With the Super Bowl now in the rearview mirror, baseball fans are already turning their attention to the beginning of the 2023 Major League Baseball season. By Thursday, pitchers and catchers for all 30 clubs would have reported to their respective sites, with position players scheduled to follow just a few days later. It’s only a matter of time before fans will be able to tune back in to watch their favorite players as they go head-to-head with other stars around the diamond, as Spring Training games will commence just next Friday.
With a new campaign on baseball just on the horizon, a few former Huskies will be tasked with ramping up their baseball activity in preparation for the season. Connecticut has had plenty of success producing Major League talent over the last several years. Two years ago, in the 2021 MLB Draft, UConn saw five active players, plus two commits, be selected by a professional club. Last year, Hook C bid farewell to Reggie Crawford, Austin Peterson, Patrick Gallagher, Casey Dana and Matt Donlan after all five were added to their respective team’s rosters.
Although Connecticut has done a tremendous job producing professional talent on a yearly basis, it could be some time before we see these players suit up for their new teams given the time it typically takes prospects to rise through the ranks of the minor leagues. That does not mean that UConn won’t go without representation in Spring Training or throughout the regular season; a few household names have continued to represent the Huskies on the biggest stage that baseball has to offer while becoming veterans of the sport and leaders in the locker room.
George Springer, Outfielder, Toronto Blue Jays
The 2023 season will be Springer’s 10th year at the Major League level, and the 33-year-old has shown little sign of slowing down. The New Britain native was an All-Star for the fourth time in his career last year, a season in which he compiled a batting average of .267 coupled with an on-base percentage of .342 and a slugging percentage of .472. Along the way, he smacked 25 home runs and tallied 76 runs batted while swiping 14 stolen bases from the top spot in the Blue Jays’ lineup.
Despite the impressive statistics that he tallied last season, 2022 was an injury-riddled year for Springer as he continued to deal with visible pain in his arm. Recently, Springer had a bone spur removed from his right elbow and reiterated to members of the media on Tuesday that “it feels good to feel good.” Although he himself has felt signs of improvement, the Blue Jays are being careful with their star outfielder and are considering moving him from center field to right field in order to reduce the wear-and-tear on his body. The newly acquired Kevin Kiermaier will likely man center field, though Springer himself believes that his fast style of play is what makes him a natural center fielder: “I don’t necessarily play a very slow style of game,” he told media on Tuesday. “I play aggressive. I like to run. I play fast. [Right field] is just different.” While he may not get to play his position of preference, the most positive development is that Springer will still be able to catch fly balls and get an opportunity to hit while preserving his health for later in the season.
After being swept in the Wild Card round of last season’s playoffs, Toronto will hope to flip the narrative and compete for a championship in the immediate future. When the Blue Jays initially signed Springer in January 2021, expectations for the team grew dramatically as fans and media alike recognized that Toronto possessed the talent to compete for a World Series title. However, the team has yet to take the next step, making the postseason just once in the two years since and failing to register a playoff win. A former member of the Houston Astros, a team with which he experienced much success with, Springer will once again be expected to take on a leading role in the Blue Jays’ locker room as the team tries to capture similar success.
Matt Barnes, Relief Pitcher, Miami Marlins
It’s been a roller coaster of a ride for Barnes over the last several seasons. Initially drafted in 2011 by the Boston Red Sox, Barnes made his Major League debut in 2014 and had been a staple in Boston’s bullpen for the subsequent seasons. In 2021, Barnes was elevated from a middle-innings reliever to his team’s closer, taking on the responsibilities of a pitcher who is expected to close the door on a tight ballgame routinely. Initially, Barnes thrived in the role, earning himself a contract extension and a spot on that year’s American League All-Star game. However, the wheels quickly fell off of the wagon for Barnes in Boston, as last year the veteran tallied a 4.31 earned run average to go with 34 strikeouts and 21 walks over 39.2 innings of actions. He was designated for assignment by Boston over the offseason and subsequently traded to the Marlins, making this Spring Training Barnes’ first outside of the Red Sox organization.
A few fans thought that Miami was a team that was up-and-coming following their impressive showing in the COVID-shortened 2020 that saw the rebuilding team finish over .500 with a 31-29 record. Unfortunately, the team has fallen back into its old losing habits the last two years, first going 67-95 in ‘21 before following up with a 69-93 mark last year. The team has a young piece that it can build around in last year’s National League Cy Young Award winner Sandy Alcántara, and though the team added to its offense during the offseason with players such as Luis Arraez and Jean Segura, it remains unclear if the team has truly added enough talent to compete for a Wild Card spot. For now, Barnes looks poised to take on a role similar to the one that he had for the first several seasons of his career: a middle-innings reliever with a strong repertoire. Whether he can play consistently will dictate how much playing time Barnes receives in 2023.
Nick Ahmed, Infielder, Arizona Diamondbacks
2023 will be an important season for Ahmed, as the 10-year veteran’s contract will expire at the season’s conclusion, making him a free agent. The shortstop was limited to only 17 games last season, in which he managed to bat 12-for-52 (.231 BA) along with three homers and seven RBIs. As it stands, Ahmed’s main competition for the starting shortstop position will be 23-year-old Geraldo Perdomo, who himself slashed an unimpressive .195 with only five home runs in 148 games last season in Ahmed’s place. Arizona infield prospect Jordan Lawlar is also a natural shortstop and is the Diamondbacks’ long-term plan at the position, though the team has no real reason to rush the young stud to the big leagues. After proving to be consistent talent on both sides of the ball prior to two injury-riddled seasons, Ahmed has the opportunity to slide right back in as Arizona’s starting shortstop and run away with the position this spring.
The Diamondbacks finished fourth in the NL West last year with a record of 74-88, and though the team added several veteran pieces over the offseason and anticipate it’s young minor leaguers to reach the majors in the near-future, there’s not many expected this team to make a major leap in 2023. The team will still have to contend with the Los Angeles Dodgers and the San Diego Padres in their own division, two powerhouse teams expected to be among the final NL teams alive towards the end of the postseason this October. Though not many eyes will be on Arizona, Ahmed will look to rebuild his value and reestablish himself as a Gold Glove-caliber defender and contact machine at the plate. He’ll hope that his performance will lead to him cashing in on a new contract this next offseason, and a strong start to Spring Training could go a long way in helping him accomplish that goal.