Matt Jones is the online sports editor for the Arkansas-Democrat-Gazette and Northwest Arkansas Newspapers.
2014 Diamond Hogs not reloading
Van Horn worried about pitching, newcomers
Arkansas head baseball coach Dave Van Horn during media day Friday, Feb. 8, 2013 at Baum Stadium in Fayetteville.
FAYETTEVILLE Judging from Dave Van Horn's comments Tuesday, 2014 has the looks of a rebuilding, not a reloading, type of year.
The Razorbacks lost a slew of pitching from a team that struggled to score runs last season and its recent signing class isn't considered one of the nation's best for the first time in years.
"I think it's just an OK class," Van Horn said. "There aren't enough numbers on it. There are some guys who didn't show up and we knew they weren't, but I think the numbers are down a little bit to be honest with you."
C - Jake Wise OR Blake Baxendale
1B - Eric Fisher
2B - Brian Anderson
3B - Bobby Wernes OR Michael Bernal
SS - Brett McAfee OR Michael Bernal
LF - Joe Serrano OR Garrett Rucker
CF - Andrew Benintendi
RF - Tyler Spoon
DH - Multiple
Arkansas lost 10 players from last year's team, which finished a disappointing 39-22 after a preseason No. 1 ranking. Losing a chunk of players is nothing new to the program, which had to reload after being hit hard by the MLB Draft following the 2007 and 2010 seasons.
But even in rebuilding years Van Horn's teams have found ways to be competitive. Arkansas hasn't missed the postseason in his 11 seasons as head coach and Van Horn has made the NCAA regionals each of the last 15 years.
Finding adequate replacements for the most decorated pitching staff in school history will be Van Horn's toughest assignment prior to Valentine's Day when the Razorbacks open the season with Appalachian State. Sophomore right-hander Trey Killian appears to be the most talented returning pitcher. He is one of several in consideration for the three open weekend starting positions.
Among the team's best players, Van Horn said the team's hitting is ahead of its pitching.
"We still have a long way to go," Van Horn said. "We lost a lot of pitching and that's probably my biggest concern. This might be the first time I can remember I didn't get at least one weekend starter back. When you lose Ryne Stanek, Randall Fant and Barrett Astin, they started a lot of games the last three years and that will be a big question mark."
It's a drastic difference from recent years when Arkansas fielded one of the nation's best pitching staffs. The Razorbacks recorded a 1.83 team earned run average last season, which was college baseball's lowest in 37 years.
Van Horn said he feels good about the team's bullpen as long as he can keep pitchers like Chris Oliver and Jalen Beeks from having to enter the starting rotation. It will be up to the likes of sophomore left-hander Colin Poche and redshirt sophomore right-hander Landon Simpson to keep that from happening.
"Beeks had a tremendous fall. Oliver had tremendous stuff, velocity, but they hit him (this fall). It's all about location with him," Van Horn said. "Killian threw nothing but strikes, but he's still looking to have that killer pitch. Poche's first outing (this fall) he was outstanding, but after that he was just OK….after that it was just pretty average stuff. That was disappointing and he needs to pick it up. It would be nice if Killian and Poche could pick it up and get a couple of those weekend spots."
Arkansas does return some talented position players such as infielder Brian Anderson, outfielder Tyler Spoon and catcher Jake Wise, but all three finished the fall injured. Anderson suffered a stress fracture in his foot, Spoon had a hernia and Wise is recovering from off-season Tommy John surgery.
Van Horn said Anderson didn't need surgery and it doesn't appear Spoon will need surgery.
"Realistically, when you're talking about the older guys we know what they can do," Van Horn said. "It gave the younger guys a chance to get on the field and show what they can do."
Andrew Benintendi, rated the nation's top hitter as a senior in high school, lived up to his billing this fall and will be the team's starting center fielder once the season begins. Benintendi could also be the team's leadoff hitter or three-hole hitter with Van Horn comparing him to the likes of Zack Cox and James McCann as a freshman.
It doesn't appear as if any of the other freshmen will compete for starting jobs next season, however. Coming out of fall ball the leading candidates for starting jobs are returning players, players who redshirted last season or junior college transfers.
Van Horn said he is excited about the future despite the question marks heading into next season. Tony Vitello, who was hired from TCU as the team's recruiting coordinator and hitting coach in June, has lived up to his reputation on the recruiting trail.
"I don't have to tell him to go anywhere and recruit," Van Horn said. "I look up and he's gone. I knew how hard he worked. For instance, we finished on Friday and he drove five hours to a tournament in Kansas.
"He's done a tremendous job on the field. He's got enthusiasm. He's done real good. I'm happy."
Vitello has also held the majority of the Razorbacks' next recruiting class together. The current high school seniors will sign next month and should help Arkansas reload in future years.
"If you're asking about the class we're getting ready to sign, I think that's the best class we've ever had here," Van Horn said. "How many of those guys can we get to school? That's going to be key."