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Dave Van Horn has a good problem on his hands at Arkansas this fall — he has a plethora of talented, powerful arms and must find a way to sort out the roles between now and February.
Though it seems like an eternity ago, the Razorbacks were on the verge of having an interesting 2020 campaign when the season was shuttered. They got off to a terrific 7-0 start before heading to the Shriners College Classic and going 0-3 against Oklahoma, Texas, Baylor before opening the South Alabama series with a 13-6 setback. However, the Hogs responded from that loss to the Jaguars with two straight wins before beating Grand Canyon twice. So, just as SEC play was about to begin, the Hogs seemed to be finding their stride.
Arkansas has some holes to fill this fall with the departure of high first-round pick and outfielder Heston Kjerstad and others. But the nucleus of the returning group has Van Horn and the Hogs thinking of the College World Series yet again.
The offense appears to be in good shape with potential first-round pick and outfielder Christian Franklin getting off to a hot start this fall, while veteran corner infielder Matt Goodheart is in the same boat. But more than anything else, it’s an incredibly deep pitching staff at pitching coach Matt Hobbs’ disposal that has the Hogs excited about their chances in a few months.
From the weekend rotation from last season, the Hogs welcome back righthanders Connor Noland and Kole Ramage, while lefthander Patrick Wicklander also is back, along with hard-throwing righty Zebulon Vermillion, among others.
In essence, the Hogs have a lot of talent on the mound … with limited spots to plug some of these guys into. That means competition is at an elite level this fall.
“Every year, it seems like the old guys know how the system works and the new guys coming in, the freshmen, they’re a little up and down at times,” Van Horn said. “I’d say there’s a lot of competition on the mound right now.
“It’s probably that way across the country right now with everyone getting their players back, along with adding freshmen and junior college transfers,” he continued. “We feel very fortunate with what we’ve got on the mound … there’s a lot of really, really talented depth here. It’s a lot of competition, and in turn, it’s created some really good scrimmages.”
To give you an idea of how much talent is roaming around the mound at Baum Stadium right now, the Hogs have over 15 arms who are throwing 90 mph or harder, and of those, nine of them have been clocked at 95 mph or better with their fastballs this fall. That’s impressive.
Let’s take an in-depth look at the Hogs from a pitching and offensive standpoint this fall:
“We’ve definitely seen some guys jump forward. Our velocities have been way up there so far this fall. The question is what’s your second and third pitch, and can you get guys out? You’ve got to be able to do that in our league," Van Horn said.
The most intriguing arm to watch this fall has been hard-throwing right-hander Zebulon Vermillion. The strapping 6-foot-4, 225-pounder has had primarily a bullpen role throughout his Arkansas career thus far, but Van Horn and pitching coach Matt Hobbs have something else in mind for 2021 — he could be in the starting rotation. Vermillion has always had a premium arm, but he’s always needed to fine-tune his secondary stuff. That appears to be the case so far this fall. Vermillion is sitting in the 94-95 mph range with his fastball, while he possesses an effective slider in the mid 80s. The Hogs aren’t dead set on Vermillion being in the rotation. He needs to show he can handle it.
“He was good last year, and I think he’s kind of picked up where he left off,” Van Horn said. “We’ve been building him up to be a potential starter for us, so for instance, this week, we’ll have him go four or five innings and see how things go. The thing about Zeb is that like most pitchers in our program, he started in high school, so it’s not new to him. But he needs to go out there and prove it.”
Last year’s weekend rotation included Patrick Wicklander, Connor Noland and Kole Ramage, and as of now, it appears that Ramage is making the biggest impression. Wicklander, a 6-foot-1, 210-pounder, is a lefty with solid stuff, but he struggled immensely in his few starts last spring. Wicklander is throwing with a bit more intent this fall, sitting more 90-92 and up to 93-94 mph with his fastball, while Van Horn continues to love Noland’s versatility on the mound. The righty is still sitting in the 89-92 mph range with his fastball, but the secondary stuff continues to improve, and he has the ability to throw four or five pitches for strikes. That’s a luxury to have in a league like the SEC. As for Ramage, the 6-foot-1, 200 pounder, is peppering the zone with strikes and is consistently sitting 90-92 mph with his fastball. His pitchability is better than it has ever been, and Van Horn said he’s ready to take another step forward.
