Arkansas completed its fall ball schedule this past Friday and it left Dave Van Horn feeling good in some areas and not so good in others.
Jake Wise has returned for his senior season, but an injury forced him to only hit in the fall.
Arkansas lost its three starting pitchers and some key position players including Dominic Ficociello from last year's team.
“It went very well,” Van Horn said. “We battled some injuries with the older guys. Brian Anderson had a little stress fracture in his foot and missed the second half of fall. Tyler Spoon had an issue, we're not exactly sure what it was, I guess we will diagnose it as a hernia. It looks like he's not going to have surgery, but he missed the last two weeks of fall ball. We know what they can do.”
Van Horn said Anderson won't have surgery. Van Horn said the injuries to Anderson and Spoon actually allowed some younger guys to get some at bats. Despite feeling good about how it went this fall, Van Horn isn't ready to start making plans for Omaha just yet.
“We still have a long way to go,” Van Horn said. “We lost a lot of pitching. That's probably my biggest concern. Who is going to start for us? We lost three conference starters last year. This is first time I can remember we didn't get at least one weekend starter back.”
“We'll answer that early in the season,” Van Horn said. “I feel good about our bullpen if we can keep those guys in the bullpen.
“Like (Chris) Oliver and (Jalen) Beeks and some of those guys. They have a lot of experience. It's just a matter of if we're going to be able to keep those guys in the pen, if not we'll move them to starters.”
Van Horn said Beeks and probably Oliver too preferred to start, but his goal right now is to find his starters elsewhere and leave them in the bullpen.
Brian Anderson helped in the outfield last year, but will likely play second base this season.
“(Trey) Killian had a pretty good fall and threw nothing but strikes,” Van Horn said. “We're still working to get that killer pitch, that out pitch. If he can do that he has a chance to be a good conference starter.
“Then you go with (Colin) Poche. His first outing he was outstanding. Then after that he was just OK. He needs to pick it up. It would be nice if Killian and Poche could grab a couple of those weekend spots so we could go from there. Probably one of the biggest improvements from pitching is Jackson Lowery, a right hander out of Little Rock who we redshirted last year. He threw the ball 86, 87, 88 last fall. This fall it was 90, 91. It all sounds good on paper, but he threw it where he wanted it. He also has a pretty good breaking ball.”
While starting pitching is an issue, Van Horn is looking for vast improvement in another area of concern for last year's team.
“I think we'll be a lot better defensively,” Van Horn said. “We had a lot of defensive problems the first half of the season.
“The second half of the season we were actually pretty good once we made some adjustments. (Brett) McAfee kind of got settled in at short. We were able to put (Brian) Anderson in the outfield.”
Van Horn talked about what his lineup would look like if the team played today.
“Anderson is probably going to be our starting second baseman,” Van Horn said. “He did a tremendous job over there this fall, making plays and turning double plays. He worked hard this summer. McAfee had a good fall, he's better.
“Third base, we've got a couple of junior college guys. Bobby Wernes is a sophomore who only played one year of junior college. He was a shortstop there and is a very good defender. A young man named Michael Bernal is also battling for shortstop, but third as well and can play second base. You can throw (Joe) Serrano in who fielded the ball well at second base. We see him as a second base, left fielder and maybe even play some first base for us this year. Eric Fisher at first has obviously done a good job. If he hits left-handed pitching he'll probably stay in the lineup every day. If he doesn't we can always put Serrano over at first.
Tyler Spoon returns to play right field for the Hogs after a standout redshirt freshman season.
“Catching, Jake Wise still has a ways to go. His arm, he didn't catch all fall. He swung the bat better than he ever has. Blake Baxendale is battling for that position. He's coming off Tommy John Surgery, been just about a year. He's up-and-down throwing. The arm strength isn't back yet, but we've got to get him in baseball shape. Two true freshmen, Carson Shaddy and Alex Gosser, are battling for the third-string spot.”
In addition the bullpen, Van Horn feels very good about the outfield. The Hogs return two starters there and a blue chip true freshman.
“We have a true freshman in center in Andrew Benintendi,” Van Horn said. “He had a very, very good fall. Hit for average, hit home runs and played very good defense. He has won the center field job already.
“Tyler Spoon in right. In left field, probably one of the most improved players on the team is Garrett Rucker, who is battling for the job with Serrano. Serrano will be in the lineup whether he is playing left, first, second or at DH. That in kind of a nutshell is where we are at. There's a couple of other guys battling, but I feel like we're a lot better defensively especially if Baxendale and Wise are both healthy and battling it out. That would make us better.”
Some other players still have to step up and show what they can do to know their role on this team. Junior Michael Gunn has helped in the past both as a hitter and pitcher. That may continue, but Van Horn said he could be slotted for more pitching.
“Come watch batting practice and he will put on a show,” Van Horn said. “He has more power than anyone out there. He will hit them off the scoreboard, into the pond and in the scrimmages it doesn't happen. His swing is a little too long or whatever the case is, but he did have some good days. The consistency isn't there, but on this team we need him to pitch.”
Van Horn was hoping true freshman Dominic Taccolini might grab one of the starting spots in the rotation, but that didn't happen this fall. Van Horn talked about Taccolini, Jacob Stone and Chris Falwell, all newcomers on the mound.
“We have one junior college kid in Stone,” Van Horn said. “He was a drafted kid. He came in and threw the ball pretty well. He was a bullpen guy as a freshman and started as sophomore. We're not sure what his role will be, but I can tell you I love his toughness. He's just a tough kid, I like his makeup.
Tony Vitello has made a very good early impression on Van Horn.
“Taccolini has incredible movement and great stuff, but location and throwing enough strikes is not what it needs to be right now. He's a little stiff, we've got to loosen him up. He has got to throw the ball over the plate more.
“Falwell came in and threw nothing but strikes. Everything was down at the knees. I think he's going to get some innings for us.”
Van Horn also has a new assistant in Tony Vitello, who came over from TCU. Van Horn said Vitello has impressed him tremendously.
“I have been around Tony on the recruiting trail and knew all about him as a recruiter, hard worker,” Van Horn said. “I don't have to tell him to go anywhere, I have to figure out where he's at. He was in Johnson County, Kansas, the other day and now he's in Florida.
“We finished scrimmaging on Friday, he drives five hours to Manhattan (Kan.) to watch a tournament. That's what he does. So I knew what I was getting there. The plus has been on the field. He has done a tremendous job on the field as far as working these guys, how he communicates with them. I think he has done a great job for us.”
The Razorbacks will open the season on Feb. 14 with a three-game series against Appalachian State. Arkansas will play its first 10 games at home before heading to California for a tournament. The Hogs will open SEC play on March 14 at Florida.
“The schedule is pretty tough,” Van Horn said. “This is going to be a year where we will have to play well during the week as well as the weekend if we are getting to a regional. We've got Nebraska in here for two, UNLV in here for two and going to California.
“Offensively, I feel like we can compete with those guys early. It's just a matter of if we can stop them. I'm just basing that off what I saw this fall and it was pretty average.”