State of the Hogs: New Faces

Arkansas begins baseball practice on Friday with little expectations from the outside looking in, but it might be "Wise" not to bet against Dave Van Horn's crew.

What would you rather be, rated No. 1 in the preseason college baseball polls? Or no where in sight with lots of talent, albeit short on experience on the pitching mound?

Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn doesn't have a choice for the 2014 baseball season as he opens practice Friday. One of the SEC's best coaches has a team depleted by the professional draft that isn't in the most recognized top 40 preseason polls.

I'm deep into the Hawgs Illustrated baseball preview, to be published next week. Along with Matt Jones, our crack baseball writer at Hawgs Illustrated, we've done all of the pertinent interviews. Jason Ivester, trying to top last week's now famous cover with the Michael Qualls dunk, has shot the cover, along with a portrait of a flaming baseball.

I've got a copy of last year's media guide beside me as I write, the one with 14 players on the cover, 11 of them now in pro baseball. To understand what Van Horn faces, remember that he lost Ryne Stanek, Colby Suggs, Barrett Astin, Brandon Moore, Dominic Ficociello, Matt Vinson, Tyler Wright, Trent Daniel, Randall Fant, Jacob Morris and Jacob Mahan.

All of those were on last year's media guide covers, along with returnees Jake Wise, Joe Serrano and Brian Anderson. That trio will join Tyler Spoon, last year's best hitter, to provide the nucleus of the offense that tries to provide some support for a staff that lost all of the weekend pitching from one of the best groups (statistically) in NCAA history.

The bad news is that some of the best position players are coming off winter surgeries. Wise, not expected to return for his senior year, is back because he had Tommy John surgery on his elbow in June and now is battling back from double sports hernia surgery in December. Spoon also is coming off double hernia surgery. Freshman center fielder Andrew Benintendi, the plum of the 2014 signing class, had his thumb fixed during the Christmas break.

Pitcher Jalen Beeks, the surprise of last year's class as a wonderful setup man for Suggs, joins Wise and Spoon as captains. He could be the closer or a weekend starter. Van Horn wonders if he might use Beeks several times on the weekend, much as he did Jay Sawatski during a run to Omaha a decade ago.

Except Van Horn didn't say it would be an Omaha run. No one is openly talking Omaha, like they did all of last year, perhaps pushing expectations to an unhealthy plateau. The only one to even hint at Omaha was Wise, and he did it wisely.

"I'll be honest, my expectations are always to go to Omaha, because if you are at Arkansas, there is talent to do it," Wise said. "I've been on three teams here and this team is still talented, just not experienced on the mound.

"It's just that this year it's going to be my most fun year because there are no expectations at all. I just know that you don't rebuild at the University of Arkansas in baseball. The coaches all knew the last two years that we were going to lose all of those players and they recruited to what was going to happen.

"We aren't going to be ranked in the top 40 and that's fine. It's just going to make it fun when we beat the ranked teams. People are going to say, ‘Wow, they are good!'

"I'm looking forward to this more than the first three here. Absolutely, we still have enough talent, just as much talent. It's just that not everyone knows them yet."

Van Horn isn't sure what he has pitching, although he likes the velocity he sees in scrimmages and bullpen work. But he knows with the heavy losses to the draft on the mound, the Hogs will have to win in a different way this season.

"We need to score more runs because we don't have that staff anymore," Van Horn said. "I don't remember ever losing all three conference starters. We lost seven or eight really good upperclassmen pitchers.

"But I think our offense is better. I think our defense is better. Really, I think our defense is fine. I know why we aren't ranked. Everyone knows what we lost. But they may not know what we have just yet.

"We've been here before. I just think most people are not sure what we have now. We do have a lot to prove. The big questions is just who are we going to put on the mound. But we do have some good young arms and we may just have to use more pitching this year, run them in and out."

The offensive players not on the radar this year are numerous, but the best is probably leadoff man Benintendi. He was the Rawlings national player of the year. The Cincinnati product holds the Ohio high school career record with 199 career runs scored, ranks second with 213 career hits, fifth with 166 career RBI, eighth with a .542 career batting average and 12th with 112 career stolen bases. The Cincinnati Enquirer named him state Division III player of the year in basketball with a 25.5 scoring average.

A lot of that new offense is from the lefty side. Benintendi joins redshirt freshman Garrett Rucker and Wisconsin freshman Clark Eagan to provide some balance to a lineup that has right-handed hitting Bret McAfee, Michael Bernal, Blake Baxendale, Spoon, Anderson, Wise and Serrano.

It's not as easy to come up with what the pitching will look like because Van Horn isn't sure. There are lots of fine arms starting with Colin Poche, Chris Oliver, Trey Killian and Beeks. Van Horn is likely to roll arms early and often in the first month to figure out the rotation and bullpen.

"The schedule is tough," Van Horn said. "And we don't have the easy midweek games to test a lot of guys. We can't just put a new guy out there and let him pitch. We will need to get them out of there because we need to win games.

"Beeks is our wild card because he could close, or he could start. He may do both on a weekend. He might close early and if he hasn't pitched a lot, start on Sunday. Beeks started in the summer at Cape Cod and he could be a starter for us.

"I think our leadership is good. We have Jake Wise and Tyler Spoon as captains, and also Beeks to help the young pitchers. It's good when your catcher is one of the captains."

It should be fun watching him figure it out. As they say, buy a program.

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