FAYETTEVILLE — The Arkansas baseball team will open preseason practice in Baum Stadium this afternoon with plenty to accomplish before its season opener against Appalachian State on Feb. 14.
Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn said one of the biggest priorities has nothing to do with his team’s work on the field, though. He wants to make sure a handful of his key players are healthy for the season opener.
Outfielder Tyler Spoon (double hernia surgery), catcher Jake Wise (Tommy John and double hernia surgery) and outfielder Andrew Benintendi (broken bone in hand) open preseason practice still recovering from offseason surgeries. The trio makes up one-third of a projected starting lineup Van Horn is counting on early in the season because of a young pitching staff loaded with inexperience.
"It’s like anything else. You just have to deal with it," Van Horn said about the offseason surgeries Thursday. "But hopefully we’ve got this injury bug taken care of because this is a team that … We can’t afford to have our top players not be in the lineup with the inexperience of our pitching staff. We’ve got to have our guys."
Spoon, who led Arkansas with 49 RBIs last season, underwent surgery late last fall after being bothered by a sore groin since the summer. Van Horn said Spoon is unable to run the bases, but should be able to swing the bat when practice begins.
Wise’s hernia was discovered a little later and he underwent surgery in December. It has been part of a difficult offseason for Wise, who also is recovering from Tommy John surgery after injuring is throwing elbow in the Manhattan Regional. Van Horn said Wise is throwing and hitting off a tee, but can’t do much else for now.
"I’ve had four or five (players with) sports hernias," Van Horn said. "Twice in the same fall is kind of interesting. We’re trying to figure out if we’re doing something wrong, but I think it’s just a coincidence so far."
Benintendi, who made a big enough impression this fall to hold the starting spot in center field entering preseason practices, suffered a broken bone in his hand that was discovered in November. He underwent surgery and Van Horn said Benintendi is "almost ready to hit live pitching."
Those three aren’t alone. The injury issues began earlier last fall when infielder Brian Anderson, the team’s top returning player, suffered a stress fracture in his foot. Anderson — who hit .325 with 4 home runs and 36 RBIs last season — spent the past several weeks recovering from the injury and has been cleared for practice.
So Van Horn said it’s clear his has been battling the injury bug. But he also felt fortunate most of the problems were discovered before the season began.
"Now, are they going to be ready by the time of the first game?" Van Horn said. "I don’t know. But at least we have a shot to have them healthy for most of the season and at least have a shot at that."
The Razorbacks will have three weeks to find out.
The preseason also is valuable in sorting out roles for pitching staff starting from scratch after registering a school record for earned run average in 2013. Van Horn said Arkansas has an idea of who will earn starting spots on the mound for the series-opening weekend, but the next three weeks will help solidify those roles.
Sophomores Colin Poche and Trey Killian, who gained experience in limited roles last season, are two pitchers likely to get a shot at the starting rotation. Van Horn said Chris Oliver – who was predominantly in the bullpen last season – is another possibility. He added Jalen Beeks could start as well, but Arkansas likes him at the back end of the bullpen after his success through most of the 2013 season.
"It will be interesting to see who we go with," Van Horn said about his starting rotation. "We’re going to let them earn it."
The same goes for his other position players, although veterans like Anderson (second base), Spoon (right field), Joe Serrano (left field) and first base (Eric Fisher) will man most spots. Van Horn said the biggest preseason battle is at third base, where junior college transfers Bobby Wernes and Michael Bernal are competing.
The competition continues with Arkansas’ first practice, which will be held from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. today. Van Horn said the Razorbacks will hold lengthy scrimmages Saturday and Sunday as they make the most of their time before the opener.
"We have to get out there and start scrimmaging and get these guys on the mound," Van Horn said. "We have to see live pitching because we only have three weeks. … It’s a little different. We’re just hoping everybody is healthy and ready to go."