MLB Draft offers surprises for Razorbacks

Arkansas outfielder Heston Kjerstad / Photo:

It’s difficult to say which was more surprising, Heston Kjerstad being selected No. 2 overall Wednesday in the Major League Baseball’s College Draft, Casey Martin slipping into Thursday’s third round, or Casey Opitz not being drafted at all.

Every projection had left-handed, slugging outfielder Kjerstad listed as a top-10 pick going into the draft, but no analyst had him slated in the No. 2 spot owned by the Baltimore Orioles.

No doubt the organization saw something in Kjerstad that they just had to have, and no doubt, he was on fire for Dave Van Horn’s Razorbacks this spring when the Covid-19 pandemic stomped out not just college baseball but also the entire sports landscape before the middle of March.

Likewise it was hard for Hog fans to envision his teammate Martin sliding into the third round where he was drafted with the 87th pick by the Philadelphia Phillies.

In the winter of 2019, some analysts were projecting that the right-handed infielder from Lonoke could be the No. 1 selection in this year’s draft after his sensational freshman season. However, the cat-quick Martin struggled hitting the curve as a sophomore and early this season. He also fumbled his way into more errors than scouts liked after he switched to shortstop from third base. Going into the draft, he was expected to be taken late in the first round or early in the second.

Even though the draft was shortened to just five rounds because of the number the coronavirus pandemic has done on the MLB’s pocket book, Arkansas catcher Casey Opitz, generally considered to be the best defender behind the plate in the college game, seemed like a lock to be drafted, but the organizations weren’t willing to hit his number in terms of pay, so they stayed away. He’s coming back for his senior season to help Van Horn reload for another run at the College World Series in 2021.

Arkansas catcher Casey Opitz / Photo:

Maybe the biggest surprise in the draft for the Hogs is that three 2020 Razorback signees were actually selected before Martin.

The St. Louis Cardinals really liked the way the Hogs recruited, taking shortstop/pitcher Masyn Winn of Kingwood, Texas, with the 54th pick, and then grabbing Pine Bluff pitcher Markevian “Think” Hence with the 63rd. The Los Angeles Angels then selected outfielder David Calabrese of Ontario, Canada, with the 82nd pick.

Drafted in those slots, all three are expected to bypass college to start their professional careers. That’s just part of the deal with college baseball. The better a team recruits, the more this is going to happen.

One of the difficulties of this year is that high school prospects had most if not their entire senior season’s wiped out by the virus, giving them no chance to improve their opportunity to catch the eyes of college coaches, who like Van Horn are going to lose signees to the draft. Some players mature later.

Kjerstad was a 5-10 leadoff hitter when he committed to the Hogs, but had grown to be a 6-2 home-run hitter by the time he arrived on campus. Missing that season of growth and development is a difference-maker for some kids.

In the grand scope, missing a baseball season pales compared to the actual suffering the coronavirus has inflicted on the world, but to these young men and others, baseball and sports in general is their world. Even for the most talented, sports comes to an end, and 2019 is a season none of these athletes are going to get back.