UConn duo shows what's in Storrs for Draft
Likely first-rounders Springer, Barnes draw attention to school
STORRS, Conn. -- It's a prospect haul a half-century in the making, a UConn coup that threatens to redraw the borders of the baseball map. The University of Connecticut, long regarded as an outpost in baseball's frigid Northeast corridor, seems likely to have two first-round picks in next month's First-Year Player Draft, a momentous milestone for the program.
The Huskies have had a long and rich baseball tradition that tracks back eight decades, but they've only had one player -- former big leaguer Charles Nagy -- who was taken in the first round since the institution of the Draft in 1965. Now, outfielder George Springer and right-handed pitcher Matt Barnes appear to be on the fringe of changing that.
"I think we're starting to put ourselves on a national stage and people really recognize us as a good program now," Barnes said of UConn's ascencion. "When I got here, it was on its way up, and people knew that we had a chance to do some things. Predominantly, it was a basketball school, and football was starting to make a name for itself. We weren't really nationally known in baseball when I got here, but the last two years, we've definitely done a pretty good job of changing that."
UConn has gone to the College World Series just five times in its program history, and it hasn't managed to make it that far since 1979. The Huskies, ranked No. 18 in the country by Baseball America, set the team record for victories (48) last season, and they're two wins shy of winning the Big East regular-season title for the first time.
Jim Penders, who has been at the school for 19 seasons as a player and coach, isn't really sure what to make of his twin pro prospects. It's an honor, he knows, but also something that occurs outside the confines of his mission. The Draft may be an indicator of what UConn is doing right, but Penders conditions his players to reach for other goals.
"We preach to the guys that we should worry about the expectations of the 35 guys and four coaches that are inside our fences. And everything outside the fence is a potential distraction," he said Thursday before practice at J.O. Christian Field. "At the same time, it's really nice to get that kind of attention. I think it's reflective of the fact that both George and Matt have a really good work ethic, a blue-collar ethic that's present in the culture of the program. And not [one] that I've instilled.
"It's been here since 1896. The campus was begun in 1881 by a bunch of farmers who wanted to become better farmers. It's in our DNA to put the overalls on and work hard and try to get better each day."
And if that's the credo of the program, it fits especially well for both Springer and Barnes, neither of whom was a big prospect upon his arrival in Storrs. Barnes, by his own admission, didn't have much of a breaking ball his freshman year, and Springer said Thursday that he's made huge leaps physically and in the mental aspects of the game.
Springer had been a 48th-round choice of the Minnesota Twins as a high school senior, a selection that may have been tempting given the presence of the team's Double-A affiliate -- New Britain, Conn. -- in his hometown. Springer decided to attend UConn, though, and he wound up setting the school record for runs scored as both a freshman and a sophomore.
"I had no idea," Springer said of what he wanted to do. "I got an opportunity from coach Penders, and I came here on a visit in my junior year and it just felt right. I had made it a pretty known fact that I wanted to go to school, but I don't think that had too much of an impact on it. I was honest with everyone that asked me, and as an 18-year-old kid, you're thinking, 'I've got to grow physically and mentally.' ... That whole process for me in that time was something I won't forget."
Now, he stands on the fringe of becoming one of the top outfielders in the Draft, and he'll go into this weekend's series against Louisville with a .355 career batting average. Springer has been named to the All-Big East team twice -- the first team as a freshman and the second team as a sophomore -- and Penders can't help but remember their first meeting.
"He came to our camp as a 15-year-old or 16-year-old and might've been 5-foot-4 and 160 pounds soaking wet. He had a big swing for a little body," Penders said. "We put a little note next to his name -- "NP," for not a prospect. We were real geniuses. But we continued to watch him, and listened to the coaches that worked with him in the summer. He grew, and he grew well. He had great instincts, he had great athleticism, and then he got that body. And when we saw him again as a junior [in high school], he was pretty special. The ball made a different sound off his bat and he ran the bases with unbelievable instincts. He caught everything in sight and it was pretty obvious that he was going to be a hell of a player."
And that persistence -- that ability to see local players over a number of years -- might just be Connecticut's greatest asset as a program. Both Springer and Barnes are Connecticut natives, as is half the team's roster. Many college teams don't recruit New England that heavily, and the pro teams are scared off by the inconsistent nature of the prep schedule.
New England is cold indeed at the outset of the baseball season, and it stops prep players from playing year-round and being seen by scouts in great number. Penders, though, refuses to concede that as an impossible obstacle for his players to overcome, and true to his optimistic nature, he tries to turn it into a positive as much as he can.
"It's not changing," he said. "No matter how many aerosol cans we spray, global warming isn't going to help Storrs all that soon. We've got to do the best we can at selling our geography and not making excuses for it.
"From a Major League scouting perspective, if there's a kid in New England that can play, chances are that he's going to be at the University of Connecticut. Thirty Major League teams have scouts that are assigned to cover New England, and they don't get credit for signing a guy from Saskatchewan. They get credit for signing a guy from New England. We're very well scouted as a result. We can play Boston College on a Tuesday or Wednesday and have a dozen scouts behind the backstop."
