Matt Jones is the online sports editor for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and Northwest Arkansas Newspapers.
Vitello 'shocked' by draft results
Tony Vitello, assistant coach for the Unviersity of Arkansas baseball team, talks with the media Friday, Feb. 7, 2014 at the University of Arkansas baseball media day at Baum Stadium in Fayetteville.
FAYETTEVILLE Tony Vitello can't believe his prized recruiting class survived the MLB Draft so well.
Three of the nation's top high school baseball players - pitcher Keaton McKinney, outfielder Luke Bonfield and catcher Nathan Rodriguez - have reaffirmed their commitment to Arkansas this month, turning down an opportunity to play professional baseball. Ranked ninth by Perfect Game USA before the draft, the Razorbacks' class might turn out to be the best in the nation.
"It's very encouraging," said Vitello, Arkansas' hitting coach and recruiting coordinator. "If anything it's stirred up some problems, but good problems. Who's going to fit in where and what role is this guy going to serve? But the bottom line is we're going to have an awful lot of competition that we did not have last year and ideally we'll be able to do some things in the spring like handle injuries or pinch run, switch this guy out or do some matchups that we quite frankly weren't able to do. You can look at the Alex Gosser situation as an easy example.
"To really only lose the one guy, we were shocked."
The one casualty was left-handed pitcher Sam Hentges, who signed a contract with a $700,000 bonus after being drafted by the Indians in the fourth round. Bonfield, McKinney and Rodriguez were ranked top 200 draft prospects by Baseball America, but fell to the draft's third day because of high asking prices.
"When the draft came we all had our set numbers and we didn't budge for anything less," Rodriguez said. "We're all happy to be going to Arkansas. I have a really good feeling about the next couple of years in the Arkansas program."
McKinney and Rodriguez announced they would honor their commitment to Arkansas almost immediately following the draft. Bonfield announced his intentions to play for the Razorbacks over the weekend.
"Luke is a tireless worker," Vitello said. "So he's going to get even better in here and I think he's going to surprise some people or impress people, even as a freshman, what he can do with the bat."
Vitello said he expects almost all of Arkansas' signees to make it to campus by the time the fall semester begins in August. Mark Clark, an outfielder from Fort Smith Southside, might opt for junior college.
The Razorbacks' roster should be loaded this fall with several upperclassmen returning to school in addition to a large incoming class. Because baseball is an equivalency sport with only 11.7 scholarships, crunching scholarship distribution numbers is the coaches' top priority this summer.
"It's difficult and it's a sensitive subject because there really are no guarantees," Vitello said. "Some folks get their feelings hurt and we get our feelings hurt when all of a sudden we don't have a left-handed pitcher and we're pretty low in that category now because we lost Sam. But in the end it will work itself out and we're just trying to do our best to take care of everybody.
"It becomes a business in June and it's been a stressful month. But like I said, ultimately we're dealing with some good problems."