FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas has most of its pitching staff returning.
The outfield starts the season with returners Matt Vinson, Jacob Morris and Joe Serrano competing for positions. Catcher Jake Wise is back behind the plate, too.
So it’s no surprise the Razorbacks are regarded by most preseason polls as the nation’s top team with plenty of familiar faces returning. But there’s one important question Dave Van Horn has been asked over and over again this offseason.
How does he feel about his infield, which has new starters at each position?
“That’s where all the newness is,” Van Horn said Friday during baseball media day. “The talent’s there. I just think we have to play and see what’s going on.”
Top-ranked Arkansas will unveil a retooled infield when it opens an anticipated season against Western Illinois at Baum Stadium next Friday.
Veterans Matt Reynolds, Tim Carver and Bo Bigham are gone after manning starting jobs for three years or more. Junior Dominic Ficociello has moved, too, sliding from first base to second base in one of the offeseason’s most intriguing changes.
So Eric Fisher is projected to start at first base in Ficociello’s place, while sophomore Brian Anderson is manning third base after starting the last half of the 2012 season in the outfield. Newcomer Brett McAfee has taken over at shortstop after spending the first year of his collegiate career at Panola (Texas) Junior College.
It’s a brand new crew. But the group is confident it will perform for a team that leaned on pitching and defense to reach the 2012 College World Series.
“Our infield is going to be real good this year,” Ficociello said. “It was tough losing Bo and Tim and Reynolds. But at the same time we brought in guys that can fill in their shoes. It’s nice that we didn’t have to make any huge changes.
“Probably the biggest one is just me moving to second base. But I feel comfortable over there and everybody else is doing a good job so I think we’ll be fine.”
Ficociello said he attempted to make the move from first base to second before the 2012 season, but it didn’t work out. He devoted this offseason to playing other positions, working at third base in the Cape Cod League over the summer and at second base throughout Arkansas’ fall practice session.
The motivation for the move was simple: Arkansas wanted to find ways to get better bats in the lineup after struggling at the plat last season. So sliding Ficociello to second base has allowed Fisher, who redshirted in 2012, to move into the lineup.
“I think we’re going to be more of an offensive infield,” said Anderson, who .283 as a freshman last season. “I think our lineup is going to be a little bit more powerful.”
But Fisher, who hit .333 with 5 RBIs during Arkansas’ six-game series last fall, said winning a starting job isn’t just about hitting the ball.
Putting a strong defense behind one of the nation’s best pitching staff still matters.
“We dedicate a lot of times to taking ground balls, turning double plays,” Fisher said. “We’re all taking reps. I’m seeing double plays from every single shortstop and all the second basemen. We’ll sit there and go out there and get 50, 60 ground balls in 20, 30 minutes. So we’ve been getting a lot of work done defense wise.”
McAfee believes the repetition the past few months has paid off and will be evident next weekend. There will be issues to iron out like any early-season game, but the sophomore said the infield should have good chemistry when the season begins.
“Me and Ficociello, we’ve worked a lot,” McAfee said. “We’ve taken a lot of ground balls together. A lot of double plays. We kind of have that bond up the middle. The corner guys also, it’s the same way. We’ve taken so many ground balls, worked together all fall and throughout the spring here. We’re going to be ready to roll.”
Van Horn said he has many more options this season if things don’t go well defensively in the new infield. Or if any player is struggling at the plate.
Senior Jacob Mahan can play second base after being in the lineup 37 times last season. Anderson can play shortstop. Ficociello can slide back to first base if needed or freshman Isaac Hellbusch could man the position. Freshman Willie Schwanke, who is regarded as a solid hitter, could play third base in Anderson’s place.
So it may be a new-look group for a team projected to make a return trip to the College World Series. But Van Horn believes it is deep and talented.
“We’ve got good infielders and we’ve got some good backups,” Van Horn said. “I think it’s a great situation where if somebody gets hurt or is struggling a little bit, we can give them a rest and we won’t lose a whole lot.”