FAYETTEVILLE – Of Arkansas’ three most prominent Major League Baseball Draft eligible juniors, one Razorback figured most to benefit from the NCAA revised spring sports eligibility rules.
And Casey Optiz did.
Outfielder Heston Kjerstad and shortstop Casey Martin were sure to receive high draft offers they couldn’t refuse.
Surefire first-rounder Kjerstad, selected by the Baltimore Orioles, became the stunning second pick in the draft’s first round.
Martin went a little lower than anticipated, but Philadelphia Phillies third-round draft choice more than sufficed.
Catcher Opitz, knowing because the coronavirus since mid-March terminated college baseball season the NCAA restored all players’ 2020 eligibility through 2021, apparently considered some fifth-round feelers in the formerly 40 rounds reduced to five round draft.
However whether by his choice or the respective teams, Optiz went undrafted.
“Incredibly thankful for all the teams that made me offers today,” Optiz posted June 11 on Twitter. “Sadly didn’t feel that it was the right fit this year. Blessed that this journey has brought me back to Fayetteville! Day 1 of 2021starts tomorrow.”
That extra junior year for 2021 NCAA granted on March 30 gave switch-hitter Opitz the power to be choosier in 2020.
“That decision was awesome,” Opitz said in April. “Just to have that in the back pocket.”
Especially while carrying the torch loving Arkansas on the front burner with a burning to repeat the College World Series trips to Omaha he made as Arkansas’ backup catcher to Grant Koch in 2018 and the Hogs’ starting catcher in 2019.
“If this is it, then I just want to say thank you I am forever grateful to Fayetteville, Arkansas and all the unbelievable friends, teammates, coaches and teachers that I have had along the way,” Opitz tweeted in May when it seemed he could be drafted on terms he deserved. “ OmaHog for life.”
Later in May Opitz tweeted: “ I can’t ever repay the people of Arkansas for all the amazing things they have done for me. I will always be a Razorback.”
Signing two graduate transfer catchers, Arkansas Coach Dave Van Horn recruited presuming Opitz would sign with the pros yet never counted out that Opitz returning.
“Casey Opitz 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 knew he could come back and be draft eligible with some bargaining power next year and get to play with his teammates another year. He’ll be drafted high next year I feel like and he’ll have his degree or right at it when he walks out of here. I think it’s a win-win.”
It could be a major win-win if Opitz follows the extra year course taken by Blaine Knight and Isaiah Campbell, the Razorbacks respective pitching aces of 2018 and 2019.
Three-year collegiate players, whether juniors or redshirted three-year sophomores, or those turned 21 years of age, are annually eligible for the June Major League draft.
Knight went from draft eligible 8-5 3.28 ERA 21-year-old staying at the UA post 2017 to 14-0, 2.80 ace of 2019 third-round drafted by the Baltimore Orioles.
Campbell, redshirted one year because of injury, went from a 5-7, 4.26 2018 sophomore turning down a 24th round Los Angeles Angels offer to returning in 2019 to go 11-1 with a 2.27 ERA and 108 strikeouts vs. 19 walks and be drafted in the second round by the Seattle Mariners.
Van Horn expects Opitz to follow the Knight and Campbell path.
“That’s one reason he’s coming back,” Van Horn said. “Because obviously he could have signed for something. They didn’t reach his number and he stuck to it. He’ll be the best catcher in the country returning to college as far as handling pitching staffs, calling pitches. He’s definitely going to move himself up on the draft boards next year.”
And with a UA degree in hand.
“Yeah, I’m getting my degree no matter what,” Opitz said back when he was expecting to sign in the 2020 draft. “I’ll finish classes on line if I have to or I’ll go back next fall if that’s something that’s available.”
It certainly will be available now with Optiz enrolled as a Hog.
“I’m going to get that degree,”Opitz said.
Photos courtesy of Craven Whitlow, CW3 Sports Action