Caleb Bolden and Kevin Kopps have dealt with injuries in the past, but both are having strong falls for the Razorbacks. Bolden, a 6-foot-2, 190-pounder, has gotten bigger and stronger and recently had a strong outing where he didn’t allow a run in five innings of work. Bolden is sitting 90-92 and up to 93 mph with a good changeup. As for Kopps, Van Horn said he’s pitching with more intent this fall and is sitting more 92-93 mph with his fastball with good stuff.
Left-hander Caden Monke is making one of the strongest impressions so far this fall. Monke, a 6-foot-3, 170-pounder, was off to a nice start when the 2020 season was shut down, and he’s having a strong fall to follow. Monke is a wiry left hander who has seen his velocity jump this fall — sitting more 90-92 and up to 93 mph with his fastball. Another added benefit of Monke’s stuff is that everything cuts and moves different directions. DVH said he’s thrown two or three times this fall, and each outing has been impressive.
The Hogs added some impressive experience when they snagged Houston graduate transfer Lael Lockhart to the roster. Lockhart has spent time as a Friday night guy in the American Athletic Conference, and now is fighting for an important role with the Hogs. Lockhart, a 6-foot-3, 225-pounder, was a two-way player for the Cougars the last couple of seasons but will exclusively pitch for the Hogs. Lockhart is in the mix as a starter or reliever, and his stuff has ticked up a bit. Lockhart was more 87-89 and up to 90-91 mph during his time at UH but has been more 89-91 and up to 92 mph with the fastball this fall. DVH said Lockhart has worked hard, arriving in Fayetteville early this past summer to get the conditioning process started.
Another power arm to keep an eye on is right-hander Elijah Trest. Trest reminds me a little of former Arkansas hurler Jacob Kostyshock, who was lanky but who also had a huge arm. That’s Trest. Trest has always had a premium arm — he’s been sitting anywhere from 95-97 mph with the fastball this fall. But the secondary stuff must continue to get better if he wants to max his potential.
It might seem like a long time ago, but remember back to last fall when Van Horn sung the praises of right-hander Peyton Pallette. The long-time Hogs skipper thought he was special from the first day of fall workouts in 2019. And though he tallied a 1.59 ERA in four appearances in 2020, he’s intrigued to see what he can do on the mound moving forward. Pallette is having a solid fall, sitting 96-97 mph with his fastball, while also showing good spin rates on his breaking ball.
“Pallette has been pretty good this fall,” Van Horn said. “He’s had an inning or two where the bats have gotten him, but he’s probably pitched more than anyone else this fall. He throws up to 97 and it just seems pretty easy for him.
“When he lands that breaking pitch for strikes, he’s really, really effective,” he continued. “He just needs experience, like a lot of kids, and he didn’t get that with the way the season ended in the spring. He needs those innings, and he’ll get there.”
Some have asked about talented freshman right-hander Nate Wohlgemuth. He will certainly fit somewhere into the equation for the Hogs but has been sidelined for much of the fall after suffering a sprained ankle. The 5-foot-11, 205-pounder has a big-time arm, as does junior college transfer right-hander Ryan Costeiu. Costeiu, a Sacramento City (Calif.) College transfer, has shown potential so far this fall with a fastball into the mid 90s. Also keep an eye on Northern Colorado graduate transfer right-hander Isaac Bracken, who has shown a fastball in the 91-94 range.
Two more arms to watch as the fall progresses: Jaxon Wiggins and Gabe Starks. Wiggins is a 6-foot-6, 215-pounder with big-time potential. Wiggins has been sitting anywhere from 94-96 and up to 97 mph with his fastball this fall, while Starks is a Natural State native and has been anywhere from 93-95 and up to 96-97 with his fastball. Both young talents will need a strong fall and early spring to have a chance to crack this deep crop of arms. Also keep an eye on freshman right-hander Mark Adamiak, who has been 92-95 and up to 96 with his fastball this fall.
