Arkansas baseball will start spring practice Friday, just three weeks from opening day at Baum-Walker Stadium against Illinois State on Feb. 18.
Coach Dave Van Horn, who is entering his 20th season, talked Thursday about Arkansas’ new baseball development center, the 2022 lineup and how the Razorbacks will try to run back their regular-season success from last season.
Arkansas finished 50-13 and led the nation in home runs, but fell short of the College World Series after losing to NC State in super regionals. The Razorbacks lost a few key pieces, most notably Golden Spikes Award winner Kevin Kopps, but return multiple veterans.
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Questions on the Mound
With Kopps, Lael Lockhart and Patrick Wicklander going pro, Caleb Bolden transferring and Peyton Pallette needing Tommy John surgery, Arkansas is without its most frequently used pitchers from 2021.
Van Horn said there were five or six pitchers competing for starting spots, especially in the wake of Pallette’s injury. He was expected to succeed Wicklander as the Friday night starter.
Right-hander Connor Noland will likely appear in the weekend rotation after pitching out of the bullpen last season. Van Horn said Noland is 100% healthy for the first time and spent the offseason getting in better shape, and that he’s simply throwing harder now than before.
Van Horn also noted sophomore Jaxon Wiggins and freshman Hagen Smith as candidates. Wiggins had 17 appearances and four starts as a freshman.
“Jaxon Wiggins developed a breaking ball and a slider,” Van Horn said. “His changeup has gotten better. I think that he’s got something to prove, and hopefully he’ll do it.”
Smith was a highly touted recruit out of Texas, ranked by Perfect Game as the No. 13 prospect and no. 1 left hander in the state.
“He’s one of the youngest guys on the team, maybe the youngest player on the team,” Van Horn said. “Like, Aug. 19 he turned 18 years old. And then he came out and pitched like he was 22. It was really impressive.
“We have a lot of good arms. We just have to figure out how to use them.”
Replacements in the field
In terms of starters in the lineup, Arkansas lost catcher Casey Opitz, infielder/designated hitter Matt Goodheart and center fielder Christian Franklin.
Kent State transfer Michael Turner will replace Opitz. Van Horn said Turner has been struggling with a hamstring injury but will be a valuable asset to the lineup. Sophomore Dylan Leach will catch some as well.
“Michael is the full package because he can really hit, he can really throw and he can really catch,” Van Horn said. “I’m surprised that he’s not playing professional baseball right now … He’s a leader and he’s going to be right in the middle of our lineup.”
Freshman Peyton Stovall, who was a projected first-round MLB Draft pick, will start at first base. He mostly played shortstop in high school, but with the elite combination of Jalen Battles at short and Robert Moore at second returning, Stovall will have to fit in elsewhere.
Van Horn said he isn’t certain who will become everyday starters in the outfield, but he noted Braydon Webb’s talents in center. Webb struggled as a hitter last season, but Van Horn cited injuries as limiting him at the plate.
“He hasn’t really done a whole lot to make himself better; he’s good,” Van Horn said. “What do we need to do to get him off to a better start? Maybe we hit him down a little bit. Just let him climb the ladder or let him stay down there and hit.”
Cayden Wallace, one of Arkansas’ best hitters last season, will move to third base after playing mostly right field.
Arkansas has changes off the field, too, with the opening of the JB & Johnelle Hunt Family Baseball Development Center. The $27 million project includes a new clubhouse, training facilities and more.
“You can coach guys up, but you’ve got to have good players,” Van Horn said. “This building is going to help us get more players.”
With the facilities upgrades, Arkansas is on the cutting edge from a development standpoint. But Van Horn said he thinks Baum-Walker Stadium’s capacity might need to expand in the near future.
“I think we’re getting 11,000-plus in here,” Van Horn said. “But certain weekends when you play LSU and Ole Miss, regionals, super regionals — we can get 15, 16, 17 (thousand) in here. I believe that.”
Christina Long covers the Arkansas Razorbacks. You can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @christinalong00.