Coming off one of their best seasons in recent memory in which they set a program record for road wins and reached the NCAA Tournament, UConn baseball is set to begin its 2019 campaign. The Huskies open their season on Friday, Feb. 15 against the No. 4 Louisville Cardinals in Lakeland, Florida.
While Jim Penders’ squads are typically defined by their strong pitching, UConn’s position players are the strength of this year’s team. There’s still a lot of moving parts, so let’s start with the known starters:
The rock of the Huskies’ infield is junior shortstop Anthony Prato. He’s been the starter since day one as a freshman and was UConn’s best player last season. He missed just one game all season and hit for a .324 average with a team-high 18 stolen bases.
At first base is junior Chris Winkel, who played in all but one game and started 55 of 60. At 6-foot-5, Winkel is a massive target at first base and has earned the nickname “The Condor” from pitching coach Josh McDonald. Penders said Winkel first caught his eye when the first baseman was a sophomore at Amity High School.
“Before a game (at) Muzzy Field...he jumped off of a bag in pregame infield-outfield drill and I had never seen a guy — a first baseman — jump as high as he jumped to save an error from a shortstop in pregame,” Penders said. “That’s really the first thing that I noticed, then I just kind of locked in on him. He’s so athletic. He’s got a really good idea of how to play defense over there. He saves the infield a lot of errors so it’s a nice steadying influence.”
After those two, the rest of the infield is a bit of question mark. Reigning AAC Freshman of the Year Christian Fedko will be the opening day starter at second base while junior Conor Moriarty will get the initial nod at third. The two players are almost the opposite of each other.
“Fedko has significantly improved his athleticism over the course of the last six-eight months and we’re going to rely on him to to hold down second base...he’s an offense-first second baseman but he’s improved significantly there,” Penders said.
“Conor Moriarty has had his scuffles with the bat but one of the things about Conor that’s really admirable is that he doesn’t bring his at-bat into the field. He plays excellent defense, I think he’s an outstanding defensive third baseman. So he certainly is going to get first crack at third base.”
While those two have been tabbed as the starters to begin the year, they will need to produce to keep their spots. Junior college transfer David Langer, freshmen Kyler Fedko (brother of Christian) and Will Lucas along with senior Thad Phillips are all vying for playing time. Lucas in particular has really impressed Penders throughout the preseason.
“I don’t know how it’s going to happen but I didn’t know how Willy Yahn was going to get in the lineup either and he’s one of those guys once Willy was in there was going to be impossible to get them out of there. Will Lucas kind of gives off that vibe,” Penders said.
Behind the plate, freshman Pat Winkel (brother of Chris) will be the top catcher to begin the year. A 31st-round pick of the New York Yankees, Winkel chose to keep his commitment to UConn. He will be backed up by Phillips and Paul Gozzo, a native of Wallingford, Connecticut who had to sit out last season after transferring from Tulane.
In the outfield, the Huskies only return one true starter in left fielder John Toppa. However, last season’s starting second baseman Michael Woodworth will transition to centerfield, a position he played in junior college.
“He is a very good baseball player,” Penders said of Woodworth. “He plays shallower than I think most of our fans are used to seeing — you know even George Springer played a little bit deeper than the depth that Woody plays at — but he goes back in the ball very well so he’s going to steal some singles. Occasionally he’s going to get burned on the ball over his head but it’s going to take a heck of a shot because he goes back on the ball very well.”
While left and center are set, right field is a wide-open competition. Redshirt sophomore Anthony Nucerino, UConn Avery Point transfer Michael Chiovitti, Kyler Fedko and Lucas are all options but nobody has shown enough to this point to claim the starting spot.
While UConn’s pitching staff may be thinner than previous years, they’re still anchored by two critical pieces: A bonafide ace and a shutdown closer.
Mason Feole took the top spot in the Huskies’ rotation last season after an injury forced Tim Cate to miss a chunk of the year. The added pressure didn’t shake Feole though, as he threw 100.2 innings with a 2.50 ERA while striking out 120. However, he will miss the beginning of the year after suffering a minor triceps injury in mid-January. Despite now being fully healed, Feole still needs to build his arm strength back up.
“He’s back in December preparation as opposed to February preparation right now,” Penders said. “It’s going to take a few weeks to get his arm back 100 percent and up to speed.”
Meanwhile, Jacob Wallace takes over the closer’s role after being the team’s top set-up man a year ago. He gained closing experience with the Bourne Braves in the Cape Cod League, where he didn’t allow a single run in 13.2 innings of work.
“He’s closed at the highest level possible in the Cape Cod League, so we’re expecting him to pick up where he left off,” Penders said.
As for the rest of the staff, senior Jeff Kersten will get the ball in the season opener followed by freshman Colby Dunlop on Saturday. The coaching staff expects a big jump out of Dunlop, who mostly appeared as a midweek starter or reliever last season.
“Colby Dunlop is really going to be asked to emerge holding down a weekend spot,” Dunlop. “Sophomore year is a big year and he’s got the stuff for it. He was kind of an enigma at times last year, I think he kind of had his coming out party and his last appearance against Washington in the Conway Regional, so we’re really going to count on him to expand his role.”
The team is yet to name a Sunday starter.
In the bullpen, C.J. Dandeneau projects to take on an expanded role. Penders believes his value lies in Dandeneau’s ability to come into any situation.
“We’re going to count on guys like CJ Dandeneau to really carry a load and do whatever is necessary,” Penders said. “He’s going to be kind of a guy that you might see in the sixth when all the money’s on the table. Or you might not see until the ninth.”
The rest of the relievers will likely be trial by fire. Senior Avery Santos is back to full strength after undergoing Tommy John Surgery in Nov. 2016 while redshirt junior Randy Polonia is also expected back after missing the last two seasons with shoulder injuries. A wildcard in the mix is Jimmy Wang, a Chinese-born player who can overpower hitters with a devastating slider but struggles with consistency. Other pitchers that will mix in include Chase Gardner, Joe Simeone and Kenny Haus.
Projected Opening Day Lineup:
C: Pat Winkel
1B: Chris Winkel
2B: Christian Fedko
SS: Anthony Prato
3B: Conor Moriarty
LF: John Toppa
CF: Michael Woodworth
RF: Anthony Nucerino
SP: Jeff Kersten