The Hogs always seem to reload when they lose stud prospects to the MLB draft. Despite losing Heston Kjerstad to the professional ranks, the 2021 campaign shouldn’t be any different with the return of Christian Franklin. Franklin, a 5-foot-11, 190-pounder, is a projected first-round pick and is oozing with tools. He also got off to a fast start in the spring before the season was shut down. He had a strong fall for the Hogs, showing premium power, the ability to steal bases and excellent defensive instincts in center field.
“Franklin has been really, really good this fall,” Van Horn said. “He’s such a special athlete and he works very hard at his craft. He deserves everything he gets.
I think he’s an outstanding center fielder,” the head coach continued. “And he’s one of those type of hitters that we could hit anywhere in the lineup, and he’d have success. He can do it all.”
Speaking of returning players who are shining so far this fall, keep an eye on corner infielder Matt Goodheart. Goodheart has had a fruitful career for the Hogs, and it looks like he’s ready to go out with a bang in the spring. Van Horn said the veteran had a pair of home runs in a scrimmage earlier this week, with one pull side and another opposite field.
Shortstop is the position battle to watch this fall returning freshman Robert Moore and junior college transfer Jalen Battles duking it out. Battles, an impressive-looking 6-foot-2, 205-pounder, was not expected to head to Arkansas until the MLB draft was shortened. Now, he’s showing off a solid skill set this fall with some strength at the plate and smoothness in the field. Meanwhile, Moore continues to impress in the field and has tweaked his offensive approach. The talented youngster was already off to a decent start this past spring before the season was shut down. But Van Horn, Nate Thompson and Moore have been working on improving his two-strike approach at the plate. Moore is hitting well and with consistency from both sides of the plate. Whoever doesn’t play shortstop in the spring will occupy second base.
“Robert Moore has taken a big jump offensively. He’s made some adjustments since he has been here and he’s now hitting well on both sides of the plate,” Van Horn said. “The biggest thing with Robert was just taking something off the swing with two strikes. He’s just taken a massive step forward maturity wise from an offensive standpoint. He’s just hitting the ball well, and he’s making the necessary adjustments when someone gets two strikes on him. That’s huge.
“As for Jalen, he was the shortstop at McLennan and he really looks good out there,” he continued. “Jalen seems happy here and he’s a very, very good defender. We didn’t think we’d get him to campus to be honest with you, but then the draft changed. Both him and Moore are playing short this fall, and that’s been a fun competition to watch unfold.”
Casey Opitz and Zack Gregory are two more returning players to watch. Opitz was another victim of the shortened MLB draft. Though he has terrific skills behind the plate and has established himself as a solid hitter, he was not taken in the top five rounds of the draft this past summer. Opitz has returned this fall as a man on a mission, serving as a great role model for freshman backstop Dylan Leach. Van Horn said Leach, who just turned 18, is swinging the bat well for a young player, and is soaking in everything Opitz has to offer this fall. As for Gregory, he hit .136 in a limited role last season. However, Van Horn said he’s ready to take a step forward. Gregory, a 5-foot-10, 190-pounder, is swinging the bat well from the left side and appears ready for a much larger role.
Van Horn has high hopes for junior college transfer and utility player Brady Slavens. Slavens is a Wichita State bounce back who was off to a terrific start for Johnson County (Kan.) College in the spring. The 6-foot-3, 195-pounder has been knocking the cover off the ball, per Van Horn, and could find himself at a variety of positions in the spring — third base and the middle infield are options.
Cracking the starting lineup as a true freshman is not easy in this program, but the Hogs like what they see from Ethan Bates and Cayden Wallace thus far. Bates is a 5-foot-11, 170-pounder who is having a strong fall from an offensive standpoint, while Wallace is a 6-foot, 205-pounder who has some good pop at the plate, but also has been a little up and down at times.
“Both of those guys were really highly touted coming out of high school, but they’re now going against 93-96 mph fastballs each day, so they’re going to take their lumps,” he said. “They’re being challenged in a big way right now, and that’s going to help them moving forward.”