Dave Van Horn Speaks on Martin, Kjerstad

Nate Allen

FAYETTEVILLE – His All-American right fielder, Preseason All-American shortstop and three would have been incoming freshmen from among the nation’s most heralded college baseball recruiting classes all will go pro from last Wednesday and Thursday’s Major League baseball draft.

But Arkansas Razorbacks Coach Dave Van Horn greeted Friday with a smile and high on the Hogs hope in his heart for his team in the future and the futures of five who won’t be Hogs next year.

Van Horn knew since outstanding 2018 freshman years that outfielder Heston Kjerstad of Amarillo, Texas and infielder Casey Martin of Lonoke would be high picks signed as 2020 draft eligible juniors and they were.

Kjerstad stunned much of the baseball world as the No. 2 pick in the entire draft. The Baltimore Orioles selected him with the first-round pick immediately after the Detroit Tigers opened Wednesday’s first round.

“I’m really excited for him,” Van Horn said.  “I think that’s a great fit.” 

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 Van Horn also has to be pleased what Kjerstad’s status will do for recruiting.  Kjerstad turned down a Seattle Mariners  36th- round draft choice comparative pittance out of high school.  He should get nearly $8 million from Baltimore after three Arkansas years.

Martin originally was rated a top 30 prospect first round draft choice. Striking out too much in 2019 and early in the coronavirus pandemic shortened 2020 season dropped Martin into Thursday’s third round.  But the Philadelphia Phillies, the team that drafted him, have craved Martin since Lonoke days, Van Horn said, and already offered what Martin wanted.

“ I knew the Phillies really, really liked him, and that  he was only their second pick in the draft,” Van Horn said on Friday’s University of Arkansas arranged Zoom press conference.  “When he fell to them they were really excited about that. He’s still going to get paid really nicely and I think bottom line he’s with an organization that really wanted him. He’s happy about it, so I’m happy for him.” 

Also on a Zoom conference Friday, Martin confirmed he’s financially satisfied.

“I think I got a fair amount for where I was picked and for my value,” Martin said.

Three high school grads who signed with the Hogs, pitcher Markevian “Tink” Hence of Watson Chapel, pitcher-shortstop Masyn Winn and outfielder David Calabrese, were drafted in the third round and will sign pro contracts, Van Horn said.

Winn and Hence were second-round selected by the St. Louis Cardinals and Calabrese was chosen in Round Three by the Los Angeles Angels.

“We knew we were probably going to lose those three,” Van Horn said.  “There’s a few more of these guys that could’ve signed.  They had their number (signing bonus sought)  real high.  They chose to come to school and stick to that number and stay strong.”

Junior catcher Casey Opitz, expected to be drafted but putting a high price tag on himself, said he will return to the Razorbacks undrafted in the just five rounds draft.

Opitz returns with the junior draft eligible bargaining power.

The NCAA restored all spring sports athletes their 2020 eligibility status for 2021 since the coronavirus covid-19 pandemic cancelled all athletics from mid March ending the baseball season at just 16 Arkansas games, all nonconference.

“Casey Opitz, he had an opportunity to sign,” Van Horn said.  “He just had to lower his number a little bit. He felt like he didn’t want to do that. He’ll be back. We’re excited to have him.”

What’s it mean to the 2021 Hogs returning Opitz?

“ Well, Casey Opitz is one of the best players on the team and probably the best leader on the team,” Van Horn said. “I think we got a lot better.”

Pro scouts will take note, Van Horn predicts.

“Most of the scouts that have seen him play,  they know that as far as catching and receiving, blocking, leadership, throwing, there’s not a better catcher in the country,” Van Horn said.  “They’re going to watch him again and see how his bat comes on. He’ll be drafted high next year.  And he’ll have his degree or right at it when he walks out of here. I think it’s a win-win.”

It was so anticipated that Opitz would receive a pro offer he couldn’t refuse that graduate transfer catchers AJ Lewis of Eastern Kentucky University and Robert Emery of the University of San Francisco came to Arkansas. 

Now what for them with Opitz returning?

““We’ve talked to both of our transfer catchers that were coming in about the outside chance if Opitz came back, they can do whatever they need to do if they don’t want to come in,” Van Horn said. “We’re in the process of working through that right now. Obviously we’d like to at least keep one of them. If we don’t we’ll go from there. We’ve got some other plans.”

Both Lewis, hitting  .451 for Eastern Kentucky in 61 shortened 2020 season at bats, and Emery, .381 in 63 2020 at bats for San Francisco, have played other positions, Van Horn said.

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