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Bearcats in the Big Leagues: Opening Day

With regular season baseball returning to our lives, let’s check in with the former Bearcats who are playing at the professional level.

MLB: Spring Training-Boston Red Sox at Detroit Tigers Douglas DeFelice-USA TODAY Sports

Baseball is back. It’s actually been back for a week, but even though the Seattle Mariners and Oakland A’s technically started the season seven days ago, this afternoon’s games mean that Major League Baseball season has returned in earnest.

This may seem like an irrelevant event for a Cincinnati Bearcats site, but longtime readers know that is not the case. Among all the rosters of MLB and minor league teams, you’ll find more than few former Bearcat ballplayers plying their trade at the professional level. We’ll be monitoring their progress throughout the season and that starts by previewing the season from a very UC-titled angle. Here is this season’s cast.

Josh Harrison

The preeminent Bearcat in the Big Leagues, Harrison had been a fixture with the Pittsburgh Pirates since making his MLB debut in 2011. However, his time with the Pirates came to a close during the offseason when he signed a one-year deal with the Detroit Tigers. The now 31-year-old utility player will be paid $2 million in 2019 and then enter the free agent market once more. That might be a perilous place to be considering the slow offseasons we’ve seen in the last few years and Harrison’s recent injury troubles, but he can only play well enough to earn another deal next winter.

That is still far off in the distance, so let’s focus more on the here and now. Harrison is a two-time All-Star who can play all over the field, but he is coming off a year where things didn’t go his way. An injury forced him off the field for extended time and he ended up playing the fewest games (97) in a season since the 2013 campaign. When he was healthy enough to play, he did little more than provide league-average production, finishing with just 0.3 wins above replacement, according to FanGraphs. His triple-slash line featured three uncharacteristically low numbers (.250/.293/.363) as he was 20 percent worse than the average hitter based on OPS+. An incremental increase in his strikeout rate and drop in walk rate clearly took a toll on his production, but he still got the barrel on the ball pretty frequently, with a 32.9 percent hard hit rate, which is actually more than three percent better than his career mark.

On a rebuilding Tigers team, Harrison probably won’t be a key contributor to a contending team, but he’ll have plenty of opportunity to put last year behind him and return to the form he displayed when he was a three-win player, on average, for the Pirates from 2014 to 2017.

Ian Happ

During the last two seasons, Happ played a 257 games and logged 875 plate appearances with the Chicago Cubs. As he enters his age-23 season, Happ is being asked to work on his game a bit more in the minors. That has to be a difficult decision to deal with as a player, especially since Happ has flashed some real ability in his time with the Cubs. He has mashed 39 home runs in the last two seasons, including 24 as a rookie. His career isolated power mark is actually in line with that of All Star teammate Anthony Rizzo.

However, Happ was essentially a league-average hitter last season (100 OPS+) and his 36.1 percent strikeout rate illustrated that he can still make meaningful adjustments to his swing. In addition, after hitting a home run on 25.3 percent of his fly balls in 2017, he did so on only 17.9 percent in 2018. Happ’s potential relies heavily on his ability to hit for power, so regression in that area, along with so-so defense, ultimately led back to the minors. He’ll get back to the big league club soon enough, but for now there is work to do.

Connor Walsh

Walsh is a right-handed reliever who is still making his way through the minors. He has been going in the wrong direction recently, however. After reaching the Triple-A level with the Charlotte Knights in 2017, Walsh began last season in Double-A with the Birmingham Barons. For someone who struck out batters like Walsh did (41 in 28 23 innings), he didn’t miss many bats, allowing 46 hits, including six home runs, before eventually being sent down to pitch in Single-A advanced with the Winston-Salem Dash. Walsh found more success with the Dash, carving his opponent batting average down to .214 from .346 while posting 38 strikeouts in 26 23 innings. Walsh is still listed on the Dash’s roster as of now, so we’ll see how the season progresses.

Ryan Atkinson

Atkinson has been stuck in Double-A the last two seasons after a relatively swift ascent through rookie ball and Single-A. He only pitched seven games for the Jackson Generals during 2017, but did well enough to earn a rotation spot last year. Across 29 appearances, including 20 starts, he posted a 5-11 record and 4.79 ERA while striking out 123 batters in 109 total innings. Like Walsh, his struggles came with keeping batters he didn’t strike out from reaching base (1.43 WHIP), so that will be the area he needs to work on this season.

Ryan Noda

Noda is a fairly well thought of prospect in the Toronto Blue Jays’ system. Last season with Single-A Lansing he hit 20 home runs and drove in 80 runs while slashing .256/.421/.484, which earned him a spring training invite. He’s still probably far away from reaching the majors, as he is still listed on the Lansing Lugnuts’ roster, but things can and should change into the summer.

Manny Rodriguez

Following an incredible senior season with the Bearcats in 2018, Rodriguez was drafted in the 10th round of the MLB draft by the New York Mets. From there he played 51 games with the Single-A Brooklyn Cyclones and slashed .236/.298/.339 with 12 extra base hits in 174 at-bats.

Cam Alldred

Alldred also parlayed a promising 2018 season with the Bearcats into a chance at playing professionally. The 24th-round draft pick pitched to a 1.80 ERA in 30 innings across two levels in the Pittsburgh Pirates’ system.

J.T. Perez

Perez was UC’s ace in 2018 and although he didn’t end up getting drafted, he wound up in the Minnesota Twins’ minor league system, throwing 21 23 innings with a 4.57 ERA in rookie ball, ultimately finishing the campaign with the Elizabethton Twins.

Connor McVey

McVey also went undrafted but played in 27 games with 82 at-bats across two levels of rookie ball in the Milwaukee Brewers’ system.