Those scouts have been a constant presence around the program, and the buzz has been building all season. Springer and Barnes have known about their lofty Draft pedigree for quite some time, but they refuse to let it affect their daily behavior. There's still business to take care of the field, and neither player is in a rush to move to the next level.
"It's been brought up, but I don't really think about it because I don't really control what happens," Springer said. "I can just go out and play hard and help us win. And as long as we win, I'm happy, and whatever happens in June happens in June. As of now, it's speculation. But as a team and a program, it will be good for us. It will be a testament to see how far the program has come. We are from the Northeast, but it will basically show that us guys up here know how to play the game."
Penders, just the fifth UConn baseball coach in a chain that goes all the way back to 1924, said the team gave out 50 rosters to scouts and front-office types when it held a pro day earlier this season. Many of them were on hand to see Barnes, who has grown an inch and gained 30 pounds of muscle since enrolling at UConn three seasons ago.
Barnes, who now stands 6 feet 4 inches and weighs 210 pounds, has developed a reputation for a maniacal training regimen. Penders said he learned that in part through former Husky Tim Norton, who is pitching in the Yankees' farm system. Norton, known as "The Donkey" within the program, passed down that routine and it filtered down to Barnes.
"A lot," he said when asked how he's changed at UConn. "I've filled out in terms of my body, gained more confidence and obviously developed more pitches. ... I wasn't that big a prospect out of high school. I could throw decently hard, maybe 90 or 91 [mph], but I didn't have anything else. I wasn't surprised that I wasn't drafted and it really didn't bother me. I got to come to a good school, play for a good team and met some great guys, some great coaches. I got the college experience. It's always been my dream to play professional baseball, and the last couple years have turned it into a reality for me."
Penders regards Barnes as a scouting find for the Huskies, because they stayed on him and watched him grow though his prep years. UConn's coaches timed him at 94 mph with his fastball in high school, and after he enrolled in school, Barnes was able to improve his command through repetition and also to learn a changeup and a breaking ball.
The results came slower, but he's made a huge leap over his tenure. Barnes went from a 5.43 ERA as a freshman to a 3.92 mark as a sophomore, and went into Friday's opener against Louisville with a 9-3 record and a 1.39 ERA. Barnes, who patterns himself after Joba Chamberlain of the Yankees, said he's traveled a long route with Springer alongside him.
"We knew each other before coming to college and played on the same summer team. For the last two or three years, we've put on every uniform possible together," Barnes said. "We've played here, and we've played on the same team in Cape Cod. We came back, then we played in Cape Cod together again -- and we lived together there, too -- and then we both went and made Team USA.
"George and I are really close, and the best thing is that our relationship isn't based on baseball. We're friends regardless of what happens on the field. I'm sure it will be a little weird next year, but that's the nature of the game. After this level, it's a business, and you've got to be able to adjust to that. You've got to be able to deal with that."
Only six players in the program's history have been drafted and gone on to a big league career.
There are two current big leaguers with a UConn pedigree -- relievers Jesse Carlson of the Blue Jays and Jeff Fulchino of the Astros -- and third baseman Michael Olt was drafted in last year's supplemental round by the Rangers. But the program has never been about the players. There are only three numbers displayed along the wall at J.O. Christian Field, and they all belong to the coaching tree.
Sumner Dole started the chain in 1924, and he was replaced by Christian in 1936. Christian then worked until 1961 and was replaced by Larry Panciera, who kept the mantle until 1979. Andy Baylock -- who coached Penders and later brought him on the staff as an assistant coach -- was on campus until 2003, and the current regime took over from there.
Christian, Panciera and Baylock have their numbers on the wall, and it's not a coincidence.
"There's a lot of big shoes to fill, and it's a daily reminder to look at the three names on the wall out there," Penders said. "You've got to try to do things a little bit better each day, and at the heart of it, you've got to help young kids get to where they're going. I wanted to do that my first year as a head coach, and I thought it was appropriate. There's just a few names that are synonymous with UConn baseball, and you've got to start with those three. There's players like Walt Dropo and Charles Nagy, a few guys that belong in their company. But we're caretakers of a pretty darn successful program."
UConn has an indoor facility to allow the team to practice when the weather is prohibitive, and outside of the weather, it has all the trappings of a major athletic program. Now, all it needs is for word to travel through the state and beyond.
"The folks that are closest to the congregation are usually the last converts," Penders said. "The folks that think they know what the preacher's saying, those are the people that might remember the '80s when we were No. 1 in the Playboy rankings as a party school and not No. 1 in the US News and World Report rankings as the top public school in New England. ... The parents have to have a familiarity that works with you, not against you. I'm not going to be happy until every kid in a high school baseball program in Connecticut would die to play at UConn. We still have a lot of work to do to make that happen."
Spencer Fordin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.