Matt Jones is the online sports director for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. A double graduate of the University of Arkansas, he is a member of the Football Writers Association of America and National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association, and voter for the Heisman Trophy.
First day of baseball draft could be quiet for Razorbacks
Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn is shown during practice Thursday, June 10, 2021, in Fayetteville.
FAYETTEVILLE — The first day of the Major League Baseball Draft on Sunday is not expected to be as eventful for Arkansas players as in past seasons.
The Razorbacks are not expected to have any players selected Sunday night during the draft’s first round and Competitive Balance Round A. The first day of the draft, which is being held in Denver as part of All-Star Week festivities, is scheduled to begin at 6 p.m. Central and will be televised by ESPN and MLB Network.
Arkansas has had a first-day selection in the past two drafts, including last year when Heston Kjerstad was drafted second overall by the Baltimore Orioles. But the draft format is different for the third consecutive year, and only 36 players will be selected Sunday.
Rounds 2-10 will be conducted Monday beginning at noon, and rounds 11-20 will be held Tuesday beginning at 11 a.m. Prior to last year, the second round of the draft was held on the same night as the first round.
Draft projections rank junior center fielder Christian Franklin as the Razorbacks’ top prospect. Baseball America rates Franklin as the No. 57 overall prospect and 13th-best outfielder in the draft.
Other Arkansas players ranked in the Baseball America top 500 include pitchers Kevin Kopps (238), Patrick Wicklander (273) and Connor Noland (483); catcher Casey Opitz (245); and shortstop Jalen Battles (359).
On June 23, Arkansas Coach Dave Van Horn said the plan was for Noland to return to the Razorbacks for the 2022 season. The other players rated by Baseball America are likely to turn pro.
Several other notable Razorbacks are eligible for this year’s draft, including position players Brady Slavens, Matt Goodheart and Charlie Welch, and pitchers Zebulon Vermillion and Caden Monke.
“Most of them … if they don’t sign a professional contract will try to come back,” Van Horn said. “We’d like to get them back. An example, like Slavens, he’s only 20 years old. He’s very young. He’s got two years of eligibility left in college. Goodheart, he’s got one year, and I could go on and on and on.
“Guys like Goodheart, he’s been around for a while. He’d like to sign, but if he doesn’t I think you could see him back.”
While no current players are expected to be drafted Sunday, at least two of Arkansas’ high school signees could go off the board. Baseball America rates shortstop Peyton Stovall of Haughton, La., as the 33rd-best prospect and shortstop Max Muncy of Thousand Oaks, Calif., as the 43rd.
Stovall, Muncy and Texarkana outfielder Braylon Bishop (88th overall by Baseball America) are considered Arkansas’ signees who are most likely to turn pro, but the Razorbacks’ signing class has 10 players rated in the Baseball America top 500.
“You never want to lose any of them, especially because those guys who get drafted high enough to get big money and sign are legitimate and impact players,” said Nate Thompson, Arkansas’ hitting coach and recruiting coordinator. “The fact that we have quite a few guys ranked in the Baseball America top 500 and that sort of thing certainly is a positive. I don’t think they’re all going to go [pro].
“Kids are seeing us have the success that we’ve had over the last several years in terms of wins and championships, and also seeing our players do well in the draft is maybe pushing it up a little more, in terms of guys thinking, ‘Hey, maybe I should go to school instead of taking the money now.’ ”
Stovall is coming off a stellar senior season during which he had a batting average of .505, an OPS of 1.795 and hit 14 home runs with 43 RBI.
“My head high school baseball coach told me before this season that when all the scouts start showing up that no matter what happens, ‘You are in a win-win situation,’ ” Stovall said. “You either will be drafted high and start playing professionally or you will go to one of the top universities in the country and have a chance to win the College World Series.
“I will know [Sunday] which path I will take.”
Stovall is expected to command a seven-figure signing bonus, though his exact asking price is not known.
The slot values — MLB’s suggested signing bonus for each pick in the draft — range from $2.045 million for the 36th pick to $8.415 million for first overall. Slot values do not fall below $1 million until the 67th overall pick, during the Competitive Balance B Round that is sandwiched between the second and third rounds.
“He’s strong in his beliefs and convictions about what kind of player he is and what he’s worth, and he feels good about showing up,” Thompson said of Stovall. “He wants to come to college; he would love that. He loves the Razorbacks and this program and the way we go about our business.
“It’s going to take a good chunk of change. He may get it, but if he doesn’t, I know he feels real good about being here. It’s all up in the air. It only takes one team.”
Thompson said Muncy also has a high asking price.
“He’s really confident, too, in what he’s capable of and what he deserves, and he may end up getting it, too,” Thompson said. “The projections are right around there.
“I’ll say this: I think if a player ends up going in the first round, it’s going to be pretty hard to get them to school, unless some organization decides we’re going to take this guy and then try to drive their price down or wait them out.”
In June, Van Horn mentioned Stovall and Muncy by name as players who could make an immediate impact if they make it to campus. Even without them, Van Horn said there are several quality players in the class who could be difference-makers.
“We’re going to play some younger guys in the field. We’ve got a couple, three freshman pitchers that I think can come in here and get after you early,” Van Horn said. “So I think you’re going to get a good mix of some veterans and some young guys out there, and I think we’ll be right there in the middle of the league, in the hunt, so to speak, come next April.
“We still have to see where the dominoes fall and where we’re at, but we feel good about the talent that we have signed. If we can get them in here, the future is bright.”
Other Arkansas signees ranked in the Baseball America top 500 include left-handed pitchers Drew Gray (129) of Swansea, Ill., and Hagen Smith (169) of Bullard, Texas; right-handed pitchers Nick Moten (288) of Florissant, Mo., and Brady Tygart (408) of Olive Branch, Miss.; shortstop Drake Varnado (196) of Port Neches, Texas; and outfielders Jordan Viars (403) of Frisco, Texas, and Gabe D’Arcy (464) of San Juan Capistrano, Calif.
Gray and Varnado were high school teammates at IMG Academy in Florida. Gray’s older brother, Evan, is a pitcher for the Razorbacks.
“This class, in my opinion, has a lot of good baseball players,” Thompson said. “Maybe this class was a little under the radar compared to our 2020 class, because some of the names in the 2020 class seemed to be a little more high profile at the time. This 2021 class is really good and it has players who I feel are going to be competitive at this level very quickly.”
Smith, who along with Stovall and Muncy was named a high school All-American by Baseball America, has already moved to Fayetteville, along with Varnado.
“I think it says something, but I’m not going to count my chickens until they’re hatched,” Thompson said, referencing both players could still be drafted and turn pro. “I think those guys want to go to school … and that’s what they wanted to do with this time period, and felt it would benefit them.
“If you can get them on campus, they get to start working out with our strength program and using our facilities a little bit. It helps them get more acclimated to everything here.”
Dudley E. Dawson contributed
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