The 19th overall pick in the 2011 draft, right-handed pitcher Matt Barnes is on the precipice of making his professional debut with the Greenville Drive on Easter Sunday. A native of Bethel, Conn., Barnes is already considered a top-10 prospect in the Red Sox system, and one who projects as a middle-of-the-rotation starter at the major league level. Starting as a tee-baller in a small New England town, he has had an interesting road to get to the professional ranks.
“I started baseball at a young age, five or six – I played tee-ball, little league, middle school, high school, the whole nine yards,” said Barnes. “I played soccer when I was really young too, and I attempted freshman football, but it wasn’t really my thing. My second love for a sport is basketball; I played that for seven or eight years through to varsity.”
After a very successful prep career in which he won All-Division, All-Conference and All-State honors as a senior for Bethel High School, Barnes was not drafted. He opted to play ball at the University of Connecticut, a team that was not considered a top-tier program at the time, but was indeed heading in that direction.
“I went into my freshman year at UConn with a lot of other great players. I started off as a midweek starter for them, and I would relieve on the weekends,” said Barnes, who went 5-3 with a 5.43 ERA in his freshman campaign.
In his sophomore season, Barnes became a weekend starter, posting an 8-3 record with a 3.92 ERA. He became the Friday starter in his junior season, going 11-5 with a 1.93 ERA and 117 strikeouts in 121 innings. He attributes a lot of his success to his Huskies teammates.
“We had a ton of talent,” said the right-hander. “When you look back, we had three first-rounders, a second rounder, and another six guys drafted between Rounds 10 and 20 over a two-year period.”
Among those players were George Springer, an outfielder selected 11th overall by Houston in 2011; Nick Ahmed, a shortstop drafted by Atlanta in the second round in 2011; and third baseman Mike Olt, who was picked 49th overall by Texas in 2010. Like Barnes, Springer and Olt grew up in Connecticut, while Ahmed comes from East Longmeadow, Mass., just minutes over the Connecticut border.
“I credit Coach [Jim] Penders and the coaching staff there for doing a good job of keeping the guys in state,” said Barnes. “Despite what many people think, people in the Northeast can play baseball. It’s just a little harder dealing with the weather and things of that nature. Keeping the in-state players at UConn really just kind of jumped us up to the next level.”
Early in his college career, Barnes and his teammates began garnering the attention of professional scouts.
“I went to the Cape Cod League after my freshman year, and that was when I really started to get some attention,” said Barnes. “Then I went back to UConn, and we obviously had some pretty highly touted guys. I was just able to take advantage of scouts coming to see guys like Mike Olt and Pierre LePage. I was fortunate enough to have some good outings when some scouts were there. Then when I played on Team USA, that’s when it really kind of took off.”
Barnes was selected for the prestigious Team USA collegiate team in the summer of 2010. While an assignment to Team USA in and of itself generally puts a players at the top of the radar with pro scouts, it didn’t hurt that Barnes went 3-0 with a 1.42 ERA in four appearances during his time with the team.
“Playing for Team USA was something I’m never going to forget. When you get the chance to put USA on your chest every day, and you go out and hear the national anthem, it kind of means a little more when you’re representing your country,” said Barnes. “Some people can think that maybe it gets a little tedious having to hear it every single day, but when you actually have that uniform on, you kind of know what it stands for. Just being able to do that, to meet all the high-prospect guys in my class, and to be able to play and build relationships with them, that was fun.”
In his junior season at UConn, the Red Sox didn’t hide their interest in the Connecticut right-hander.
“I learned that Boston was interested when I started seeing Theo Epstein at my games,” said Barnes. “Once the general manager of the club comes and sees you a few times, you kind of just instinctively assume that they’re pretty interested in you.”
Projected to go in the middle of the first round, it wasn’t a surprise that Boston picked him at No. 19 overall.
“I found out I got drafted by the Red Sox when I was on the field. We were playing that Monday night in Clemson, it was a winner-take-all for the NCAA regional. It was early in the game, my parents were there, they were watching on a computer. They yelled down to me in the middle of the game that I had been drafted by the Sox.”
While it wasn’t a surprise, it still might have been slightly jarring, as Barnes was raised a Yankees fan, and came from a family of “hard-core” Yankees fans. He and his family have all since become Red Sox fans, with one holdout.
“Everyone has converted except for my uncle. He’s a diehard Yankees fan. But at least he’ll be rooting for the Red Sox every fifth day,” said Barnes. “For me, I’m just happy that somebody’s willing to give me the opportunity to play professional baseball. It didn’t matter if it was the Yankees, the Red Sox, the Orioles, or the Padres. Just having the opportunity that I have to play professional baseball for a living, it doesn’t matter who the team is as long as I get a chance to play.”
Despite being drafted in early June, Barnes still didn’t sign with the Red Sox until minutes before midnight on Aug. 15, the draft signing deadline. He received a $1,500,000 signing bonus, which is essentially slot for the 19th overall pick, leaving many fans to wonder why he simply didn’t sign right after the draft. But it turns out that it wasn’t his call.
“I gave them a ballpark number before the draft, but we had very minimal contact over the entire summer, until maybe a week before the deadline,” said Barnes. “I talked to them the day before the deadline, and my agent talked to them as well, and they didn’t want to do anything. We just kind of sat around until quarter to midnight [on Aug. 15], and then squeezed two months' worth of negotiations into 10 minutes.”
Many draftees have experienced similar needless delays in recent years, prompting the owners and the players’ union to agree to push the signing deadline up from Aug. 15 to early July starting this season.
After signing with the Red Sox, Barnes spent two weeks in Lowell to get acclimated to pro ball and went on a throwing program. He didn’t throw an inning for Lowell, largely due to the fact that he had already thrown 116 2/3 innings with UConn earlier in the season. From there, Barnes went to the Fall Instructional League, where he threw just two innings, and then spent the offseason strictly adhering to Boston’s strength and conditioning program. He then reported to spring training in the middle of February.
“When I got to camp, I started throwing off a mound, maybe 60-70 pitches at a time,” said Barnes. “It was a bit different than college, where the games actually start in the middle of February. Other than that, and getting used to the five-man rotation, it’s pretty similar.”
The 21-year-old appeared in his first spring training game on March 23, looking solid in two innings of work. He was able to work in his curveball, a few changeups, and got his fastball up to 94-96 mph.
“My curveball wasn’t as good as it could have been, but obviously it’s still early. I just need to get more repetition and work with it. I was happy with the changeup, and I was exceptionally happy with the velocity and command of my fastball,” said Barnes following the outing.
Looking forward to 2012, expect Barnes to follow a similar plan to the path that Anthony Ranaudo followed in 2011. Assuming he stays healthy and pitches to his abilities, he’ll likely make about 10 starts with Greenville with the hopes of a promotion to High-A Salem in or around June. If all goes according to plan, Barnes would land in Double-A Portland this time next year.
“The biggest goal I have for 2012 is to go out and be as consistent as possible. I think if I can consistently have a good outing every time out and give my team a chance to win the game, at the end of the day that’s all you can do.”
From a scouting point of view, Barnes’ areas of development include staying consistent with his fastball command, keeping his mechanics balanced and continuing to refine his secondary pitches. With the right refinements, he could develop into a second or third starter for a first-division club.
Barnes is slated to make his professional debut at home for Greenville against Lakewood on Sunday at 4:05 pm. His family will be in the stands, uncle included, rooting for the Red Sox affiliate.