Connecticut Baseball: Five Questions to Answer Entering 2021
It’s an exciting time for the Connecticut baseball program. The Huskies are moving back home to the Big East, a new baseball stadium is set to open its doors next season after its debut was delayed due to the pandemic-shortened 2020 season and the product on the field should be of postseason quality.
Of course, that last part is nothing new for UConn baseball. Coach Jim Penders has had his team in the postseason in three of the last four seasons and six times in the last 10.
These are five pressing questions as UConn approaches another promising campaign.
How does the move to the Big East affect the Huskies on the diamond?
And while that’s absolutely true, there are plenty of reasons to believe that not only is the move a net positive for the program, but that it also won’t really negatively affect what the Huskies do on the field.
For one, it’s not as if the Big East is a bad baseball league. St. John’s, Creighton and Xavier are no strangers to postseason play, and the Red Storm and Blue Jays in particular have shown that it’s possible to build an at-large-quality resume in the league. Plus, a smaller conference slate in the Big East means that UConn will have more room to schedule nonconference series, where Penders and his staff can find opponents to mitigate the drop-off in quality of the conference portion of the schedule.
Most importantly, in the big picture, it’s just the right fit. The Big East feels like home for UConn, and that matters, but practically speaking, it will also mean less grueling travel for the baseball program and the ability to recruit players to a conference that has name recognition in the Northeast, where UConn spends most of its time evaluating prospects.
Penders, a UConn lifer, takes the wider view of the move.
“If it’s the best thing for the university, it has to be the best thing for UConn baseball, too, and that’s been our mindset and that’s what we’re focused on," he said.
Who will be in the weekend rotation in 2021?
The Huskies have one piece to replace in the rotation in righthander Nick Krauth, who signed as a free agent with the Rangers after going 4-0 with a 0.36 ERA in 24.2 innings in the spring.
Two incumbents return from last season’s rotation in fourth-year junior righthanders Joe Simeone and Colby Dunlop, and they figure to get shots at returning to those roles. The former pitched well in 2020, putting up a 3.00 ERA with 23 strikeouts in 15 innings. The latter struggled to an 8.80 ERA in 15.1 innings, but in the two years prior, he was a valuable swingman, sporting a 4.48 ERA in 36 appearances, including 17 starts.
One new name to watch is fourth-year junior righthaner Ben Casparius, who sat out the 2020 season after transferring from North Carolina. Casparius saw as much time in the field as he did on the mound with the Tar Heels, and he even got significant playing time in the College World Series as a freshman in 2018, but the hope is that he can become a frontline starter with the Huskies.
Thanks in large part to excellent stuff, including a fastball that reaches the mid 90s, he’s the leader in the clubhouse to be the team’s Friday starter.
“He was clicking on all cylinders this fall, and garnered a lot of attention from Major League Baseball and the scouting community,” Penders said.
Others in the mix include second-year freshman righthander Patrick Gallagher, who Penders says took some lumps in the fall but has enough stuff to compete for a spot in the rotation. Penders also raved about the work put in by fifth-year senior righthander Kenneth Haus, who led the team in appearances last season, and fourth-year sophomore lefthander Caleb Wurster, another good reliever from the 2020 team who is exploring being stretched out to start games.
Will we see more of Reggie Crawford on the mound?
Crawford came to UConn with exciting two-way potential, and while he was immediately a major contributor at the plate, things didn’t move as quickly on the mound, where he appeared just once.
Perhaps some of that was because the Huskies just had other options on the mound, but Penders is also quick to admit that he and his staff just didn’t quite know how to use a two-way talent of his caliber.
“We didn’t really know how to handle him,” Penders said. “All of the sudden, we had an ICBM (missile) and had a small field artillery mindset. We didn’t know exactly how to use that weapon in the spring, and I think we were just starting to figure it out. We need to get him on the mound more often so that he can develop there, and we did that this fall and he looked unhittable at times.”
Crawford still showed the inconsistency in the fall that you might expect from someone who doesn’t have much experience pitching at this level. For every dominant performance that had UConn’s hitters shaking their heads on the way back to the dugout, there was one a few days later where he would struggle, but Penders says the poor outings got fewer and further between as the fall went on.
The stuff is undeniable, Crawford was up to 98 mph this fall and Penders thinks that there’s a lot more to come as he goes from being a thrower to developing into a pitcher. UConn looks to build its pitching staff from the back, and with that type of stuff and growth potential, Crawford can be a real asset in that pursuit.
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What can we expect from Pat Winkel?
Winkel, the Huskies’ catcher, missed all of the 2020 season after Tommy John surgery. Previously, he had been a key cog in the UConn order. As a freshman in 2019, he immediately became an impact bat, hitting .318/.361/.486 with a team-leading seven home runs.
As of December, Winkel will be 12 months removed from his surgery, and while he was not yet operating at 100% in the fall, the hope is that he will be by the start of the 2021 season.
If he returns to his previous form next season, he’s the type of player who can provide value to the Huskies in myriad ways. At the plate, he could be the team’s primary run producer, especially if he cuts down on a strikeout rate that was a touch too high as a freshman. Defensively, he has a track record as a solid catch-and-throw guy behind the plate, but some of that ability going forward will hinge on how his arm looks coming off of surgery.
It’s been a long time since we’ve seen Pat Winkel on the field in a UConn uniform, but as the player ranked 58th among college prospects for the 2021 draft, he’s got star potential if he’s able to bounce back and knock the rust off next season.
What’s the strength of the lineup?
Impressive depth is likely to be the strength of this particular UConn lineup, but that’s not said as a way to sully some of the individual talents that will be on display.
Crawford already showed tantalizing potential by hitting .365/.414/.558 as a freshman, but now the coaching staff is working with him on developing his power in hopes of turning some of his 300-foot line-drive doubles into 400-foot home runs. Of course, if those adjustments don’t take, 300-foot line-drive doubles aren’t so bad.
The aforementioned Winkel also has significant upside. But the breakout star just might be third-year sophomore outfielder Kyler Fedko, picking up where he left off last season, when he hit .412/.434/.627. Penders began to speculate that Fedko was UConn’s best player in the fall before correcting himself and saying definitively that Fedko was the best player on the team in the fall.
“Kyler might have been our best all-around player in the fall. I don’t think might, he certainly was our best all-around offensive player and defensive position player,” Penders said. “He was just outstanding in the outfield, and just hit to all fields, used the entire field, (which is) the first time we really saw him do that on a consistent basis, (and he) battled with two strikes.”
Then there’s Pat Winkel and Kyler Fedko’s siblings, Chris and Christian. Chris Winkel, a 2020 team captain, is a fifth-year senior with more than 600 at-bats to his name and some defensive versatility. Christian Fedko, a fourth-year junior infielder, has been a regular since day one of his career on campus.
Fourth-year junior shortstop Zach Bushling is back in the fold as well after earning the job as a junior college transfer last season, as is fourth-year junior outfielder Erik Stock, who finished third in the country in hitting last season with a .484 average after transferring in from Old Dominion.
That’s a very deep group of position players, even before you take into account any of the newcomers who may earn playing time, and it bodes well for UConn’s ability to field a well-rounded team in 2021.