2021 Arkansas Razorbacks Baseball Preview: Projected lineup, rotation
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2021 Arkansas Baseball Preview: Projected lineup, rotation

Christian Franklin and Casey Opitz are two of Arkansas' four preseason All-SEC selections.
Christian Franklin and Casey Opitz are two of Arkansas' four preseason All-SEC selections. (Arkansas Athletics)

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2020 record (RPI): 11-5 (47)

2019 record (RPI): 46-20, 20-10 SEC (9)

Coach: Dave Van Horn (19th season at Arkansas, 700-389)

Rank in preseason polls: 8 (D1Baseball, NCBWA, USA Today Coaches), 12 (Rivals Composite), 14 (Baseball America), 20 (Perfect Game), 22 (Collegiate Baseball)

Rank in conference forecasts: 3rd in SEC West (D1Baseball, coaches)

Last NCAA Tournament appearance: 2019 (0-2 at College World Series)

Home field: Baum-Walker Stadium (11,129)

Left: 320, left center: 375, center: 400, right center: 365, right: 320

2020 Recap/2021 Outlook

Coming off back-to-back College World Series appearances, interest in Arkansas baseball was at an all-time high heading into the 2020 season.

The Razorbacks once again had to replace their Friday night ace and several other key starters from the consecutive trips to Omaha, but they still had Heston Kjerstad and Casey Martin anchoring the lineup.

Although Martin got off to a slow start, Kjerstad was in the midst of what looked like an all-time great season, hitting .448/.513/.791 with six home runs and 20 RBIs through 16 games before the weather even warmed up.

As a team, the Razorbacks breezed through the first two weeks of the season until losing all three games at the Shriners College Classic - all in heartbreaking fashion. The losing streak actually reached five games with disappointing losses to Illinois State and South Alabama, but they seemed to be turning a corner just as the season was called off because of the pandemic.

Even though Kjerstad and Martin were picked in the MLB Draft, pretty much everyone else is back, plus Arkansas added several key pieces with a highly touted signing class and through the transfer portal.

Question marks remain, particularly on the pitching staff, but Dave Van Horn’s team - at least on paper - seems as deep as it’s ever been and the Razorbacks look like they could be in the picture for a national seed and College World Series berth once again.

Arkansas' projected lineup and key reserves
Pos. Player, Cl. (B/T)

C

Casey Opitz, Jr. (S/R)
.302/.361/.509, 6 2B, 1 3B, 1 HR, 11 RBI in 53 AB in ‘20
Has thrown out 35 of 75 potential base stealers in 3 years, preseason All-SEC

1B

Brady Slavens, So. (L/R)
.507/.543/1.240, 9 2B, 2 3B, 14 HR, 47 RBI in 75 AB at JCCC in ‘20
National JUCO Player of the Year, began career at Wichita St.

2B

Robert Moore, Fr. (S/R)
.317/.403/.444, 2 2B, 2 HR, 17 RBI in 63 AB in ‘20
Preseason second-team All-American by Baseball America, son of KC Royals GM Dayton Moore

3B

Jacob Nesbit, R-So. (R/R)
.259/.348/.397, 5 2B, 1 HR, 9 RBI in 58 AB in ‘20
Elite defender at third base

SS

Jalen Battles, So. (R/R)
.303/.402/.438, 4 2B, 1 3B, 2 HR, 18 RBI in 89 AB at McLennan C.C. in ‘20
Elite defender at shortstop

LF

Braydon Webb, Jr. (R/R)
.340/.452/.400, 1 HR, 6 RBI in 50 AB in ‘20
Hit .450 with 14 HR at Grayson C.C. in ‘19

CF

Christian Franklin, So. (R/R)
.381/.467/.619, 4 2B, 1 3B, 3 HR, 11 RBI in 63 AB in ‘20
Preseason second-team All-American by Baseball America

RF

Cayden Wallace, Fr. (R/R)
True freshman
No. 25 overall recruit in 2020 class, per Perfect Game

DH

Matt Goodheart, Jr. (L/R)
.302/.361/.492, 3 2B, 3 HR, 18 RBI in 63 AB in ‘20
Preseason All-SEC, could play 1B if shoulder is healthy enough

Res.

