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CBD Column: Thoughts from UConn Scout Day

On Friday, the Connecticut Huskies returned to J.O. Christian field for the first time since mid-May for the annual UConn Baseball Scout Day. Coming off a 31-27-1 season, which ended in a Big East Tournament loss to USF, the 2013 Huskies will have many young players who are poised to compete for starting jobs. Head Coach Jim Penders, who notched his 300th win in 2012, returns to the helm for his 10th season and will be faced with many questions about how he will integrate the new class of freshman into the mix. ­­

Some of the notable players who will not be returning to the Huskies include C Joe Pavone (Graduation), 1B Ryan Fuller (Free agent contract with ARI), P David Fischer (drafted by the Nationals) and P Scott Oberg (drafted by the Rockies). Luckily for Coach Penders, star 2B LJ Mazzilli did not agree to terms with the Minnesota Twins after being drafted in the 9th round in the 2012 draft and will be returning to anchor the Huskies lineup. Although it is very early in the process of preparing for next season, here are 3 storylines to monitor in the upcoming months:

1. Who will get the starting nod behind the plate? – With the departures of starting catcher Joe Pavone and his backup, Alex DeBellis, UConn is faced with the challenge of naming a primary backstop. Connor David, who played in 25 games last season as a freshman (recording 13 starts), is the in the mix, although there is speculation that he could be moved to first base over the offseason. David was seen taking ground balls and cutoff throws from the outfielders at first base and displayed good instincts and a very strong throwing arm. Two freshmen, Bobby Melley and Max McDowell, figure to be in a spirited competition for a potential starting job. Melley, a 6’3” 210 lb BC High School graduate, showed good power during his high school career and impressed on Friday, spraying the ball all over the field during batting practice. McDowell, who graduated from Norwin High School, comes in at 6’1” 188 LBs. He had an excellent senior season at Norwin, completing the year with a .591 OBP and driving in 19 runs. If David ultimately does make a position change the freshmen will be thrown into the mix immediately, something I’m sure both guys are very excited about.

2. Which version of Brian Ward will we see in 2013?- Entering the 2012 season there was quite the buzz about the rotation of the Huskies, a lot of which was centered around left-hander Brian Ward. In 2011, Ward posted a 6-1 record with a 3.28 ERA in 60.1 innings as a freshman. Unfortunately, last year, amid all the hype, Ward was unable to build upon his great freshman year and ended the season with a 3-5 record and a 5.57 ERA in 53.1 innings. Ward was supposed to return to the Bourne Braves of the Cape League for his second summer in CCBL but decided against pitching before the official rosters were announced. Ward looked confident on Friday, hitting his spots, with a fastball velocity sitting from 87-88 MPH. If Ward is able to regain his prior form and help fellow southpaw Anthony Marzi hold down the top of the rotation, Connecticut could be looking at a very formidable list of weekend starters.

3. How will the Huskies remedy the situation at 3B? If you watched the Huskies last season you would know that 3B became a defensive liability. Freshman Jon Testani, who began the season in the outfield because of injuries, was placed into the starting role and struggled with the glove. Testani posted a .761 fielding percentage and did not seem comfortable at the hot corner often letting the ball play him instead of being assertive. Testani’s strong bat made it hard to take him out of the lineup while the other 3B on the roster, Mike Friel, struggled at the plate posting a .206 average. On Friday, scouts saw Testani taking balls from right field and displaying a very strong and accurate arm. The Huskies also have freshman SS Vinny Sienna from Amity High School, who may potentially end up in the mix at third since junior SS Tom Verdi had a solid season last year and looks to keep a lock on his position. Coach Penders will have some difficult decisions to make in the offseason and third base is definitely one of them.

Amid the questions, there are many positive things that should have UConn fans excited about the 2013 season. Some of the big names and contributors from last year are back and looking to improve even more on their impressive 2012 campaigns. The 3 UConn Players that I believe will help the team the most in 2013 are:

1. Senior 2B LJ Mazzilli – Clearly the best position player on the field, Mazzilli was drafted in the 9th round by the Twins but decided against signing and is back for a final season in Storrs. Mazzilli has an exceptional bat, leading the team in average (.339), home runs (9) and RBI (38) last season. He signed late in the summer with the Bourne Braves and impressed coaches and players from around the nation with an offensive show in the Cape League playoffs. Mazzilli knocked in 12 runs in 5 games, including 2 HR, against the very talented pitching staffs of Cotuit and Wareham. He will be the anchor of the Huskies lineup and his teammates will be counting on him to duplicate his fantastic 2012 run. Mazzilli is a difference maker in the lineup and projects to have another big year and improve his status for the 2013 draft.

2. Junior P Anthony Marzi – The 6’1” lefthander enters the offseason with lofty expectations for his 2013 campaign. Marzi was the rock of the rotation last year posting a 2.55 ERA with 64 K and 20 BB in 98 innings. Scouts were eager to see Marzi throw a mound session, but unfortunately Coach Penders opted to keep him in the dugout, citing the heavy workload that Marzi shouldered the past spring. He projects to come in as the ace of the staff, and all indications are that the coaches believe he can improve even more upon his breakout season.

3. RS Senior CF Billy Ferriter – The catalyst of the offense, Ferriter returns for his senior year with the goal of keeping away the injury bug that has hindered him in the past. A speedy leadoff hitter, he was able to post a .319 average in 238 ABs and swiped 24 bags in 29 attempts. Ferriter’s ability to put pressure on opposing pitchers is of great importance, especially when he has hitters like Tom Verdi and LJ Mazzilli hitting behind him. Ferriter also plays good defense aided by his speed which allows him to range to balls that look like they are headed for the gaps. If Ferriter can set the table and get on base for the heart of the Huskies’ lineup, the offense should be primed to have a big year. His experience as a senior will be important to help groom younger outfielders, like sophomore Eric Yavarone, who had a nice freshman year and is looking to build upon that. Ferriter’s teammates will be looking to him to set a strong example and be the leader that he was in 2012.

One final development that I will be keeping my eye on, is the transition for Carson Cross from a reliever to a starting pitcher. Cross was one of the most dependable arms in the Huskies pen, allowing just 5 ER in 37.1 innings. Cross, intimidating on the mound with his 6’5” stature has a live fastball with good movement that was sitting from 88-90 MPH on Friday. This move has a lot of potential to bolster the rotation although it must be noted that Cross’ transition, along with the departure of Scott Oberg leaves the Huskies’ pen with the challenge of replacing the production of their top two arms.

Overall, Jim Penders has himself a team that is full of potential, with a balanced combination of new players and previous leadership. I’m confident that by the time the Huskies step onto the field in chilly Storrs this March, they will have a team that is ready to compete and hungry to prove to the Big East that they are for real.