January 18, 2019

Arkansas Baseball Preview: Winning the Arms Race

Keaton McKinney (Photo by Sue Ogrocki, AP)After an improbable run to the College World Series in 2015, the 25th ranked Razorback Baseball team looks to to ride some stellar pitching back to Omaha this season.  The Diamond Hogs host Central Michigan at 3pm Friday in the 2016 season opener at Baum Stadium.

It has been a few years since we have been this excited for the start of Razorback Baseball.  Maybe it’s the fact that the Razorback Basketball team is playing to their ‘potential’.  Or maybe it’s the lack of a bitter cold winter in Fayetteville.  Regardless, the 70 degree forecast for Friday’s opener has us stoked.

To be honest, we had last year’s squad dead and buried after they started the 2015 season 11-12.  In what might have been Dave Van Horn’s best coaching job, the Hogs rode Golden Spikes winner Andrew Benintendi and senior stalwarts Tyler Spoon and Joe Serano to a fantastic finish.  A 3-0 sweep of the Stillwater Regional, and a very satisfying 2-1 Super Regional win over a very cocky Missouri State team gave Van Horn his fourth trip to the CWS as Razorback skipper.

You can tell, Van Horn (524 wins at Arkansas in 13 years) likes being a little under the radar this year after losing the three outfielders and third baseman Bobby Wernes to the MLB draft.  D1Baseball.com has the Hogs ranked number 25 to start the season.

“I understand that,” Van Horn said.  “What gets you ranked up there in the top 10 in preseason is when you return your weekend rotation.  If you have three starters, the pollsters and national websites like you.”

While the Hogs may not have three weekend starters pegged just yet, they’ve got two to go along with the best closer in college baseball.  Bell cow Keaton McKinney (6-2, 3.21 ERA in 2015) and Dominic Taccolini (6-4, 4.32 ERA, 67Ks in 2015) should be solid as starters.  Both are coming off surgeries, but should give the Razorbacks plenty of quality innings.

Zach Jackson (Photo by Photo by Sue Ogrocki, AP)Closer Zach Jackson (5-1, 2.10 ERA, 89Ks in 60 IP in 2015)  looks to fill that role again in 2016.  Jackson was electric last year, consistently topping 95+ on the radar gun with a filthy, plus slider.  Hog fans will have fun watching the new Baum Stadium video board when Jackson pitches…for the first time, it will contain a section showing radar gun readings for the pitchers.

It appears likely that junior James Teague (6-4, 3.36 ERA in 2015) will be the main bridge guy out of the pen to get to Jackson.  Teague started 10 games last year, but was much more effective out of the bullpen.  Solid arm and consistant approach.

If you are looking at some freshman pitchers to watch, keep an eye on lefty Weston Rogers (6-4, 215, Springdale (Ark.) Har-Ber), and Blaine Knight (6-3, 165, Bryant, Ark.).  From watching some of the preseason scrimmages, these two could vie for the third weekend starter spot, or be valuable mid-week starters right away.

As for position players, the only sure things are up the middle with Tucker Pennell (.200, 7RBIs in 2015) behind the plate and shortstop Michael Bernal (.269, 4HRs, 30RBIs in 2015) and second baseman Rick Nomura (.298, 4HRs, 20RBIs in 2015).  Nomura and Bernal led the SEC and were 4th nationally in turning double plays last season.

Baum Stadium Video BoardBecause of his bat, Carson Shaddy (.337, 3HRs, 19RBIs in 2015) will be on the field somewhere…either at third or in the outfield.  Same for Clark Eagan (.288, 2HRs, 31RBIs in 2015), who will start in center but can also play first.  Shaddy looks like a two-hole hitter if true freshman Eric Cole is able to stay in the lineup somewhere.  Cole, a switch hitter, led the Hogs in hitting during the fall (.350), and is a candidate to lead off.  He has tremendous speed.

In our mind though, the KEY TO THE WHOLE SEASON could be sophomore outfielders Luke Bonfield (.177, 7RBIs in 2015) and Chad Spanberger (.252, 21RBIs in 2015).  Bonfield, a high school All-American (6-3, 200), showed promise last year, but never found his stroke at the plate.  Spanberger (6-3, 235) has tremendous power, but struck out 31 times in only 107 plate appearences a year ago.  If these two can come on and develop into consistant hitters with some pop in the middle of that order, the offense can surprise.

All in all, we think this could be a fun team to watch and a special season for Van Horn and the Hogs.  We like the pitchers.  We like the middle infield.  And we love coaches who consistently put their teams in the post season with shots to win it all (13 straight appearences in the NCAA regionals).  Van Horn’s gonna get one…will it be in 2016?