FAYETTEVILLE — A total of 12 players with connections to Arkansas - five Razorbacks and seven signees - were taken overall in the 2016 MLB First-Year Player Draft.
Current Razorbacks Dominic Taccolini (pitcher), Michael Bernal (shortstop), Doug Willey (pitcher) and James Teague (pitcher) were taken on the final day of the draft Saturday, as were Arkansas signees Tyler Benninghoff, Blake Lillis, Brenden Heiss (all pitchers) and outfielder/first baseman Jordan McFarland. Another four players were taken in the first two days.
Benninghoff and Taccolini were the first two to go Saturday. They went in the 11th and 16th rounds, respectively.
Taccolini, a would-be senior, was taken by the Toronto Blue Jays, the same organization that took Zach Jackson a day before in the third round. A 6-foot-3, 215-pound right-hander, Taccolini was a key member of the Razorbacks rotation in 2015, helping the team to the College World Series before a blood clot left him unable to play in the postseason. He was expected to be the team’s Friday-night starter in 2016, but struggled with a 5.75 earned-run average and a .270 batting average-against.
Taccolini still went in the top half of the draft. His ability to throw a mid-90s fastball with lots of sink was appealing. It was appealing to Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn, too, who said in his postseason press conference the plan if Taccolini returns to school is to bring him out of the bullpen. When starting, the pitcher sat mostly in the high 80s and low 90s, keeping his stamina in check. A bullpen role would allow him to more use his natural stuff and could be a better fit, Van Horn said.
Benninghoff, if he came to Arkansas, would be expected compete for the spot Taccolini would vacate. But an 11th-round selection is high for a player who pitched just one inning last season because of injury. He may be difficult to keep away from the Minnesota Twins.
Lillis, Bernal, Heiss, Willey, McFarland and Teague went after that, in that order.
Lillis, a left-hander, could compete for a rotation spot, as well upon reliever, but is more likely projected as a mid-week starter or potential reliever. Heiss is much the same, only right-handed. Lillis went in the 25th round to the Milwaukee Brewers and Heiss went in the 31st to the Chicago Cubs. McFarland is a Chad Spanberger type at 6-4, 225 pounds. He was taken in the 36th round by the Washington Nationals.
Bernal and Willey were out of eligibility after completing their senior seasons. Bernal spent three years at Arkansas after transferring from Oklahoma State. He was a starter all three years who set career highs in hits (55), doubles (9), home runs (8) and RBIs (37) in 2015. Bernal was taken by the San Francisco Giants in the 29th round while Willey went in the 33rd to the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. Willey spent just a season at Arkansas after coming before the year as a post-graduate transfer. He was Arkansas most effective arm out of the bullpen for most of the season and spent it as a closer for parts.
Teague was the final current Arkansas player taken. A right-hander who split time between starting and relieving, Teague battled injury most of the last 12 months and wasn’t as effective in 2016 as he was in 2015. Another year at Arkansas would allow him to get healthier and could improve his stock. But declining a professional contract would give him limited leverage after his senior season and he went in the 37th round (to the Baltimore Orioles), three before the draft finished.
Benninghoff’s, Lillis’, Heiss’ and McFarland’s likelihoods of signing professionally instead of attending Arkansas are unknown.
Jackson and utility player Clark Eagan who went in the ninth round to Pittsburgh were the first two Arkansas players selected. Two Arkansas signees, Ben Rortvedt and Cole Stobbe, also were chosen, as well.