Diamond Hogs’ Freshman Class Ranked No. 3 Nationally
Dave Van Horn has recruited another gem of a class that arrived to campus when classes started last month. According to Baseball America and Perfect Game, the 2017 recruiting class of 15 freshmen ranks third in the nation, coming in behind only Vanderbilt and Florida. While this bodes well for the next few years of Arkansas baseball, there is even more reason to be optimistic for this season considering who the Hogs have coming back from a team that earned a regional host last season.
Van Horn has said that he believes this is his best recruiting class at Arkansas. While it seems that he has said this most every season lately (and I believe it could be true each time), the proof is there as he has landed classes in Baseball America’s top 25 seven of the last nine years, with five of those reaching the top 15. There is no doubt that what is being added to a returning solid squad will increase the Razorbacks’ chances of making a strong postseason run in 2018.
Arkansas returns three starting infielders in Jared Gates (3B), Jax Biggers (SS) and Carson Shaddy (2B); starting catcher Grant Koch; three starting outfielders in Luke Bonfield (LF/DH), Dominic Fletcher (CF), and Eric Cole (RF/DH); and major contributing pitchers Blaine Knight, Jake Reindl, Kacey Murphy, Kevin Kopps, Barrett Loseke, Matt Cronin, and Evan Lee. Key returning bench players include Lee (OF), Hunter Wilson (IF), and Jordan McFarland (1B/3B/OF). Two other valuable returners who were injured for most of last season are right-handed pitchers Isaiah Campbell and Keaton McKinney.
Looking at the players coming back it is hard to project where any new guys may break the lineup. Junior All SEC catcher Koch will be a mainstay in the lineup, but will have a much greater chance of being relieved from behind the plate throughout the season. Zack Plunkett, a TCU transfer last season, is eligible to play this season and is the best defensive catcher on the team. Incoming freshman Casey Opitz (Centennial, CO) was drafted in the 27th round of this summer’s draft and is expected to make a contribution this season as well.
Heading this group of newcomers is Cole Turney, a left-handed outfielder from Richmond, TX who was drafted in the 34th round. Turney projected high in the draft but his strong commitment to the Razorbacks caused him to fall. He is recovering from a shoulder injury that will hold him out to begin the season, but should be available at least by mid season where he will likely be a mainstay in the lineup and for the next three years. Heston Kjerstad is a speedy outfielder from Amarillo, TX who was drafted in the 36th round and brings very good defense to the team.
With every starting infielder returning from a year ago except for Chad Spanberger, shortstops Casey Martin (Lonoke, AR) and Bryce Bonnin (Baytown, TX) are two infielders to look forward to in the future. Martin and Bonnin should get some quality innings early and be able to spell anyone for a break or injury later in the season. Martin was rated the number one player in Arkansas as a senior, slashing .411/.479/.508. Bonnin, drafted in the 26th round, hit .496 as a senior and also projects well as a pitcher with a 96 mph fastball that he used to go 6-0 with 52 strikeouts in 28 innings, only giving up seven hits.
On the mound Van Horn was able to land a couple of highly ranked prospects. Right-hander Caleb Bolden (Texarkana, TX) was drafted in the 16th round but chose to attend college, and 6-8, 240 pound righty Jackson Rutledge (St. Louis, MO) turned down draft offers to stick to his commitment to Arkansas. Lefty Hunter Milligan (Greenbriar, AR) was committed to Mississippi State before flipping to the Razorbacks once Wes Johnson was hired away from the Bulldogs to be the pitching coach last year.
As with every good draft class, there were players that were drafted away from making it to Fayetteville. Catcher Canaan Smith was selected in the 4th round, while left-handed pitchers Daniel Tillo and Dakota Bennett were taken in the 3rd and 11th rounds, respectively. Final recruiting class rankings do not include those players that signed professional contracts.
The Razorbacks have begun fall practice with scrimmages primarily taking place on the weekends. Soon they will be scheduling their annual intrasquad Fall World Series, which is an important time of assessment to determine which players on the fringe will be making the spring roster.
Arkansas has two pitchers named Jackson Rutledge on their fall roster. However, their name is the only resemblance between the two as one is right-handed and the other left-handed. Also, the lefty gives up four inches and 80 pounds to the righty.
Two players that have a great chance of making the All Name team this year: Zebulon Vermillion and Heston Kjerstad.