FAYETTEVILLE – Whether it’s first base, third base or right field, off the finished fall baseball practices look for freshman Cayden Wallace of Greenbrier fitting somewhere when the Arkansas Razorbacks officially open their season in February.
Wallace especially impressed during the Razorbacks’ intrasquad “World Series” wrapping up fall drills, Arkansas Coach Dave Van Horn said during Wednesday’s fall ball review press conference.
“Cayden Wallace is obviously a very talented, right-handed hitter, Van Horn said. “He runs well. He’s got a tremendous arm. He’s played third here, he’s played first here. He’s played right field. Yes, he’s going to work at all three of those positions from now until we open up, and probably throughout his freshman year. We’re going to find a way to get him in the lineup.”
As important as his physical skills, Wallace brings mental acumen beyond his years, Van Horn said.
“He’s very mature, very strong, very serious,” Van Horn said. “I wish all freshmen had the same approach.”
While Wallace competes on the infield corners and right field, the Razorbacks barring injury appear set down the middle.
Casey Opitz, the 3-year letterman switch-hitting catcher returned because he wasn’t selected during last June’s abbreviated by covid-19 Major League baseball draft, has drawn Van Horn rave reviews coming back enthusiastic rather than sulking over the unexpected delay to his pro aspirations. Opitz could got season hitless and be an asset for his defense and handling pitchers and he swung a .302 stick for the 11-5 Hogs, their 2020 season abbreviated by covid concerns.
Returning starting second baseman Robert Moore pairs with junior college transfer shortstop Jalen Battles and 2-year starter Christian Franklin returns in center.
Asked about Moore, who also can play shortstop, and Battles, Van Horn replied, “That’s 100 percent of our middle infield.”
“They both are really good shortstops,” Van Horn said. “But I don’t think there’s a better second baseman in the country turning the doubleplay than Robert Moore. So probably for the sake of the team I would say Robert would play second and then Jalen would play short. Jalen’s played short forever and Robert has played everywhere.”
Hitting a solid .274 with six home runs as the left fielder while since turned pro Dominic Fletcher played center on Arkansas’ 2019 College World Series team, Franklin moved to center last year and hit .381 with four doubles, three home runs and a triple and 11 RBI in 16 games last spring.
For impending superstardom, he seems the closest outfield heir apparent for Heston Kjerstad, the Razorbacks right fielder become Baltimore Orioles first round draft choice with a three seasons .345 career Razorbacks batting average including .448 last season.
“You don’t really want to try to ask somebody to do what Heston did,” Van Horn said. “That’d be tough shoes to fill. But I definitely think he’s going to pick up some of the slack. Obviously Franklin has power to all fields. This fall, he hit five or six home runs and two or three the other way, one on top of that building just about. He can hit them anywhere. He’s a really good defender, throwing the ball better than ever. Defensive ability just seems to get better and better.”
And a leader, too, Van Horn said.
One of the pitching leaders, Greenwood’s Connor Noland in the 2019 College World Series team rotation as a true freshman and a top starter last season, did suffer two dreadful outings during the fall ball World Series.
Is Van Horn concerned?
“Yeah, we’re concerned about it,” Van Horn said. “Our hitters have seen him a lot and they took advantage of everything this last outing. Velocity was down a little bit. Breaking ball, some good, some not so good. He gave up a lot of hits in a couple innings and that was that. He knows what he needs to work on and we know where we need to get him. There’s a lot of competition here to get on the mound.”
Freshman left-hander Nick Griffin of Monticello has undergone Tommy John arm surgery, Van Horn said.