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Five fall keys: Arkansas has huge holes to fill

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Five fall keys: Arkansas has huge holes to fill
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Dave Van Horn always seems to have the Hogs ready to play when spring commences

Arkansas has made a living on proving prognosticators wrong at times.

It wasn't long ago the SEC coaches picked the Hogs to finish last in conference in a season that ended with a conference regular season title.

There's a good chance the Hogs will have to prove some doubters wrong again in 2011.

The Razorbacks lost three big-time power hitters, including Zack Cox and Brett Eibner, to the MLB draft this past summer. They also only welcome back two hitters that finished last season with batting averages better than .300.

Though offense is a mild concern this fall, the pitching staff is a different story.

The Hogs lost all three weekend starters to the draft and must find a way to replace them between now and the spring. Candidates to replace Drew Smyly, Mike Bolsinger and Eibner include DJ Baxendale, Geoffrey Davenport, Cade Lynch, Brandon Moore and Ryne Stanek.

Whoever doesn't start will have a huge role in the bullpen, which is another area of concern with a limited number of experienced returning arms.

Chances are good the Hogs will find a way to make ends meet offensively when the spring arrives, but the pitching staff will be a question mark until three arms prove themselves as adequate weekend starters.

History still dictates we shouldn't be shocked if the Hogs surprise us.

Figure out the weekend rotation

Every team must deal with this at some point and the Razorbacks are going through fall workouts with an entire weekend rotation to replace with the departures of Drew Smyly, Brett Eibner and Mike Bolsinger. Smyly finished last season with a 2.80 ERA in 103 innings, Eibner had a 4.34 ERA in 58 innings and Bolsinger had a 4.81 ERA in 86 innings. Replacing those guys won't be easy, but the Hogs have some options. Arms in the mix for starting spots include returnees DJ Baxendale and Geoffrey Davenport and newcomers Cade Lynch, Brandon Moore and Ryne Stanek. Baxendale compiled a 3.58 ERA in 60 1/3 innings last season while Davenport had a 3.63 ERA in just 39 2/3 innings. Lynch, a JUCO transfer, and Moore, a freshman, have impressed the coaching staff this fall, while Stanek was a third rounder and has a wealth of potential. Inexperience will be an issue early in the spring, but the Hogs certainly have talent.

Find more power production

The Razorbacks have some huge holes to fill in the power department before the fall closes. They must find a way to replace power hitters Zack Cox, Brett Eibner and Andy Wilkins. Cox finished last season with 14 doubles and nine homers, Eibner smacked 22 homers last season and knocked in 71 runs and Wilkins blasted 15 homers and knocked in 69 runs. The trio accounted for 50 percent of Arkansas' homers last season. The Hogs return Collin Kuhn, who finished last season with 16 homers and 52 RBIs. They also have high hopes for James McCann, who smacked nine homers last season. They're also intrigued with JUCO transfer Sam Bates, who has displayed some power so far this fall. These guys must help take some sting off the important departures.

Exceed offensive expectations

The Razorbacks will miss Cox, Eibner and Wilkins from a power standpoint. They also will miss them from a batting average standpoint, especially Cox and Eibner. The Hogs finished last season with a .306 average and welcome back just two hitters – Collin Kuhn and Bo Bigham – that finished last season with batting averages better than .300. They also welcome back James McCann, Tim Carver, Matt Vinson and Matt Reynolds. McCann hit .286 with 34 RBIs, Vinson hit .204 in just 93 at bats and Reynolds was hampered by injury and hit .203 in just 64 at bats. The Hogs should be fine at the plate when spring arrives, but there are some concerns.

Improve defensively

The Hogs have one of the nation's best backstops in James McCann, but still have some work to do in the field after finishing last season with a .964 fielding percentage. Zack Cox, who has since departed, brought the average down last season with a .912 fielding percentage. However, there are some improvements to be made up the middle with Tim Carver and Bo Bigham. Carver made 15 errors and had a .938 fielding percentage last season. Bigham, meanwhile, typically is solid defensively and makes great plays, but still ended the year with a .956 mark. Improvements in the field could make life much easier for a restructured pitching staff.

Set the rest of the pitching staff

The Hogs have the tough chore of replacing all three weekend starters this fall. They also have some pitchers that served as relievers last season vying for those three spots, including DJ Baxendale and Geoffrey Davenport. They potentially could have other holes, too, with the departures of TJ Forrest, Jordan Pratt and Jeremy Heatley. Returnees include Randall Fant and Jason Fuqua. Fant made 10 starts last season and had a 4.37 ERA in 35 innings and Fuqua made 10 appearances and had a 4.50 ERA in 12 innings. The Hogs could be in trouble in the bullpen if Baxendale and Davenport are in the weekend rotation come spring. That means the returnees and several newcomers must rise to the occasion to have a solid bullpen.

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