It should not be a surprise that after losing Ryne Stanek, Colby Suggs, Barrett Astin and Randall Fant, Arkansas head coach Dave Van Horn summarized the concerns about the coming baseball season as starting pitching.
"I think the offense will compete pretty well coming out of the chute," Van Horn said Tuesday in his fall recap. "The question is whether or not we can stop anyone -- because of what I saw in the fall on the mound."
Van Horn does not expect the Hogs to open the season ranked, one year after beginning the season as a consensus No. 1. He can't remember a season when the complete weekend starting pitching rotation had to be replaced. The Hogs lost 10 players to the draft, including all of that pitching. And he's not sure where those conference starters are going to be just yet. He's got an idea of who can anchor the bullpen -- Jalen Beeks and Chris Oliver -- but those two might be needed as starters.
Likely candidates to get starting chances early are Colin Poche, Trey Killian and Landon Simpson. But none of those dominated in the fall the way recent pitching has at Arkansas.
"Poche's first outing was great," Van Horn said. "After that, he was pretty average. He was disappointing. He needs to pick it up.
"Killian had a pretty good fall, but he's still looking for a killer pitch. If he does, he could be an outstanding conference starter."
As for Beeks and Oliver, Van Horn said, "We'd like to keep them in the bullpen. We'd be OK there. Beeks wants to start and we may need him there, but he'd really help us in the back end of the bullpen. Simpson's velocity has improved."
The hitting appears to be improved with the anchor of the lineup junior Brian Anderson.
"Brian's first scrimmage, he went four-for-four with a home run to left and one to right," Van Horn said. "Scouts were here that day and they were excited watching him."
Anderson finished the fall on the injured list with a stress fracture in his leg.
"He was in a boot for awhile, but it healed nicely," Van Horn said. "I think he was just worn out and he doesn't even know when he did it."
Anderson may have found his position in the fall. He worked at second base in summer ball and stayed there throughout the fall.
"He wanted to just play one position," Van Horn said. "He didn't play any outfield. He was good at turning the double play and good around the bag.
"He did a tremendous job at second, throwing and everything. The grip was good. I think he worked hard over the summer.
"Our defense is better. Bret McAfee looks better (at shortstop). His arm has loosened up. He throws better and from a lot of different arm slots. He was coming off surgery and he's improved."
Anderson had company on the injured list. Tyler Spoon battled what has finally been diagnosed as a hernia that ultimately did not need surgery. Blake Baxendale missed time because of two wrecks, the first on a scooter that bruised a knee. He also had a hand injury from a car wreck.
"Blake got clipped from behind on the scooter and that one was not his fault," Van Horn said. "He couldn't get in a stance for awhile. Then, he hurt his thumb or hand in the car wreck and that one was his fault.
"Baxendale has to get in shape. He's not in condition and we'll get him there."
Overall, Van Horn said the team "has a long way to go. Some of the older guys missed some time, but that gave some younger guys a chance to play."
Among the youngsters, Van Horn sounded the highest on Andrew Benintendi.
"He won the centerfielder job," Van Horn said. "He did a tremendous job. It was easy to see what he could do. We've had some great centerfielders, but he's very good. He can do a lot of things. He can bunt, he can hit home runs and he's a typical leadoff guy. He can draw a 10-pitch walk. I can see that at some point he might bat third."
Among other heralded newcomers, Van Horn said pitcher/hitter Dominic Taccolini showed "great stuff," but had trouble with location. The 6-3, 230-pounder reminds of Colby Suggs, a football player who will need to back off in the weight room.
"We just had that meeting," Van Horn said. "Dominic is too stiff. We don't want him lifting anything.
"He was highly touted and he has incredible movement. But there aren't enough strikes. His fast ball is all over the place and there are a lot of 3-1 counts. You can't win at this level like that."
Benintendi and Taccolini were the plums in this recruiting class that Van Horn called "just OK." But he let up when talking about what's to come.
"The class we are about to sign, it's going to be the best one ever," Van Horn said. "I guess it depends on who we get to school. Part of it was what we had started and the other part was some of the players (new assistant coach) Tony Vitello was on. We added some more athletic guys."
Pressed to name a lineup today, Van Vorn said it could be Eric Fisher at first, Anderson at second, McAfee at short, Bobby Wernes or Michael Bernal at third, Joe Serrano or Garrett Rucker in left, Benintendi in center and Spoon in right. Jake Wise and Baxendale would battle at catcher. Both are coming off Tommy John surgery and that could open the door for Alex Gosser or Carson Shaddy for playing time at catcher.
Serrano could play second, first or in the outfield. Rucker is coming off a redshirt year and displayed power in summer ball. Fisher will be a regular at first, unless he can't improve against lefthand pitching.
Other possibilities on the mound include Michael Gunn, Jackson Lowery, Jacob Stone and Chris Falwell.
Gunn could hit, too.
"You watch batting practice, he hits them off the scoreboard and in the pond," Van Horn said. "In scrimmages that doesn't happen. He'll get a chance to hit, but this team needs him to pitch.
"Lowery made the biggest improvement of the guys we had coming back. He was 86-88 and now his velocity is 90-91 and he gets it where he wants it.
"Stone was drafted and he's done pretty well. He has toughness and some experience.
"Falwell is a 6-7 lefty and he's downhill at the knees and throws nothing but strikes. He has to develop a breaking ball. He'll get innings."
Projected Depth Chart
1b - Eric Fisher, Joe Serrano
2b - Brian Anderson, Joe Serrano
SS - Brett McAfee, Michael Bernal
3b - Bobby Wernes, Michael Bernal
LF - Joe Serrano, Garrett Rucker
CF - Andrew Benintendi, Tyler Spoon
RF - Tyler Spoon, Garrett Rucker
C - Jake Wise, Blake Baxendale, Alex Gosser, Carson Shaddy.
DH - Jake Wise, Joe Serrano, Blake Baxendale.
Starting Pitchers - Trey Killian, Colin Poche, Landon Simpson, Jacob Stone, Jackson Lowery, Michael Gunn, Dominic Taccolini.
Closers - Jalen Beeks, Chris Oliver.
Van Horn: Pitching Concerns
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