UConn baseball starts its season in under two weeks, and while many fan-favorite players return, the Huskies have reloaded with plenty of new faces and are ready to again compete at the top of the Big East.
With the departures on its pitching staff, including all three of its weekend starters, UConn baseball has a major rebuild on its hands. Any other program might expect a down year as a result, but the Huskies are used to this. Having sent at least one pitcher to the MLB via draft or free agency every year since 2015, Reloading on arms is almost the norm at this point, as the program has had at least one former player latch on with an MLB organization each year since 2015. Jim Penders has some intriguing options with which to reload in 2023.
The three-man weekend rotation of Austin Peterson, Pat Gallagher and Enzo Stefanoni combined for a 3.59 ERA in 298 innings pitched for the Huskies. Peterson and Gallagher departed for the Guardians and Blue Jays farm systems, respectively, and Stefanoni graduated, leaving three sizable holes to fill.
Pitching coach Josh MacDonald is no stranger to turnover at that position, and UConn will have plenty of options to call on in terms of starting arms.
The program has utilized transfers to fill key positions in their lineup long before the transfer portal rules change, nabbing Stefanoni from Harvard, Peterson from Purdue by way of junior college, along with Jeff Kersten all via traditional transfer rules either graduate transfers or arrivals via junior college. Two of the feature starting arms on the Huskies’ 2023 pitching staff started their career at different schools and will need to gain their footing at a higher level early on in the season.
Andrew Sears, a 6-foot-3 starter from Rhode Island College, is one of those transfers with expectations placed on his broad shoulders. Sears started 12 games in 2022 at the Division III level, going 8-1 with a 2.29 ERA and two complete-game shutouts. The left-hander has a fastball in the mid-90s and a wipeout slider as his secondary pitch.
Stephen Quigley is another Division III transfer tabbed to make an immediate impact after turning heads at UConn in fall ball. Quigley spent his first two seasons in the infield at Wheaton College, but made a much bigger mark on the program as a starting pitcher. During his senior season, Quigley posted a 2.22 ERA and struck out 73 batters in 11 appearances, earning conference Pitcher of the Year honors.
Stephen Quigley strikes out Erick Ramirez to end the game. The Pittsfield Suns advance to the Futures League championship series. pic.twitter.com/dNf1YteFP6— Howard Herman (@howardherman) August 17, 2021
Ian Cooke is projected to be the lone member of the UConn weekend rotation that was on the roster last year, but even he will be adapting to a different role.
Cooke emerged in 2022 as a hard-nosed bullpen arm, starting out as a middle reliever but quickly earning his way to a handful of starts and save opportunities by the end of the year, impressing the coaching staff with his ability to grind out multiple innings.
He filled in wherever needed for the Huskies, with 20 appearances and six starts, contributing a 3.64 ERA and 54 strikeouts. He shined in multiple longer outings throughout the season, including a 7 2/3-inning shutout performance against USC and eight innings of one-hit ball against Boston College in April. According to D1Baseball, Cooke made another significant step forward in fall ball, raising his fastball velocity to upwards of 95 mph, and is ready to take the reigns as a weekend starter.
Jack Sullivan and Brady Afthim are two other underclassmen ready to step into the mix as starters. Sullivan had an extremely impressive 2022, throwing 22 2⁄3 innings and allowing just two earned runs with 26 strikeouts. He started the season with a short leash but transitioned to a high-leverage reliever as the season went on. Afthim is a flamethrower from Windham, Maine who also found himself in bigger spots as the season went on, posting a 3.60 ERA in 20 innings pitched.
Although the starting pitching has experienced a number of departures, UConn can rely on plenty of returning experience from the bullpen, bringing back Justin Willis and Devin Kirby for one last ride.
Willis acted as the Huskies’ closer in 2022, earning 15 saves, including the two most important innings of their season, a pair of perfect frames against No. 15 Maryland to win the College Park Regional. Kirby sits in the low 90s with his fastball and provided some important middle-inning relief with a 4.60 ERA and 36 strikeouts in 31 1⁄3 innings of work. Morris, Connecticut native Garrett Coe also returns for his junior year, a hulking 6-foot-6 reliever who earned two saves in 23 appearances in 2022.
The UConn bullpen will also gain a handful of newcomers in 2023, headlined by Hartford transfer Will Nowak. The South Windsor native anchored the Hawks’ bullpen in 2022 with 30 2⁄3 innings pitched, boasting a career 2.82 ERA and 14 career saves, the second-most in Hartford history.
Michael Quigley, Stephen Quigley’s brother and a transfer from UMass Lowell, also made waves in fall ball, hitting 95 mph on the radar gun with his fastball. Freshmen Thomas Ellisen and Jude Abbadessa are also expected to make some appearances out of the bullpen, as both received praise during fall ball.
UConn’s pitching staff will have plenty of new faces, especially on the front end, but returning experience in the bullpen and an influx of starting transfer talent should gel as the season goes on and continue the tradition of strong Husky pitching staffs.