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.
Diamond Hogs set to open fall with several new faces
Arkansas baseball coach Dave Van Horn is shown during practice Thursday, Sept. 23, 2021, in Fayetteville.
FAYETTEVILLE — Things will feel much different than a year ago when Arkansas opens fall baseball practice Thursday at Baum-Walker Stadium.
The Razorbacks have 28 newcomers on their 44-man fall roster, and all but a couple of starting position players are gone from last season’s team that finished 46-21 and played in the semifinals of the College World Series. Compare that to last fall when Arkansas returned most of its starters from a team that had been ranked No. 1 for most of the season before.
Dave Van Horn, entering his 21st season as the Razorbacks’ coach, is looking forward to the many position battles that loom. Arkansas has likely starters in Peyton Stovall at second base and Brady Slavens at first, but everything else seems up for grabs.
“The left side of the infield is wide open,” Van Horn said. “A lot of positions are open. It’s more about the position player side. On the pitching side we've got some quality guys with a lot of experience.”
More from WholeHogSports: First look at fall baseball roster
Stovall said the fall will be important for all the new players to mesh.
“I’m excited,” Stovall said. “There’s a lot of competition at a lot of different spots. People are going out there and it makes practice a lot better, too. You have a lot of guys that are going hard and giving it their all, trying to earn a spot and win a spot, and so I think ultimately it makes all of us better. I’m looking forward to seeing what we have in the fall.”
Van Horn said several players will work at multiple positions. Additional playing time will be available at first base where Slavens is projected to start, but will be limited this fall due to an elbow surgery he underwent this summer.
“I’m playing guys all over the field,” Van Horn said. “I told them that first meeting, and I told them that when we recruited them, that you’ve got to be willing to move around a little bit, especially until you establish your spot. We’ll try to get the best defense out there, obviously. You’ve got to get the hitters in the lineup as well. A lot of times it's not always the people that you want in the field that can hit, you know, or vice versa. So we're really focusing on defense right now because we lost our starting second baseman (Robert Moore), shortstop (Jalen Battles) and third baseman (Cayden Wallace), and then our starting first baseman (Stovall) who will move to second base.
“Slavens is back. We’re going to exclusively work him out at first when that elbow gets ready to roll. He probably won't throw all fall but he will get started swinging the bat some time after fall ball.”
Stovall played at first base as a freshman while Moore played at second base, where he earned the Division I Rawlings Gold Glove Award. Second base is a more natural position to Stovall.
“It’s just kind of the position that I’ve played all my life, so just getting back there, it feels nice,” Stovall said. “I’m excited to keep working there. To learn from Robert last year…is going to really help me a lot.”
Newcomers are expected to battle for other infield positions. Junior college transfers Harold Coll and Hunter Grimes are expected to work out at shortstop, and freshman Jayson Jones and JUCO transfers Caleb Cali and Ben McLaughlin should see time at third base.
Kendall Diggs, who played primarily as a designated hitter as a freshman last season, could see time at first base, third base and in the outfield, Van Horn said. Diggs is coming off a summer in which he batted .329 in the Appalachian League.
JUCO transfers Peyton Holt and Isaac Webb can play multiple positions.
Arkansas added three transfers at catcher — Hudson Polk (Oklahoma), Cal Kilgore (New Mexico State) and Parker Rowland, who played two seasons at Arkansas State before transferring to Southeastern Oklahoma State College last season.
Van Horn said Rowland has changed his body since he played in Jonesboro. He said Oklahoma coaches hated to lose Polk, who backed up fourth-round draft pick Jimmy Crooks on a national runner-up team last season.
“(Polk) was probably every bit as good of a receiver and thrower as their starter, but the starter could hit left-handed,” Van Horn said.
In the outfield, Van Horn likes the look of Jared Wegner, a transfer who had a 1.094 OPS, 11 home runs and 53 RBI at Creighton last season.
“How (pro teams) didn’t sign him, I don’t know,” Van Horn said. “Wait until you see him hit.”
Freshman Mason Neville should challenge for playing time in center field. Neville turned down an offer from the Cincinnati Reds, who drafted him in the 18th round this summer. Neville bats and throws left-handed.
“Mason Neville has big-time tools,” Van Horn said. “He turned down some good money to come to school. It was the same with Jayson Jones. He could have made a lot of money, but he wanted big money and he bet on himself. He’s got big power and he can play third and first, DH or wherever. He’s good.”
In addition to Slavens, some position players could be limited this fall due to injuries. Among them are JUCO infielder/outfielder Tyson Fourkiller (foot), transferring Kansas outfielder/infielder Tavian Josenberger (back), and returning outfielder Jace Bohrofen (knee).
Van Horn said one of the elements of fall baseball is not to overwork players who have played all year. Several players who will go through practice also played in various summer leagues.
“I’m not going to lie, I told Coach Van Horn I was pretty tired the first day I got here,” said Stovall, who played this summer in the Cape Cod League. “I played and I went home for about a week and then I came back up here.
“He just told me to take it easy and stuff. The biggest thing right now is just getting better and not being injured.”
On the mound, the Razorbacks lost their No. 1 starter Connor Noland and innings-eater Evan Taylor out of the bullpen, but returned several arms who contributed to their run to the College World Series.
Among the notable returners are starters Will McEntire, Jaxon Wiggins and Hagen Smith, and relievers Brady Tygart, Zack Morris and Austin Ledbetter. Arkansas has also added some arms from the transfer market, including right-handers Koty Frank from Nebraska and former Ole Miss pitcher Cody Adcock from Crowder, and left-hander Hunter Hollan from San Jacinto (Texas) College.
Van Horn said he has also been pleased by the recent bullpen for left-hander Nick Griffin, a third-year sophomore who started seven games last season after rehabbing Tommy John surgery.
“It’s going to be a fun fall watching those guys pitch,” Van Horn said.
“Our hitters are going to get an opportunity to face a guy just about every day that probably is going to pitch for us in the spring.”
McEntire, who emerged as a quality starter during the postseason, did not pitch in a summer league. He worked out on campus for several weeks, a plan similar to the one followed by Noland before his breakout 2022 season.
“I feel like I’m in great shape right now,” McEntire said.
This fall will be a challenge, according to McEntire, because of all the new hitters.
“Seeing guys I’ve never seen before will be good for me,” McEntire said, “because in the season you’re only going to see a team once or twice.”
Arkansas is only scheduled to play intrasquad scrimmages during the fall and will not play an exhibition game against another college team. Van Horn said a minor-league team has shown interest in scrimmaging, but it would be difficult to make the schedules work.
“When you have two groups of players that you really want to see hit more than anything every day,” Van Horn said, “and you go play outside competition, it's going to put eight or nine guys on the bench that you'd like to have them in the lineup at the same time.”
Other fall notes
• The team is scheduled to scrimmage at 2 p.m. on Thursday and Friday. All outdoor practices are open to the public.
• Bobby Wernes, a former Arkansas third baseman, is returning for his third season as the team’s volunteer coach. Former Razorbacks DJ Baxendale and Cullen Smith are also on the roster as graduate managers.
• Blaine Kinsley resigned in August as the Razorbacks’ strength coach to take a job with the Chicago Cubs organization. Kinsley spent five seasons at Arkansas.
CORRECTION: Brady Slavens will likely be able to play some at first base during fall practice, but will be limited in other areas. An earlier version stated he would not practice.
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