Dave Van Horn has been a major college head baseball coach for 24 years, but the top Diamond Hog believes he is about to take on a challenge that he has not seen often in his career.
That is guiding an Arkansas baseball team that has so much turnover in terms of experience going out and new faces coming in.
The Razorbacks, fresh off a trip to College World Series where they finished third and 46-21 overall, have been practicing for a couple of weeks and will begin scrimmaging on Thursday at 3:30 p.m.
They will also do so Friday at 2 p.m., which is the time Thursday’s practice will begin as well. Practices are open to the public.
“We have got to learn a lot about ourselves this year, this fall, mostly in the field,” Van Horn said. “I am really excited to get it going tomorrow. We have had some really good workouts for the last couple of weeks. The guys are actually a little bit tired from lifting, fielding and throwing, running and a lot of pitcher bullpens, getting in shape, even better shape. That is why we gave them a day off today.
“Tomorrow we will work on a few things and then scrimmage at 3:30. We will probably go about five or six innings, one inning apiece for 10 or 12 guys (pitchers).”
Arkansas lost third baseman Cayden Wallace, shortstop Jalen Battles, second baseman Robert Moore and catcher Michael Turner to the Major League Baseball draft and is also looking for an entirely new starting outfield.
Peyton Stovall, who is slated for second base this season after playing first last season, joins designated hitter/first baseman Brady Slavens are the only two starting position players returning.
There are 28 newcomers on a Razorbacks’ 44-player roster set to begin the 2023 season at the Texas Rangers’ Globe Life Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
Arkansas will join Vanderbilt, Missouri, TCU, Texas and Oklahoma State in the Feb. 17-10 event.
“We have to learn a lot about our team,” Van Horn said. “We have got to figure out who to play where and the sooner the better. I don’t think I have ever been a part of so many position players that played such big roles the previous season being gone.
“This is going to be a big challenge to figure this out before opening day next year because we are not starting out with some teams we should be able to beat right away if we are not really, really ready to roll. The schedule is really good.”
The Razorbacks will host their Fall Classic intrasquad game on Sept. 30 with free admission and conclude fall workouts in late October.
Stovall is slated to be the everyday second baseman, his position in high school, but will be challenged by former Greenwood and Crowder College standout Peyton Holt.
“Well, he’ll be our second baseman unless something crazy happens,” Van Horn said of Stovall. “He does have a lot of competition if you come out and watch our workouts. We’ve got some guys that are working out at second that I think could get in the lineup at other positions.
“Really talking about Peyton Holt, he’s been out there a lot. When I saw him play last fall, he played third base the day I was at the game in a fall scrimmage up north. But Peyton Holt can also play corner outfield for us, and he can swing the bat, third base, and second. But right now, Stovall will be the man to beat out there.”
Van Horn does plan to give Stovall some rest after playing summer ball in addition to the full college season.
“He’s got a ton of experience, good hitter,” Van Horn said. “He’s probably a little bit tired, you know, freshman that played almost every game last year. Then he went out to summer ball, traveled, played and had some good days and some OK days in an incredible league. I mean, you’re seeing 93-95 every day in the Cape. It’s hard to hit in that league, especially when you’re coming off your freshman year.
“We’ll pace him a little bit this fall, but I do want him to be in there at second as much as possible. And then we’ll do a lot of work there. But he’s a really good second baseman. He kind of fools you with his quickness.
Slavens is back, which is surprising to some who thought he would be taken in the MLB draft and playing professionally.
He tied for the team lead in homers last season with 16 and has 30 in his Arkansas career, which tops those on this year’s roster.
“I’m not planning on DH’ing him,” Van Horn said. “Maybe here and there, but we’re planning on him playing first. We had a great discussion with Brady and his father after he didn’t get drafted. The first conversation with those two was with Coach Thompson. And then they could’ve just had a conversation with me on the phone, but we just felt like we all needed to me in person, and we did in my office.
“We hashed out a lot of things, talked about last year, talked about the year before. We talked about playing the game and loving the game and playing with a smile on your face, and that’s what we want out of Brady.
“If we get that from Brady, I think he’s going to have a great year. I think Brady put a ton of pressure on himself last year, and we don’t want him to feel that pressure. We don’t want him to play like that. We want him to play because he loves to play baseball. I think, from what I’m seeing so far, he’s bouncing around, taking ground balls.”
Slavens will be limited in fall ball while rehabbing an elbow injury with outfielder Jace Bohrofen and infielder Tyson Fourkiller also injured.
“He can’t swing right now or throw, but that’s coming,” Van Horn said. “He’s only a few weeks off on that. But you’ll see him playing first base in fall scrimmages, he’s just not going to hit. And if he gets a ground ball hit to him and there should be a throw to second base, he’s not going to throw it. It’s fall baseball. Just catch the ball, field it, get a feel for it and get back over there.
“We were pretty good in ‘21, and he played first base almost every game. I imagine Brady is going to be better than ever, and I plan on him hitting in the middle of our order in ‘23.”
Creighton transfer outfielder Jared Wegner (6-1, 215) will likely be in the middle of that lineup as well.
Wegner hit .348 with 11 home runs, 53 RBIs, 11 stolen bases, 14 doubles and 30 walks last season for the Bluejays.
