FAYETTEVILLE — The University of Arkansas baseball team has had eight first-round picks in the Major League Baseball draft, but never two in the same year.
That could change in 2020 if preseason projections are on target.
Outfielder Heston Kjerstad and shortstop Casey Martin — both draft eligible juniors — are ranked as first-round picks by MLB.com and Baseball America.
MLB.com has Kjerstad as the No. 13 draft prospect and Martin at No. 15. Baseball American has Martin at No. 13 and Kjerstad at No. 25.
Razorbacks coach Dave Van Horn said Kjerstad and Martin have done a good job of not being distracted by the draft speculation as No. 5-ranked Arkansas prepares to open the season against Eastern Illinois at 2 p.m. on Friday at Baum-Walker Stadium.
“I think they’ve handled it pretty well so far,” Van Horn said. “I think they knew this year was coming, obviously, and that they’re going to be featured in a lot of stories and there was going to be a lot of talk about them and that they’ve played just about every game since they walked on campus and they’re pro-type guys.
“So we’ll see how it evolves. If they struggle a little bit here and there, I don’t think we can just solely say they’re worried about the draft. It’s just baseball sometimes.”
Kjerstad and Martin helped Arkansas make the first back-to-back College World Series appearances in program history with records of 48-21 in 2018 and 48-20 in 2019.
Kjerstad, 6-3 and 205 pounds, started in left field his freshman season and batted .332 with 14 home runs and 58 runs batted in.
Last season he moved to right field — where he’ll start again this weekend — and batted .327 with 17 home runs and 51 RBIs.
Martin, 5-11 and 175 pounds, batted .345 with 13 home runs and 49 RBIs playing third baseman as a freshman. Last season he moved to shortstop and batted .286 with 15 home runs and 57 RBIs.
“Like Coach Van Horn told me, it’s just another season,” said Kjerstad, who is from Amarillo, Texas. “Just get out there and take care of business how I have the last two seasons. Just help us any you can and get us back to Omaha [for the College World Series], because that’s the main goal.
“All that preseason hype and draft talk, all that stuff will take care of itself as long as I just show up every day and take every game one pitch at a time and just do my job.”
Kjerstad and Martin have been picked as first-team All-Americans by Baseball American and the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association.
“Expectations are high,” said Martin, who is from Lonoke. “Seems like they always have been after the first year. Honestly, we’re not really looking at it. We don’t talk about it.
“We’ll tell each other congrats and then move on. Really, that’s not the concern right now. And I don’t think that will be the concern during the season.
“It’s great to have people think that highly of you, but at the end of the day, it’s just opinions. We haven’t done anything. The season hasn’t even started.”
Arkansas sophomore pitcher Connor Noland, who will start Friday’s game, said Kjerstad and Martin have the same demeanor as they did last season.
“I don’t think they feel the pressure,” Noland said. “That’s two really good guys, obviously they’ve been producing on the field and I think they’ve been carrying it in the locker room. They bring a good presence for us and I think it shows on and off the field.”
Van Horn said Martin should be much improved defensively after he committed 23 errors last season.
“He’s a lot better defender than he was last year,” Van Horn said. “I mean, the range is incredible, but now the accuracy of his arm, just the defensive skills, he’s slowed himself down a little bit.
“A lot of his errors last year were throwing … or all he had to do was complete the play. He just didn’t maybe concentrate enough, or maybe throw the ball hard enough or whatever. He pulled the first baseman off. Those were just errors that shouldn’t have happened.
“We haven’t seen that [in practice]. You know, he’s going to make errors. It’s the toughest position on the field. But he’s really improved there.”
Martin said he’s worked hard in the offseason to be more consistent defensively.
“Mainly just slowing the clock down in my head,” he said.
Van Horn said Kjerstad is stronger and faster.
“The ball is coming off his bat better than it ever has,” Van Horn said. “He’s in the best shape of his life. He’s running really well.”
Kjerstad said his weight hasn’t changed much while he’s made some minor adjustments as a hitter.
“I maybe added five pounds, nothing too crazy,” he said. “I think it’s just me getting a little bit older, a little bit more mature. I’ve just kind of refined my swing and my technique a little bit.”
Van Horn said Kjerstad and Martin have the right mental approach to the game going into their draft eligible season.
“Heston is pretty level-headed and I don’t feel like it’s going to faze him too much,” Van Horn said. “If he slumps a little bit, I just feel that’s part of the game.
“With Casey, I’ve seen him grow up a lot in the last 12 months. He’s worked hard and he knows what’s ahead of him and he knows it’s a team game and that he doesn’t have to carry us. So that’s a good thing.”
Van Horn said Kjerstad and Martin should play their best this season.
“Yeah, that’s my expectation,” Van Horn said. “They’re older and more experienced. Why wouldn’t they be better?”