Head coach Jim Penders will have an embarrassment of riches to call upon in the infield heading into 2021, including two of the best prospects in program history: first baseman Reggie Crawford and catcher Patrick Winkel.
While the two rising stars have never been featured on the diamond at the same time — Crawford was a freshman last year when Winkel missed the entire season after undergoing Tommy John surgery — 2020’s cancellation opened up a golden opportunity to see two of the best young position players at Storrs since, no exaggeration, George Springer and Nick Ahmed.
The offensive numbers the two of them put up in their respective freshman seasons are astounding:
In 13 games of the 2020 season, Reggie Crawford had a .365 average, .414 on-base percentage, and a .558 slugging percentage, ranking third, second, and third on the team in each respective category as a freshman. Would he have sustained that ridiculous pace over a full 50+ game season? It would be pretty cool, but history says otherwise. What could help him at least try and match that pace is the work he’s been putting in with hitting coach Jeff Hourigan this offseason. Penders said that Crawford already has an extremely advanced approach at the plate for his age, but wants to develop even more power and has worked all offseason to pull the ball more.
What should translate to a full season of games, however, will be Crawford’s defense. His 6’4” frame and natural athleticism lends itself to immense range at first base, where he has big shoes to fill defensively. Through three seasons and over 1,000 putouts, his predecessor at first base, Chris Winkel, only committed 10 errors. With the rest of the infield near-unchanged, Crawford has had the chance to develop chemistry with the rest of the squad through the 13 games in 2020 and the entirety of the offseason. Winkel will return to the team after gaining an extra year of eligibility, and will feature at first base when Crawford is given a rest at DH.
At catcher in 2019, Patrick Winkel had arguably an even more impressive rookie season with UConn baseball. Forgoing a chance to sign with the Yankees after being drafted by them in 2018, Winkel hit .318 in 2019 against elite conference and non-conference competition, leading the team with seven home runs and a .486 slugging percentage.
Even more impressive than his tremendous offensive power, however, is Winkel’s poise behind the plate. The catcher is the quarterback of the defense, and typically freshmen slowly grow into that role, but the Orange, Connecticut native quickly made it his own and became a leader on the field despite battling multiple injuries his rookie season. After a full season of mashing and an impressive track record behind the plate, Winkel has done nothing but improve his draft stock, projected to be at least a third-round pick this summer, when he will be eligible again.
Winkel will likely rotate more often this year due to the compressed schedule — four-game weekends and regular doubleheaders will really put a crick in your back — which should give journeyman slugger Ciaran Devenney a chance to show off. Devenney started his career at HBCU Delaware State before transferring to Mercer Community College near his hometown of Manalapan, New Jersey. He finally ended up at UMass Lowell, where he hit .261/.509/.423 in two years there, earning an all-conference team spot in 2019.
Christian Fedko has made the second base position his own in recent years, converting from an outfield-cum-designated hitter role in his 2018 season to taking over the second baseman mantle from Michael Woodworth, who was moved to the outfield. His numbers have been good over his two-year career, but he really shines in clutch moments. During the 2019 regional he was the Huskies’ biggest offensive threat, with multi-hit games against Nebraska twice and Harvard, and was responsible for one of the biggest hits in UConn history the year prior with a 8th inning go-ahead home run against No. 15 Coastal Carolina that sent UConn to the NCAA Regional.
Fedko definitely profiles as more of an offensive second baseman first, worrying about the defensive side second. He had his fair share of growing pains at second in 2019, but has adapted to the role and is no longer a liability at the position. Fedko will certainly be a candidate for the DH spot when the lineup calls for it, with Andy Hague or Zach Bushling subbing in for him defensively.
Third base and shortstop are two of the more open spots in the lineup, but Penders won’t be starved for good choices. At short, Bushling made the position his own in 2019, playing every inning in the shortened season. The 5’7” speedster had a respectable .286 average and stole a team-high three bases in 2019, his first season with the team since transferring in from Siera Community College in California. The former high school football and basketball star will get a long, hard look at featuring near the top of the batting order, based mostly on turning in quality at-bats all of last season.
Pushing Bushling for that starting spot will be redshirt sophomore Hague, who wouldn’t have been blamed in the slightest if he had transferred at any point in his UConn career. Hague was stuck behind iron man Anthony Prato for his first two years at Storrs, redshirted the 2019 season, but returned to the program to fight for a spot in 2020, and ended up starting on opening day. He’s struggled at the plate in two seasons with the team, but reportedly led the team in batting average in fall ball. Hague is a sparkplug who will likely come off the bench as a pinch runner when he’s not featured in the lineup, but if he can finally put it all together on offense, he’ll be a threat to win that starting spot.
David Langer will be an even-keel option for the Huskies at the hot corner, giving them some experience on the left side of the infield. The sixth-year senior’s jersey number (41), baggy pants, and work ethic are sure to make him a fan favorite, but he’ll have to fend off an under-the-radar prospect who’s making his presence known to earn regular playing time.
That prospect is none other than true freshman Bryan Padilla who hails from Poly Prep in Brooklyn, New York and followed the same path to Storrs as former shortstop Anthony Prato. It wouldn’t be a shock to see Padilla’s named called during a future MLB draft, as he has a good arm and is solid defensively already at shortstop, plus has the ability to put together good at-bats.
Langer and Padilla will have to contend with Todd Petersen, a youngster with college baseball experience. At 6’6”, 206, Petersen is an absolute unit of a player from Newtown, Connecticut who started six games at third base in 2020, but never quite got going at the plate.