Despite losing five starting position players from last year’s College World Series finalist lineup, Arkansas returns three big bats in Heston Kjerstad (.332, 16 doubles, 14 HR, 58 RBI), Casey Martin (.345, 14 doubles, 13 HR, 49 RBI) and Dominic Fletcher (.288, 16 doubles, 10 HR, 49 RBI). With the addition of a couple of seasoned transfers and an impact freshman, the Hogs will look to replace the experience and production they lost and pick up where they left off last season.
Replacing three-year starter Grant Koch behind the plate will be no easy chore. Dave Van Horn has alluded to using a two-man committee in Casey Opitz and Zack Plunkett. They will compliment one another as the switch-hitting Opitz can hit for average and flash a solid glove, while Plunkett provides power at the plate and has a very strong arm.
Jordan McFarland has shown flashes of ability to be an every day player at the plate over the past two seasons. He will likely be given the opportunity to man first base on a daily basis to begin the season. Should McFarland struggle, utility transfer sophomore Matt Goodheart can fill in nicely. Van Horn has praised Goodheart as hitting the best of anyone on the team since arriving from San Jacinto CC over the fall. Another option at first base, if needed, is Opitz when not catching.
While the leadership and clutch hitting of Carson Shaddy will be missed in the 4 hole, redshirt senior transfer Trevor Ezell brings the experience and talent that will make that transition much easier. A Bryant, AR native, Ezell brings a consistent bat from both sides of the plate and looks like a prototypical leadoff man. Should Ezell struggle with a shoulder injury that required surgery over the offseason, Jacob Nesbit would likely get a chance at second.
Jack Kenley has not had the best statistical first two seasons of his college career, but that has not stopped him from making an impact in both seasons. He has been one of the better and more consistent defensive players on the left side of the diamond, and has also delivered some clutch hits when called upon to fill in for injured starters. Kenley will be given the opportunity to play every day at third base this season.
Martin hit his way into the lineup early last year and never looked back on his way to being selected to two SEC teams and two Freshmen All-American teams. This season, DVH will move Martin from third base over to shortstop to replace Jax Biggers. Arguably the fastest and most athletically gifted players on the team, Martin could be placed at the top or middle of the lineup to maximize his speed and power.
This season the Hog Pen will become familiar with a new mainstay in left field. Freshman Christian Franklin was ranked by Perfect Game as the best player in the state of Missouri and the No. 29 outfielder in the nation his senior season of high school. The right-hander projects as a center fielder once Fletcher leaves. As a backup plan, Goodheart could trade his first baseman’s mitt in for an outfield glove and fill in with ease. Another freshman that could make an impact as an outfielder sooner than later is Connecticut native Dillon Lifrieri.
As with the past two seasons there is nothing new to report here. Fletcher will look to build upon a strong finish to his sophomore season when he hit .325 in SEC play and .346 at the CWS. He finished with 10 home runs and 49 RBI, and became the first Razorback since 1998 to hit 10 or more home runs in his first two seasons.
After playing all season in left field, Kjerstad will flip over to right to showcase his strong arm and utilize his experience running down college line drives and fly balls. DVH sand Kjerstad’s praises all last fall, but no one could have imagined the season he would have that earned him SEC Freshman of the Year as well as two other SEC teams and two Freshman All-American teams of his own. After a year of development and maturity, Kjerstad should be a favorite as the SEC Player of the Year.
This season the DH will be determined by which position players are hitting well at any given time. Any combination of defensive lineups could result in Goodheart, McFarland, or Opitz being the likely candidates for filling in this role. Of course, there are always players that are not currently on the radar who step up and contribute in a big way. Hopefully Arkansas will have many decisions to make on a daily basis as far as who to pencil into the lineup.
With the information we have right now based on last season’s results, the new recruiting class, and interviews with DVH, this is how I believe the opening day lineup could shape up:
2B – Trevor Ezell (S)
RF – Heston Kjerstad (L)
SS – Casey Martin (R)
CF – Dominic Fletcher (L)
1B – Jordan McFarland (R)
DH – Matt Goodheart (L)
LF – Christian Franklin (R)
C – Casey Opitz (S)
3B – Jack Kenley (L)