The University of Virginia is one of college baseball’s marquee programs, making it to the College Baseball World Series in Omaha four times during the past 11 full seasons, including winning the whole thing in 2015. Despite this sterling pedigree, the program has fallen on lean times recently, including 2018-19 when the Cavaliers went 12-18 then 14-16 in ACC play, respectively. However, with a roster chock full of blue chip prospects, Coach Brian O’Connor’s squad appears poised for a comeback in 2021.
Any conversation about the top prospect in Charlottesville must start with 2022 draft eligible CF Chris Newell. A native Pennsylvanian and left-handed hitter, Newell was regarded as a 5-tool stud out of high school but with some rawness to his hit tool—not uncommon for kids from cold weather states. That said, he’s done nothing but rake since making it to school and put up an Atari-like .407/.545/.729 slash line with 4 HR and 10 XBHs in just 78 PAs prior to the pandemic. The highlight of Newell’s brief season came on March 7th, when he homered and doubled off NC State junior southpaw Nick Swiney. Swiney and his microscopic 0.7 WHIP and imposing 13.5 K/9 would later be drafted in the 2nd round by the Giants.
Newell’s more than just a one-trick pony. His speed grades out as a 70 on the 20-80 scouting scale, and he swiped eight bags in the same number of attempts last year. He boasts the range to remain in CF well into his pro career and his arm is easily a plus tool. By all accounts he’s a hard worker who’s receptive to coaching. Newell is already firmly entrenched in most Top-10 draft lists for 2022 and if he continues to improve his contact rates he could jump even higher.
The Cavaliers boast another premium 2022 talent in 6-03 lefty Nate Savino. A native of Sterling, VA, Savino made waves when he matriculated early and earned a spot on UVA’s weekend rotation as a freshman. Savino pitched like a seasoned veteran, giving up just 8 hits and striking out 10 in 10.2 IP.
Although Savino’s future looks promising, it’s a point of contention between old school scouts and the modern analytics crowd. Savino showcases a hearty fastball that creeps into the mid-90’s, as well as impressive secondary stuff; however, the spin rate on all his offerings leaves something to be desired and has him trailing Alabama’s Connor Prielipp and Florida’s Hunter Barco as the top college lefthander for 2022. Still, he’ll be uncommonly young on Draft Day 2022, he has an ideal pitcher’s build, and his slider has some interesting qualities to it—all which still point to Savino hearing his name called no later than the middle of the 1st round.
3B Zack Gelof is the 2021 draft eligible Cavalier with the best chance of hearing his name called in the 1st round next June. Much like Newell, Gelof has torched the ball since arriving on campus, posting a .321 average and .871 OPS in 346 PAs. He also slashed .349/.426/.490 as a rising sophomore in the vaunted Northwoods League, which he backed up with a .363/.442/.636 showing in a 44 AB cameo this past summer in the Coastal Plains League. Like many young hitters, Gelof still must iron out some swing-and-miss issues, but his strong BB rate and exit velocities point to a high ceiling.
Gelof has been error prone in the past; however, O’Connor believes Gelof’s athleticism will ultimately prevail and he’ll be able to remain at the hot corner. “I definitely think he projects long-term at 3B. He’s such an athletic guy that I’m confident I could put him out in CF and he’d play well,” said O’Connor.
When Gelof glances to his left this spring, he’ll see SS Nic Kent and 2B Max Cotier, one of the strongest double play combos in the nation. The 2021 draft eligible Kent, is a physical SS, who, like Gelof, has done nothing but hit as a collegiate. He put up a .337/.417/.455 slash line as a freshman in 2019 and followed that up with a sparkling .373 average in the Northwoods League. Kent has a short, simple stroke that’s currently geared more to hitting line drives, but as he matures some of those doubles could start flying over the fence. What Kent does have already is an excellent idea of the strike zone, as evidenced by his 25/23 BB/K rate in over 250 PAs between the Northwoods League and this year’s abbreviated season. On defense, Kent has good hands, but a lack of range and strong arm will likely push him across the keystone to 2B in pro ball. At this juncture, Kent is expected to come off the board in Rounds 3-5.
Cotier is an interesting player, who debuted with the Cavaliers last spring. He offers excellent defense at 2B and is particularly adept at turning the double play. His left-handed swing is flat, but he’s exceptionally quick to the ball and has no problems catching up to good velocity. He also has a good eye and should hit in the top third of the UVA order in the spring.
“We thought he was a second or third-round type of guy and with the way the draft went, we got him back. It was a shot in the arm having him back,” -Brian O'Connor, UVA Head Coach on Andrew Abbott
Shifting to Virginia’s rotation, O’Connor and his staff have to be thrilled that Griff McGarry and Andrew Abbott “escaped” the 2020 draft to return for another season. McGarry, a righthander, has an explosive arm, and his profile is enhanced by modern analytics. The California native can run his heater well into the mid-90’s and complements it with a vicious slider and curve. The spin rates on all his pitches border on elite; however, the aspect of his game he’ll need to work on is control—in 127 IP for UVA and assorted summer ball teams, McGarry has issued a staggering 113 free passes (versus an equally mind-boggling 180 strikeouts!). McGarry is a good candidate to transition into a bullpen role as a pro.
O’Connor is thrilled to have the southpaw Abbott back. “We thought he was a second or third-round type of guy and with the way the draft went, we got him back. It was a shot in the arm having him back,” remarked the 17-year coach. Although Abbott has almost exclusively been a reliever while pitching for the Cavaliers, it looks like he’ll try his hand at starting in 2021. “We stretched him out in the fall, and we expect him to play a role in our rotation in 2021,” revealed O’Connor.
Regardless which role he fills next spring, Abbott will bolster UVA’s pitching corps. Not overly imposing at 6-00/180, Abbott’s best pitch is a high-spin curveball that he’s able to tunnel with a low-90’s heater. His changeup is still a work in progress.
O’Connor has said that 2021 draft eligible Mike Vasil will also be in the running for a slot in the starting rotation. A possible 2018 1st rounder as a prep star in Boston, Vasil has been a work-in-progress since arriving in Charlottesville. Of primary concern is his drop in fastball velocity—from the mid-90’s to barely 90—and the regression of his breaking stuff. Built like a prototypical workhorse at 6-04/225, Vasil will need a big 2021 to propel him back to Day 1 consideration. Otherwise, he’d be a great candidate to once again bypass the pros and return to the Cavaliers in 2022.
As usual, Virginia in 2021 will reap the benefits of a bumper crop of freshmen, which already has O’Connor excited. He said he expects C Kyle Teel and IF Jake Gelof, Zack’s brother, to play “prominent” roles in 2021. O’Connor cited Teel’s strong summer in the Northwoods League (.740 OPS with 3 HR as an 18-year-old) as a factor that could accelerate his development. “I put a lot of stock into him playing in the Northwoods League. He did that on his own. It advances his development; it fast-forwards it a little bit. He will have opportunities behind the plate for us in 2021,” said O’Connor.