INF Cullen Smith, R-Sr. (L/R)
.304/.427/.473, 14 2B, 7 HR, 30 RBI in 207 AB at ETSU in ‘19
Sat out ‘20 season because of NCAA transfer rules, two-time All-SoCon

Res.

INF/OF Zack Gregory, R-Fr. (L/R)
.136/.310/.136, 2 RBI in 22 AB in ‘20
Excels at getting on base

Res.

C Dylan Leach, Fr. (S/R)
True freshman
Skipped senior year of HS to enroll a year early

Even with the MLB Draft being shortened to five rounds, Arkansas figured to lose not only Kjerstad and Martin, but also catcher Casey Opitz. It was a pleasant surprise when teams balked at his asking price and he went undrafted.

Opitz is not going to hit a bunch of home runs, but he does have some pop and he gets on base as a switch hitter. More importantly than that, though, he might be the best defensive catcher in the country. Opitz has thrown out nearly half of the runners who’ve tried to steal on him during his career, plus he manages the pitching staff really well. He’ll be backed up by Dylan Leach, who emerged as one of the biggest surprises of the fall a couple of months ago.

That is just once piece to the Razorbacks’ solid middle of the field. Robert Moore started at second base as a 17-year-old freshman who should have been a senior in high school last season and many speculated he might move over to shortstop to replace Martin. He got a look there, but junior college transfer Jalen Battles is an excellent defender and has made progress at the plate to secure the starting job at short.

In the middle of the outfield is arguably Arkansas’ best player. Christian Franklin is back in center field and is a true five-tool player who was off to a great start offensively when the season was cut short. He is a legit All-SEC, first-round prospect.

Braydon Webb returns in left field and will play his first full season in Fayetteville after transferring in from the JUCO ranks. Replacing Kjerstad in right is the only true freshman projected in the projected lineup, Cayden Wallace. The Arkansas native was a top-25 recruit and likely would have been drafted had it not been for signability concerns. It’s worth mentioning that third-year freshman Zack Gregory - who can also play in the infield - could potentially push for playing time in right, but Wallace is talented enough to start from Day 1.

Although he’s been getting reps at first base in scrimmages, Matt Goodheart’s shoulder still isn’t quite healthy enough to play in the field. He’s been swinging the bat well, though, so he’ll likely begin the year as the Razorbacks’ designated hitter.

That leaves three players seemingly competing for the two corner infield spots.

Brady Slavens, the National JUCO Player of the Year in 2020, came to Arkansas as a third baseman, but doesn’t have a good enough glove to stick there in the SEC and he’s since moved to first - where he looks like a natural fit based on his size.

For now, incumbent Jacob Nesbit is holding down his starting job at third. He is an elite defensive player, but has sometimes struggled at the plate. If he slumps, the Razorbacks could turn to Cullen Smith, who was a three-year starter and all-conference performer at East Tennessee State before transferring to Arkansas and sitting out last season because of NCAA rules. He’s a capable defender and probably the first guy off the bench at any of the four infield spots, plus can really swing the bat.

Arkansas' projected rotation and key bullpen arms
Role Player, Cl.

SP1

RHP Zebulon Vermillion, Jr.
1-0, 1 save, 0.00 ERA, 12 K, 0 BB in 7.1 IP in ‘20
Team captain, was Arkansas’ closer last year

SP2

RHP Peyton Pallette, Fr.
0-0, 1 save, 1.59 ERA, 3 K, 3 BB in 5.2 IP in ‘20
In-state product (Benton), velo in upper 90s

SP3

LHP Lael Lockhart, Sr.
1-2, 4.58 ERA, 19 K, 8 BB in 17.2 IP at Houston in ‘20
Two-year Friday night starter at Houston

CL

RHP Elijah Trest, So.
0-0, 1.93 ERA, 10 K, 3 BB in 9.1 IP in ‘20

RP

RHP Kevin Kopps, R-Jr.
0-1, 8.18 ERA, 9 K, 4 BB in 11 IP in ‘20
Sixth-year junior, two-time team captain

RP

RHP Jaxon Wiggins, Fr.
True freshman
No. 129 overall recruit in 2020 class, per Perfect Game

