Golden Spikes winner Andrew Benintendi among DVH’s great center fielders

By Nate Allen

FAYETTEVILLE – Because last year’s Razorbacks stocked experience but since moved on third basemen, then incoming freshman third baseman Cayden Wallace of Greenbrier had to become Arkansas’ best right fielder to fit into the lineup.

Fit, Wallace did. He was selected Freshman All-American by Baseball America while  hitting .279 with 14 home runs and 44 RBO for Coach Dave Van Horn’s  50-13 SEC champion/SEC Tournament champion Hogs.

Now, though the best right fielder and possibly best center fielder on the team with 2021 center fielder Christian Franklin turned pro, Wallace opens the January practices leading into the Feb. 18-20  season opening 3-game series at Baum-Walker Stadium against Illinois State back at his old Greenbrier patch at third base.

Then again he might have to play center if Braydon Webb, a left fielder last year, hasn’t healed from an injury to play center by the season-opener.

You’ve got to have an athlete in center field.” Van Horn said at his Thursday preseason press conference.   “So one of our best athletes was Cayden Wallace. We were working him out in center right when he got back even though in summer ball, he played right field.  But we  put him in at third for a couple of games, let him work out with the infield a little bit and he was our best third baseman. That’s what he was when we recruited him and we just said, ‘Okay, we’re going to go with him there. Let him play third.”

Wherever he plays, Wallace will do so as a team tri-captain elected by teammates along with senior outfielder Zack Gregory and senior pitcher Zebulon Vermillion.

“We took the top three vote-getters,” Van Horn said.  “If we had just two guys that ran away with it we would have just taken two.   But we could have taken four or five because there were two more guys that – how many can you have?  But you don’t have to have a C on your jersey to be a captain and be respected like that.”

While not swinging the bat like Wallace, Webb if healthy  could roam center in the Van Horn era  Razorbacks  tradition of past turned pro center fielders  Brett Eibner, Andrew Benintendi,  Dominic Fletcher and Franklin, Van Horn said.

“As far as a true center fielder, it’s Braydon Webb,” Van Horn said.  “Braydon Webb’s as good as any center fielder I’ve ever had. The guy can absolutely play outfield. … But again, he’s hurt. He has a little quad problem.  We’re going to be real easy with him leading up to the season.”

For the first time since 2018 when he was the freshman backup, the Hogs start a season without turned pro former captain Casey Opitz as their regular catcher.

The Hogs are bound to miss Opitz in many aspects but Van Horn doesn’t despair.

He’s added senior Kent State transfer Michael Turner competing with sophomore Dylan Leach, last year’s 17-games used  true freshman backup to Opitz.

“Between Michael and Dylan Leach we feel good back there,” Van Horn said.  ” Michael is the full package because he can really hit. He can really throw and he can really catch. don’t know what went on where he came from. I’m just shocked that he’s not playing pro ball.”

But Lynch does have that year with the system here  soaking up Opitz advice like a sponge.

 Last year he was a senior in high school, playing behind Casey and trying to learn,” Van Horn said. “Maybe a little overwhelmed. Then he comes back this year and here we bring in another 23-year-old.  He doesn’t complain.  All he does is work. You’ve got to give him a lot of credit. He’s gotten bigger, stronger and better and made a lot of strides.  So I see both of them catching.”

Returning Preseason All-American second baseman  Robert Moore and SEC Tournament MVP shortstop Jalen Battles  makes up the middle defensive automatic.

Highly touted freshman infielder Peyton Stovall, likely next year’s Razorbacks second baseman or shortstop with Moore and Battles expected to be pro drafted this summer, opens at first base with first baseman Brady Slavens likely to be DH or in the outfield.

Before Van Horn’s press conference he toured attending media through the brand new J.B. and Johnelle Hunt Family Baseball Development Center.

The Hogs have all they need  with a weight room and training and nutrition facilities and simply as a  place to hang out, Van Horn said.

I mean we have to pretty much kick them out of here at night,” Van Horn said.   “They just hang out, which is awesome. That’s what we want. It just makes it a lot easier having these type of facilities.”

Certainly it helps recruiting.

 “You can coach guys up,” Van Horn said.   “But you’ve got to have good players. This building is going to help us get more players.”

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