FAYETTEVILLE — The Arkansas baseball clubhouse looks much different this year.
It has nothing to do with the interior design.
Instead, it’s the fact veteran pitchers Ryne Stanek, Barrett Astin, Colby Suggs, Randall Fant and Brandon Moore are no longer around after moving on to professional baseball careers.
“We lost a lot,” Arkansas sophomore Trey Killian said. “Those were some amazing arms. But I think we’re going to be all right this year.”
Killian and the rest of the new-look Arkansas pitching staff will try to prove it when the 25th-ranked Razorbacks open the season against Appalachian State next Friday.
It will be the first look at a group that is trying to replace its three weekend starters, closer and several key relievers. The pitchers were the foundation of a staff that set the school record for earned run average in 2013, recording a mark that also proved to be the lowest in college baseball in more than 25 years.
So there’s no doubt there absence has created a new feel around the program.
Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn admits he isn’t sure what to make of it yet.
“This has been different preparing for this season compared to the last couple due to the fact we have such a young pitching staff,” Van Horn said. “It’s an inexperienced pitching staff except for a few guys. The unknown makes you a little bit nervous. But then again, at the same time, it’s kind of exciting. I think we’ve got a lot to prove.”
It begins by putting together a starting rotation, which has yet to be determined.
Van Horn and pitching coach Dave Jorn have an idea of which pitchers they’ll test as starters. Van Horn said Arkansas has been preparing five for the opportunities.
Jalen Beeks and Chris Oliver, who played valuable roles in the bullpen last season, are being considered early in the season. So, too, is sophomore Trey Killian, who struggled as a starter in the SEC opener last season and eventually went to the bullpen. Arkansas also is taking a look at two freshmen — Alex Phillips and Zach Jackson — for early-season starts as they put together a rotation.
“It’s always scary pitching the young guys because you never know what you’re going to get,” said Oliver, a junior. “They could come out and explode. They can come out and be content and do well. They could end up being a huge role this year as a freshman, which, that would be a huge, huge bonus for us.”
Sophomore Colin Poche would likely be in consideration for a starting role as well if not for a sore arm, which will limit him to bullpen duty for at least the first week.
“Obviously there’s a lot of pressure on us to kind of live up to what the team did last year,” Poche said. “But we’re a different staff and we know that. We know we have a lot of talent, it’s just a matter of going out there and proving it.”
It’s not much different than the 2011 season, when the Razorbacks only had one proven pitcher returning in D.J. Baxendale.
Arkansas knew it would have to rely on a group of young and inexperienced arms that season. Stanek, Astin, Moore and Fant all played important roles in helping the Razorbacks reach an NCAA Regional. Then the College World Series in 2012.
So working with a young group is nothing new for Jorn.
“When you’ve got new guys … they don’t really know what their expectations are, they don’t know how to go about their business,” Jorn said. “So there’s a lot of training to do to get them to understand what the routine is and how we do things and for them to feel their way and get their feet wet, and get out there and measure themselves and find out whether or not they’re capable of performing at this level.”
Arkansas catcher Jake Wise said he has no doubt the group will learn quickly.
“The talent is there. The experience isn’t,” Wise said. “But I’m not really worried about it because coach Jorn does a great job with them.”
All agree the first few weeks of the season will be critical for the staff, though, as Arkansas tries to find out which pitchers it can count on in different roles.
Expect plenty of pitchers to get on the mound. Van Horn said Arkansas plans to approach the early part of the season much like 2011, when the Razorbacks made sure they didn’t leave a young pitcher on the field too long.
“Not because we didn’t have confidence in them,” Van Horn said. “We just didn’t want to blow their mind if it didn’t go well. We needed those guys.”
Jorn said the goal is to make sure his young pitchers grow early in the season as Arkansas puts together its new-look staff.
“The ability is there, it’s just a matter of the confidence,” Jorn said.