RP

RHP Connor Noland, So.
2-0, 2.00 ERA, 19 K, 4 BB in 18 IP in ‘20
Friday night starter in ‘20, former QB

RP

RHP Kole Ramage, Jr.
1-1, 4.40 ERA, 14 K, 5 BB in 14.1 IP in ‘20
Fourth-year junior, 50 career appearances

RP

RHP Caleb Bolden, R-So.
1-0, 1.12 ERA, 15 K, 3 BB in 16 IP in ‘20
Missed ‘19 season because of Tommy John

RP

RHP Ryan Costeiu, So.
2-1, 1.73 ERA, 44 K, 3 BB in 26 IP at Sacramento City C.C. in ‘20
Averaged 15.2 strikeouts per 9 IP in JUCO last year

RP

LHP Patrick Wicklander, So.
2-2, 6.32 ERA, 17 K, 9 BB in 15.2 IP in ‘20
Been in starting rotation since ‘19 as a true freshman

RP

LHP Zack Morris, Fr.
1-0, 3.18 ERA, 1 K, 1 BB in 5.2 IP in ‘20

RP

LHP Caden Monke, So.
1-1, 1 save, 2.53 ERA, 13 K, 3 BB in 10.2 IP in ‘20

With the season opener now less than a week away, Van Horn has yet to settle on a starting rotation.

There is no obvious ace like a Blaine Knight or Isaiah Campbell and even a pair of pitchers in the rotation as freshmen on Arkansas’ 2019 College World Series team haven’t locked in their roles for 2021.

The Razorbacks have plenty of talented arms, possibly the most they’ve ever had, but figuring out which are capable of consistently giving them five-plus innings has been a challenge. Seven or eight guys have gotten a serious look.

After a couple weeks of preseason practices, it sounds like two of the spots in the rotation have been filled by right-handers Zebulon Vermillion and Peyton Pallette.

Vermillion is a fourth-year junior who likely would have been drafted last summer in a normal year. He was effective as a closer, but is transitioning into a starter. That’s where he’ll begin the year and if it doesn’t work out, he can always move back into the bullpen.

Pallette was a true freshman who showed some flashes last season, but he’s made significant strides from Year 1 to Year 2 and his fastball now gets into the upper 90s.

The third spot in - and the exact order of - the rotation is still up for grabs, but we have Lael Lockhart the nod as the No. 3 starter because he’s an experienced guy who pitched on Fridays at Houston. Van Horn has said multiple times that he would have no problem asking the left-handed graduate transfer to give him five innings.

Even if that’s the rotation when Arkansas heads to Arlington, Texas, for the State Farm College Baseball Showdown, there’s a good chance it could change before the start of SEC play.

An intriguing option is right-hander Jaxon Wiggins, a true freshman who likely made it to campus thanks to the shortened draft. He has all the physical tools of a potential ace, with a cannon that touches 98 mph.

Van Horn could also go with a more veteran guy like Kole Ramage, Kevin Kopps, Caleb Bolden, Connor Noland or Patrick Wicklander. None of those guys are overpowering, but they’re capable of giving the Razorbacks multiple innings out of the bullpen on any given day. Wicklander is the only lefty in that group and probably has the best stuff, but he’s been very sporadic and really struggled out of the pen as a freshman in 2019.

At the back end of the bullpen, Elijah Trest is the frontrunner to be Arkansas’ closer. He is a hard-throwing right-hander who’s had command issues in the past, but seems to have turned a corner. If they don’t end up starting, Vermillion and Pallette could also close games.

Three other key bullpen arms are right-hander Ryan Costeiu, who has looked good in a couple of preseason scrimmages, as well as left-handers Zack Morris and Caden Monke.

In addition to those listed in the chart above, Jacob Burton is a hard-throwing righty, Nate Wohlgemuth (RHP) was a top-50 recruit, Issac Bracken (RHP) is a graduate transfer from Northern Colorado with extensive starting experience, right-handers Blake Adams and Will McEntire showed some potential as true freshmen last year, and Evan Taylor might carve out a role as a left-handed specialist.

Click here for an extensive breakdown of the Razorbacks' pitching staff, complete with thoughts from Van Horn.