FAYETTEVILLE — The various preseason college baseball polls consistently rank the Arkansas Razorbacks in their Top Ten with some profoundly deep reasoning, Arkansas Coach Dave Van Horn believes.
“It’s probably the deepest roster that I’ve had at Arkansas as far as some options offensively and on the mound,” Van Horn said on Saturday’s Baseball Media Day marking the second preseason practice as the coach begins his 16th Arkansas season.
The Razorbacks return the gist of last season’s 45-19 team that advanced to the winner take all final of the Fayetteville Regional won, 3-2 by Missouri State.
“On the mound we’re going to miss Trevor Stephan (6-3) who gave us some great innings last year,” Van Horn said. “He got better as the season went on and was drafted very high and he will do well in the Yankee organization and probably play in the Big leagues one day. We lost a hitter or two but other than that it’s mostly the same guys. We should be a little better.”
Enough better that anticipated to be drafted 2017 junior mainstays Luke Bonfield, the left fielder-DH, and Carson Shaddy, last season’s second baseman and previously a catcher-outfielder-third baseman, still must battle to retain their starting spots, Van Horn said upon their return as 2018 seniors not picked in the 2017 draft.
Van Horn likes that two seniors are willing to battle for their positions rather than presuming they are entitled while simultaneously competing as elder statesmen team players.
“It’s great to have those two guys back in the lineup because they bring a lot of maturity,” Van Horn said. “When you’re on the road and things are going good, I think they’re really going to be able to help us pull through.”
For incumbent starters afield, Van Horn returns junior catcher Grant Koch of Fayetteville, first-team All-SEC in 2018, Shaddy, a fifth-senior and also a Fayetteville High grad, at second, and junior Jax Biggers at short with sophomore Dominic Fletcher, named to Baseball America’s 2017 All-Freshman team, in center, switch-hitting junior Eric Cole in right and Bonfield either in left or DH.
Freshman Heston Kjerstad impresses Van Horn so already to be starting candidate in left field.
First base, Van Horn, has sophomore letterman pitcher-outfielder Evan Lee of Bryant as a new contestant competing with returnees senior Jared Gates and sophomore Jordan McFarland.
Third base, wide open last year, starts with sophomore defensive whiz Jack Kenley but could abound with candidates if Kenley doesn’t hit better than the .133 he batted last season.
If any infielder slumps or needs a rest, junior Hunter Wilson of Spiro, Okla. hardshipped last season after fouling a ball so hard off his leg to hairline fracture it, is always available.
“ Hunter Wilson is a guy who can play anywhere,” Van Horn said Saturday “All four infield positions including first ,and I’ve even talked to him about that. That if we want four shortstop type kids to end a game, we’ll do it. Today he’s playing left field in the scrimmage. So he’s a guy that can play anywhere.”
Last year Blaine Knight of Bryant and Isaiah Campbell were projected to be staff aces.
Injuries compelled Campbell taking a 2017 hardship restoring his sophomore eligibility for 2018. Other than a recent flu bug, Campbell has rehabbed healthy, Van Horn said.
Knight, draft eligible as a 21-year-old sophomore last year, pitched draft worthy, 8-4, but let it be known he planned to return to the UA.
Van Horn couldn’t be happier that he did.
“ I don't know, how happy can I be because I'm pretty happy,” Van Horn said. “So, it'd be like getting your starting quarterback back. You're like 'Wow!' It just gives some stability to the top of that pitching rotation. All that experience.”
There’s plenty more experience where that came from Rehabbed since Tommy John surgery right-handers Keaton McKinney and Cody Scroggins are available. So are letterman lefties Lee, when not playing first base, Kacey Murphy and Weston Rogers, and in the bullpen lefty Matt Cronin and right-hander Jake Reindl.
Freshman lefty Hunter Milligan of Greenbrier is among the new arms that Van Horn and pitching coach Wes Johnson foresee possibly moving into key roles.