NEW BRITAIN, Conn. -- Connecticut is known for college basketball, not college baseball.
Connecticut is known for producing Yankees and Red Sox fans, not producing baseball players.
Matt Barnes and George Springer are changing that perception.
Barnes is a 6-foot-4 right-hander who throws 97 mph heat. Springer is a five-tool center fielder who many scouts regard as the best college athlete in this year’s draft. Both are expected to be first-round picks on Monday (in his latest mock draft, Keith Law had Barnes going No. 10 to the Padres and Springer going No. 18 to the A’s). Both will soon have more money in their bank accounts: All 30 of last year’s first-round picks received signing bonuses in excess of $1 million.
For now, they’re still college kids, playing for their teammates and their school, the University of Connecticut. After a 41-17 regular season, the Huskies made their second straight NCAA tournament and begin regional action today against Coastal Carolina.
Barnes said he just tried focus on each game this season and not get caught up with draft rumors or what scouts may want to see. “I try not to. But it’s hard,” he said. “Anyone who says they don’t worry about the scouts might be lying. ... I just try to give my team a good start every time out. If I can do that, the rest of it will take care of itself.”
When I checked out UConn in a late April doubleheader against Georgetown, I missed seeing Barnes pitch. He had started the night before and rumor in the press box was his final pitch -- his 113th of the game -- was clocked at 97 mph. I asked a scout who had been there if that was true. He got a big grin on his face that he couldn’t repress. “That is accurate,” he said.
Barnes was undrafted out of Bethel (Conn.) High School, even though he had a good fastball. “He was a kid throwing 92-93 miles per hour his senior season but for whatever reason got missed,” said UConn coach Jim Penders. “He didn’t command it great and that may have been one of the reasons. His breaking ball was an average pitch at best but he’s developed a very good curveball, a very good slider and now a very good changeup to go with the 96-97 fastball.”
Barnes had also never seen the inside of a weight room. “I’ve gotten stronger, grown into my body. My confidence has grown a lot,” he said. He’s also worked on improving those offspeed pitches. His best pitch remains that four-seam fastball that makes scouts drool, but Barnes added a changeup to his arsenal this season, saying it’s been an effective pitch against left-handers: “I worked on that a lot last summer and it’s translated pretty well this season.”
Springer has also matured since high school. From New Britain, he was a 48th-round pick out of Avon Old Farms High School by the Twins, but even that selection was mostly done as a favor to the New Britain Rock Cats, Minnesota’s Double-A affiliate.
Springer says he’s gotten bigger, stronger and faster. A scout I talked to said Springer had a big, loopy swing in high school that he’s worked to correct. There is some worry about a backside collapse when he swings. But the scouts love the power/speed potential. “He has all the tools you look for,” said the scout, who also raved about Springer’s range in center field.
Springer says the key is focusing on the mental side of baseball. “The physical aspects about the game just come,” he said. “Now it’s all about you have to be able to accept failure. The mental side of the game has been something that the last three years my dad has preached to me, coach Penders has, my summer guys have.”
At 6-3, 200 pounds, Springer has an ideal baseball build. After hitting 18 home runs last season for UConn, he’s hit .361 with 12 home runs, 22 doubles and 31 stolen bases in 219 at-bats this spring. He also seems to have developed a skill at getting hit by pitches -- 18 times this season.
On the day I saw him, he came to the plate in the first inning and the six scouts or so in attendance moved down to the first-base line, to better analyze his swing. The right-handed Springer hits from an upright stance and I love that he goes old-school with the high socks. But, sure enough, he gets hit by a curveball.
In the third inning, the Georgetown pitcher gave him nothing but junk and Springer looked bad striking out on a slow curve, swinging from his heels and actually falling to his knee. Then in the fifth inning, the Georgetown pitcher threw Springer the only fastball he’d see all game. He didn’t miss it, drilling a low liner to left-center that just seem to rise and rise until it rocketed over the fence.
That was the power of a first-round pick.
It’s “all about seeing the ball deep and hitting the ball on a line,” Springer said after the game. “I’ve been working on getting a certain pitch to hit and if I do get that pitch, I can’t miss, because odds are I won’t get that pitch again.”
Like Springer, Barnes produced good numbers as well: 11-3, 1.12 ERA, 105/28 strikeout/walk ratio in 112 innings, and a .162 batting average allowed. The scout I talked to raved about the makeup of both players. And while scouts grade the tools, they do pay attention to the whole package. Both players politely signed autographs for fans between games of the doubleheader. Maybe a little thing, but it’s all part of the big picture.
“George is a dynamic kid with great baseball instincts and unbelievable passion to play the game,” Penders said. “He loves playing, loves everything that goes along with playing, loves being around his teammates. One of those magnetic personalities that only come along once in a great while.”
For UConn, Barnes and Springer are set to become the school’s first first-round picks since Cleveland drafted pitcher Charles Nagy with the 17th pick in 1988 (third baseman Mike Olt was a supplemental first-rounder last year by the Rangers).
It’s all part of a program on the rise. “There’s a lot of talent in our home state,” Penders says. “If we kept the best baseball players from Connecticut in Connecticut, playing at UConn for their flagship university, we wouldn’t just win Big East championships, we could win a national championship.”
Indeed, Vanderbilt third baseman Jason Espositio, from Bethany, is a possible early round selection on Monday and one of the Clemson pitchers the Huskies may face this weekend is Dominic Leone, from Norwich.
It is Clemson and Coastal Carolina on the minds of Matt Barnes and George Springer right now. But on Monday, they’ll get drafted. Soon they’ll sign a professional contract and head to the minor leagues, two more prospects with talent and major league dreams.
I’ll be keeping tabs on them. I hope they keep their love of the game, even if that trek through minors becomes difficult. And I hope they have plenty more autographs to sign in their futures.