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Razorback Baseball: New Faces, Same Goals, Higher Expectations

Today you get a special treat from baseball insider, Kevin Bohannon! Get in here as he preps you for the 2021 Razorback Baseball season.

NCAA Baseball: College World Series-Arkansas vs Texas Tech Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports

The Arkansas Razorbacks Baseball team enters 2021 with some new faces at key positions and on the mound but the goals are still the same with the expectations of a return trip to Omaha at the top of the list. Coach Dave Van Horn enters his 19th season at the helm with a record of 700-389. He ranks in the top 10 of active coaches with 1020 wins as he looks to add even more to that total this year with returning veterans up the middle and another Top 5 recruiting class. Let’s take a look at what you can expect to see from the Diamond Hogs when they open their season February 19-21 in Arlington.

OFFENSE

Arkansas lost some production in the recent MLB Draft with Kjerstad and Martin moving on to the professional ranks but as with every national contender, they’ve just reloaded. Sophomore Christian Franklin is a consensus Top 50 MLB Prospect at was recently named D1 Baseball 1st Team All American. In a shortened 2020 season Franklin batted .381 with 3 HR and 11 RBI. Van Horn in his fall recap with media said Franklin is just as steady as they come. “Never gets too high or too low and that’s important”. The Hogs were the beneficiary of a 5 round MLB Draft as Junior Catcher Casey Opitz was not selected but did turn down a few offers to come back for one more run at a national title. Widely considered one of the top throwing backstops in the nation, the switch hitting catcher added some pop offensively hitting .302 with 11 RBI last season. Opitz most valuable trait is being able to handle the pitchers and provide them with utmost confidence they nothing is getting past him. Freshman 2B Robert Moore was off to a hot start in his first year showing veteran instincts at the plate and in the field. Sophomore Jacob Nesbit returns for his third season at the hot corner and will provide consistency at the plate. JUCO Transfer Jalen Battles is probably the most physical shortstop Van Horn has ever had at 6’2 205. Van Horn tabbed Battles and Moore as “probably the best double play combination to play at Arkansas”. It was very evident after the Fall World Series the duo had cemented themselves as started up the middle. Junior Brayden Webb returns in the outfield and provides veteran leadership. Magnolia product DH Matt Goodheart looks to take his game on to the next level in his third year on campus. Goodheart will play some first base but is most certainly going to be the every day DH. Newcomers Brady Slavens (Johnson County) and Cullen Smith (East Tennessee) have worked at First Base and both are very good offensively. A pair of talented freshmen will see their name on the lineup card likely sooner rather than later. Cayden Wallace (Greenbrier) and Ethan Bates (HS Lakeside) had really good at bats in the fall with Wallace showing the power that made him a Top 25 player in the 2020 class and Bates barreling up baseballs that had some in the program comparing his swing to Heston Kjerstad. The question is where will they play on the field as both have seen reps in the infield and outfield.

PITCHING

Power and depth are the two words that describe this years pitching staff. When you have 15 pitchers consistently 90 plus and 9 pitchers hitting 95 and higher on the radar gun, there’s a lot to get excited about. The question is…Who will step up and be the ace of this staff. Connor Noland (Greenwood) and Patrick Wicklander were 1A and 1B last season but both struggled against better hitting teams. Noland struggled mightily in the fall as he left the ball up in the strike zone and had trouble putting hitters away. Wicklander started out a little rocky then ended on a high note with quality outings in the Fall World Series. If Wicklander can be effective in the zone and keep his walk totals down (19 in 15.2 IP in 2020) then he has the stuff to be a true Friday night guy in the SEC. I see Noland as a long relief option at this point as there are too many other talented arms on the staff with better stuff. He does have experience in the SEC and that will be a big help come April and May. Sophomore RHP Caleb Bolden is another year removed from Tommy John Surgery and could push for a weekend spot. He had a 1.12 ERA in 16 IP in 2020 with 15 strikeouts and only 3 walks. The big man, Zebulon Vermillion, seemed primed to be the closer in 2020 not allowing a run in 7 IP but will get the chance to prove himself as a starter in 2021. At 6’5 with a 93-95 mph fastball, his stuff has caught the eyes of major league scouts and could hear his name called in July. Freshman LHP Caden Monke had quality innings this fall and adds depth as a spot starter or bullpen guy. Sophomore Elijah Trest reminds me of Jacob Kostyshock with a fastball that can run in the upper 90s. He could be a candidate for the set up role or even closer. The more innings he gets, the better he will become. A trio of second year freshmen look to get quality innings as well as Righties Blake Adams (Har Ber) and Peyton Pallette (Benton) pound the zone in the mid 90s with quality offspeed pitches and LHP Zack Morris (Cabot) showed promise in 2020 with a 94-96 mph fastball and sharp curveball. Veterans Kevin Kopps and Kole Ramage bring versatility and experience. Two newcomers to keep an eye on are Freshman RHP Jaxon Wiggins and grad transfer LHP Lael Lockhart. Van Horn raved about Wiggins in the fall saying “If Jaxon figures it out and wants it bad enough, he could be a Friday night guy in the SEC as a freshman.” At 6’6 225, the former All State Basketball player from Roland, Oklahoma has a fastball that’s been clocked at 97 mph and a power changeup that is getting better every day. Lockhart could be a weekend starter like he was for the Houston Cougars. Van Horn said, “We have no problem giving Lockhart the ball and him getting us 5 innings and turning it over to the bullpen”. Pitching Coach Matt Hobbs has no shortage of options this season and it will be interesting which guys rise to the top and separate themselves from the rest of the pack.

SCHEDULE AND PREDICTIONS

Van Horn has never shied away from early season competition to ready his team for the grind of a 30 game SEC schedule and this year is no different. The Hogs open their season at Globe Life Park in Arlington February 19-21 against Top 10 teams Texas Tech, Texas and TCU in the State Farm College Baseball Classic. For the first time in program history, the Hogs will play every other in state D1 program all at Baum Stadium. I know fans are excited to see in state teams battle it out and the current pandemic has afforded them the chance to see that in 2021. The SEC slate will be tough as always. Top 10 teams Ole Miss and Mississippi State will be covered nationally as well as the season ending series with Consensus #1 Florida.

The Hogs are ranked anywhere from 8th to 22nd in preseason polls and I think that is due to the question marks about the starting rotation and having to replace Martin and Kjerstad. Personally I think this is a top 10 team in terms of talent, they will have to show they can be consistent and not drop games they should win easily. My prediction is this team will once again host a regional in Fayetteville with a shot to make it back to Baseball’s Emerald City of Omaha. Buckle up Razorback fans, another exciting season of Razorback Baseball is right around the corner.

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