“I don’t know why somebody didn’t draft him in 20 rounds,” Van Horn said. “If they look at his history, last year was his first year that he hasn’t been injured… Last year was his first year to play healthy at Creighton and he had a tremendous year. I think getting him through was really big, especially at that position in the outfield. He’s a middle-of-the-order type hitter.
“He was the first guy that we called that got in the portal. I remember talking to him two or three times when we were in Omaha. First-team All-Conference player at Creighton. I thought somebody would sign him. Now that I have him to campus, nobody hits the ball harder than him on our team at this time. He looks like he should lock down one of those outfield positions.”
The Razorbacks are in the market for a new shortstop with Battles turning pro and Harold Coil, Jude Putz, John Bolton and Hunter Grimes are among those who will be vying for the job.
“We do have a lot of candidates,” Van Horn said. “And losing Battles, a lot of people asked me, really towards the end of the year, ‘have you ever had a better shortstop?’ No, I’ve never had a better shortstop. Jax Biggers was an incredible shortstop. They’re a different style. He was that Energizer Bunny shortstop they would get it and throw it over there. Battles was really smooth but wasn’t flashy. He made every play. Had a very accurate, strong arm.
“We’ve got Harold Coll coming in from San Jac(into Community College) that has really shown us in pre-practice workouts that he’s going to, he has a lot of potential with the bat. And if he goes the other way, he can pull the ball and he can hit for power, but he’s got power at opposite field. He’s one of the guys that has an opportunity there.
“John Bolton, who transferred in late from Austin Peay just really wanted to come here. Had other options he could have gone to, to Georgia and some, but he’s been fielding the ball real well. I mean, he kind of jumps out at us.
“…Hunter Grimes played centerfield last year for McLennan. He was injured, so they moved him to center. And he played shortstop and he could play third. He’s a really good player.
“…I’ve just mentioned four guys, and I know we have one other, but the way it works is I just want the most consistent guy to play there. If he’s not the most consistent, he’s really going to have to hit.
“So we’ve got four or five, six weeks to figure this thing out a little bit and then we’ll really work at that in the offseason.”
That includes at catcher where Arkansas brought in former Arkansas State and Eastern Oklahoma State switch-hitting backstop Parker Rowland, Oklahoma transfer Hudson Polk and New Mexico State transfer Cal Kilgore.
“I feel real good after seeing those guys in here…I feel like Polk is ready to go, I feel like Rowland is ready to go. Cal Kilgore, who we got in late, had some injuries, but he caught in a Regional last year. So we have got a good battle there.
“They all bring a little bit of something to the table. You have a right-handed hitter, a switch hitter and another right-handed hitter.
“You know Rowland has a lot of experience. Polk has a lot of experience at the Division I level with playing in a really good league, playing all the way up to the national championship. I feel good there. I think it will be some good competition, which is healthy and will make those guys better.”
Van Horn does feel confident in his pitching, which returns Hagen Smith, Brady Tygart, Will McEntire, Jackson Wiggins and Zach Morris.
“Hagen Smith, Tygart, McEntire, Morris – those four guys jump out at you,” Van Horn said. “ Wiggins, I think he’s going to be better than ever. I know I am missing guys, but it is going to be a good fall for our hitters to face this type of pitching every day. I think it’s going to help us develop a little quicker with the bats.”
Arkansas also returns pitcher Austin Ledbetter, who pitched in the CWS, and brought in several newcomers, including Nebraska’s Koty Frank, former Ole Miss pitcher Cody Adcock and San Jacinto’s Hunter Hollan, whose pitching coach was former St. Louis Cardinal and 15-year MLB pitcher Woody Williams.
“I do feel good about our pitching and our pitching depth and our experience and I do like some of the new young guys,” Van Horn said. “Obviously we have some guys with some really good arms that you can kind of see the future a bit if they stay healthy.
“Throwing a bullpen is one thing, pitching when guys are on base when the stands are full is a little different. But as far as talent and potential, I see a lot there.”
Van Horn mentioned Kendall Diggs working at third base, first and the corner outfield spots.
“He likes to play third, he can play first,” Van Horn said. “We’re trying to work him in the corner outfield a little this fall. He hasn’t had hardly any reps there, but we’re going to stick him out there. I’m sure he’s going to have his OK days and his bad days defensively. But we’ve got to see what we have, and he’ll get work out there in practice.
“It’s all about him swinging the bat and being a tough out. When he was good last year, he took his walks, fouled off a ton of pitches. He was just a really tough out, and that’s the kind of guy we need. We need him to make a jump. Most kids make a jump, the biggest jump is the freshman to sophomore year. So, we’re hoping that happens there with Kendall.”
Van Horn is also high on freshmen Jayson Jones and Mason Neville, two players he didn’t expect to get through the draft.
“Big right-handed hitter,” Van Horn said of Jones. “He can field and throw, he can play third or first and I think he’d be really good at both of those positions honestly. Working on really getting him in shape. He can hit the ball a long way.
“Mason Neville, who hits left-handed. 6’3, 200-pounder. He hits balls off my window up here. It’s interesting but they’re still freshmen. It’s going to take some time. We’ve got to try to find a way to get them in the lineup. We’ve got to try to find a way to win with freshmen in the lineup. Get them ready for the end of the season, get them ready for their sophomore and junior year.”