fielder, we’ll also look at some other guys like Webb, too.”
Two intriguing infielders to watch in the spring include redshirt freshman Zach Gregory and Arizona State transfer Cole Austin. Gregory is a 5-foot-10, 175-pounder, who had a solid summer at the Northwoods League. He has played each day this fall at second base or designated hitter and has impressed from the left side. Meanwhile, Arkansas is Austin’s third destination, and he showed up this fall ready to roll. He hit just .208 with the Sun Devils last season, but Van Horn said he had a productive fall.
“Gregory came back this fall wanting to prove something, and he’s one of those guys who really stepped up and impressed,” he said. “Austin is really interesting, I’d say. He had a good fall and I think he could end up being a good one for us.”
Arkansas is still figuring out its weekend rotation as fall workouts culminate. Two things are for certain: Right-hander Connor Noland and left-hander Patrick Wicklander are safe bets to be in the rotation. Noland is a former two-sport player for the Hogs but has since given up football to focus exclusively on his baseball career. Noland sat more 88-90 and up to 91 mph with his fastball last season but was more 90-93 with the offering this fall, along with quality secondary stuff.
Meanwhile, Wicklander, who will sit around 90-92 mph with his fastball, had a quality fall as well. There are no “set in stone” roles for the Arkansas pitching staff now, but I feel good about saying Noland and Wicklander will be in the rotation. The Hogs also welcome back another talented right hander in Kole Ramage.
“Nolan didn’t get below 90 I don’t think this fall, and his secondary stuff has been pretty good, too,” Van Horn said. “He’s becoming that full-time guy, and he’s got a great opportunity to be really good. I think from a rotation standpoint, we’ll probably do some experimenting early in the spring.”
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Redshirt sophomore right-hander Caleb Bolden is another interesting arm to watch in the spring. Bolden had a nice role for the Hogs back in 2018 but missed this past season because of an injury. Bolden is working his way back and has been up to 90 mph with his fastball over the fall. He’s pitching at around 60-70 percent now, and the Hogs feel like he could be a big-time contributor come February.
“He was our Tuesday starter in 2018, and during the second half of that season everything started going backward. He had Tommy John surgery, and he’s about 12 months removed from it right now,” he said. “He’s bigger and stronger. If we can get him back to where he was, I think he can be a dude for us.”
Young left-hander Kaden Monk could be working his way into a much larger role in the spring. Monk, a 6-foot-3, 160-pounder, has a wiry frame and has impressed the coaching staff with great command of multiple offerings.
“He’s a skinny lefty, and he’s made a big, big jump for us,” he said. “He’s throwing strikes and everything out of his hand moves. He’s throwing strikes, so if that continues, we’ll see where he factors in the spring.”
Three more returning arms to watch include junior right-hander Zebulon Vermillion, and sophomore righties Elijah Trest and Jacob Burton. Vermillion has always showed potential with his lively arm but has yet to put all the pieces together. Vermillion had a strong fall, getting up to 95 mph with his fastball, along with a new out pitch – a quality changeup. Trest is another lively arm who was up to 96-97 mph with the offering this fall. The big key for Trest between now and the spring is making sure he stays on top of the slider. Finally, Burton is another mid-to-upper 90s fastball guy, but he got hit well in the fall.
“With Trest, he just needs to get on top of the slider a little bit, and they’re working on a changeup with him as well,” he said. “Burton has pretty electric stuff, but still gets hit at times.”
Two freshmen that have a chance to make a huge impact in their inaugural campaigns are right-handers Peyton Pallette and Blake Adams. Pallette is a 6-foot, 160-pounder, who earned rave reviews earlier in the fall and continued his successful ways throughout. He has whippy arm action and is up to 95 mph with his fastball. Pallette has a good spin rate, with Van Horn saying his breaking ball was somewhere around 3100. He has some natural life to his fastball and pitched at 93-95 throughout the fall.
Meanwhile, Adams is up to 96 mph with his fastball, and Van Horn believes there’s more in the tank for the young righty. He also possesses a very effective breaking ball.
“Pallette’s fastball moves really well and Adams is a physical kid,” Van Horn said. “Pallette has one of the quickest arms I’ve ever seen. And it’s kind of funny. When we signed him, he looked like he was 13 years old and about 155 pounds. He’s a little over six foot now and the sky is the limit with him.”