FAYETTEVILLE — The NCAA voted to allow member schools provide an extra year of eligibility to spring sports athletes at their discretion on Monday night, but that part of the decision will have little bearing on the University of Arkansas baseball team.
Coach Dave Van Horn said the team’s lone senior in eligibility, transfer first baseman Cole Austin, would likely not be returning next season.
“So that part didn’t help us one bit,” Van Horn said on a teleconference on Tuesday. “I’m happy for the seniors. It helps give them the opportunity to come back and play again.”
The Razorbacks were 11-5 when the season was halted on March 12, shortly before they were going to board a plane for their SEC series opener at Mississippi State.
After a decision to hold off on all athletically related activities until April 15 and essentially send students home, the season was officially ended by the SEC on March 17.
Van Horn is noted for being an effective roster manager in the delicate and sometimes difficult arena of managing a Division I baseball team with 11.7 scholarships to offer. His mind immediately turned to that aspect of his duties, with plenty of unresolved issues still hanging, like when the Major League Baseball amateur draft will be held and how many rounds it will feature.
Van Horn said his front-burner issues are “obviously a couple of things that are out of our control. I guess you can’t get too uptight about it because you can’t do anything about it.
“The main issue for us, once you get your mind around that we’re not going to be playing baseball anymore — we don’t have a season — is you have to look to the future and look to the roster and making sure we put the type of team on the field that we need to.”
Austin is the only senior who would have the ability to return, but the Razorbacks have a large group of draft-eligible juniors and a few sophomores, some of whom would have been likely to be drafted and signed during a normal summer.
But this isn’t a normal summer.
So far, MLB has said it will hold a draft, but the date is likely to be pushed back from June 10 to possibly in July. How many rounds it will feature will depend on how much of a season the pros can play. The shorter the season, the smaller the draft is the prevailing thought.
“I think if Major League baseball doesn’t play all summer they’ll have a five-round draft and they’ll have free agency after that where they’ll limit how much money they can give free agents,” Van Horn said.
“If Major League baseball plays half their season or a little more it could be all the way up to 20 rounds [of a draft]. If they play 100 games it will probably be closer to 20 rounds is what I’ve been told. If they play less it could be 10 [rounds] or somewhere in there. It’s all hearsay.”
Arkansas outfielder Heston Kjerstad, who was hitting .448 with six home runs and 20 RBIs at the time of the suspension, and shortstop Casey Martin are considered potential first-round draft picks, while catcher Casey Opitz is expected to be taken in an early round.
“I feel like they’ll have bargaining power and will be paid the way they’re supposed to if they go in the first round or second round, third round possibly,” Van Horn said. “As far as the fourth and fifth rounds, if there are only five rounds, I don’t know how they would handle that. The good thing is if somebody decided they wanted to come back, obviously we’d welcome them with open arms with a scholarship. So time will tell.”
The junior class features position players Matt Goodheart and Brayden Webb, and a slate of pitchers like Zebulon Vermillion, Kole Ramage, Kevin Kopps and Marshall Denton. The draft eligible sophomores are pitchers Caleb Bolden and Connor Noland and third baseman Jacob Nesbit.
In a normal year, a hearty number of those players would surely be drafted and signed. Now, many of them are likely to return, and their numbers will collide with the numbers of redshirting transfers like pitcher Miller Pleimann (a Fayetteville High grad) and infielder Cullen Smith, and the incoming signees, some of whom could also be drafted.
Van Horn said the issue in the coming months will be “just roster management and being fair for everyone. So without knowing when the draft is, and the draft being put off, pushed back, I think it’s going to be a mental battle for all of us coaches and a lot of the players throughout the summer.
“Some of it’s pretty obvious, but we have some really good young freshmen that we don’t know if they’re going to make it to school or not. So obviously there’s some scholarships there that could be moved around, and there are roster spots that can be taken by other kids. So basically it’s all about getting the player personnel straightened out so to speak.”
Among the group of 20 signees, in one of the most heralded Arkansas signing classes, right handed pitcher and infielder Masyn Winn of Kingwood, Texas, might be the highest draft choice.
Others in the class who are highly regarded and could be drafted include right handed pitcher Nate Wohlgemuth of Owasso, Okla., versatile athlete Cayden Wallace of Greenbriar, lefty pitcher and outfielder Nick Griffin of Monticello, righty pitcher Tink Hence of Watson Chapel in Pine Bluff, right-hander Jaxon Wiggins of Roland, Okla., and infielder Michael Brooks of Wellington, Fla.
Van Horn said the loss of the rest of the season has been a tough issue for everyone.
“You want to be able to put an ending to this face to face,” he said. “You know it’d be nice to be able to meet with the team and talk to them and tell you how much you appreciate them and the effort they put in and how hard they worked. And then have our exit meetings with them one on one and the players with all the coaches talking about what they’ve done, what they need to work on, their future.
“Some of those meetings are not great meetings. Some of them are tough meetings. We have to talk about the future and you know kids are transferring and different things. You still need to have those. And now unfortunately it looks like those meetings are going to be over the phone later on in the semester.”
Van Horn said the big roster issue facing the Razorbacks and other college teams is looming.
“We’ve just got to see what happens with the draft,” he said. “We don’t even know when the draft is. We don’t know how many rounds it’s going to be. So there is still a lot up in the air for us.
“Things will happen throughout the summer whether we feel like somebody needs to make a move or somebody feels like they need to make a move. Something always happens. We’ve got many months to try to figure this out.”