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In the final days of MLB Spring Training, former Virginia talents rise

Former Cavaliers, both seasoned veterans and young hopefuls, are fighting to make their respective clubs ahead of the 2024 MLB season

<p>&nbsp;Cavalier fans are sure to have a packed viewing schedule as they continue to cheer on their prodigal sons.&nbsp;</p>

 Cavalier fans are sure to have a packed viewing schedule as they continue to cheer on their prodigal sons. 

This month, students have begun to find themselves entrenched in the spirit of spring on Grounds, whether it is an afternoon spent throwing a football on the Lawn or simply enjoying the flowers newly sprouting from trees. For sports fans across the globe, however, the new colors and warm temperatures mean another equally bright and enthralling event — MLB Opening Day. This prospect is especially exciting for fans of Virginia baseball — Cavalier alums from the past decade are fighting far and wide to prove to their respective organizations that they are capable of either remaining in or climbing to the heights of the big leagues.

For current University students, the Gelof legacy at Disharoon Park may begin and end with Jake, the program’s career home run leader. For some older students and young alumni, however, the rearview mirror may be able to reveal a glimpse of the elder Gelof brother, Zack, who is beginning to make a name for himself as a rising star in the big leagues.

Following a rookie season that saw Zack Gelof hit a respectable .267 while crushing 14 home runs and stealing 14 bases, it is clear that the bright future of a lowly Oakland Athletics squad will revolve around him at second base for years to come. As for the beginning of this season, Gelof is well on his way to taking the next step at the big league level, hitting .357 and adding on four home runs in 42 at-bats.

As for the younger Jake Gelof, he has yet to make a name for himself amongst the biggest and brightest in baseball’s prospect universe. After being taken by the Dodgers as the 60th overall pick in last year’s draft, the brawny third baseman led a respectable short campaign with Single-A Rancho Cucamonga. 

In the minor levels of the Dodgers organization, Gelof hit six home runs and brought runners home at an impressive clip, gathering 27 RBIs in 133 at-bats, albeit with a measly .226 batting average. With just three at-bats recorded this spring, he has yet to record a hit.

The Cavaliers’ list of MLB products last year was also headlined by catcher Kyle Teel, and it is fair to say that he is climbing the ladder far faster than his third base counterpart. The prodigious batting talent was the 14th selection in last summer’s MLB Draft, going to the Boston Red Sox, and he gave credence to his perceived high ceiling by collecting a .363 batting average to go with two home runs and 22 RBIs across rookie ball, High-A and Double-A. 

Although Teel was also hitless in two at-bats for the Red Sox down in Florida for Spring Training, he was recently named to the all-league First Team during the inaugural Spring Breakout games, a chance for each team’s most touted prospects to showcase their skills within their own cohort. Teel went two-for-two with a run batted in in a 8-2 victory against the Atlanta Braves’ prospect squad. 

From a pitching perspective, Coach Brian O’Connor and his staff have plenty to be proud of when watching some of the talent they have been able to produce, as former Cavalier workhorses are continuing to prove their talent on the biggest stages. 

For one player in particular, this spring is not just a chance to work out any kinks in his arm for another arduous season, but also a chance to look back on a career-defining moment. Josh Sborz of the Texas Rangers — a Cavalier from 2013 to 2015 — found himself in a position to end the season with a World Series victory for his squad. He did just that, striking out the Arizona Diamondbacks’ Ketel Marte to bring the Rangers their first victory in the Fall Classic. 

Andrew Abbott — playing for Virginia from 2018 to 2021 — has followed a very similar trajectory to that of Sborz, though he has failed so far in his hope to build on what could be deemed a very impressive showing last year. After stops in Double-A Charlotte and Triple-A Nashville, Abbott finally got the call to join the Cincinnati Reds in 2023 and he quickly showed a glimpse of what the up-and-coming squad could have in their arsenal for the foreseeable future.

He put up an 8-6 record with a sub-four ERA in 21 starts with Cincinnati last season in an impressive display of longevity for a rookie arm. Things are not off to the same gleaming start this year, however, as he currently holds an inflated 7.88 ERA across just eight innings of work. Although he likely has a spot in the Reds’ opening day roster, he certainly isn’t doing himself any favors as of yet.

Two of the Cavaliers’ most prized young talents found themselves on a squad that made the World Series and found themselves on the losing end of former teammate Sborz’ late-game heroics. First baseman Pavin Smith and right fielder Jake McCarthy are both searching for their first glances at real success at the game’s highest level in the deserts of Arizona. 

For Smith, last season was ultimately one to forget as far as personal accomplishments are concerned. He found himself below the Mendoza line with just seven home runs and 30 RBIs to show for it, and that was when he was free from the glum confines of Triple-A Reno. So far, the 2024 season is not looking up for Smith either, as he is currently batting at a slightly better clip of .282 with three RBIs in an uncertain sample size of 39 at-bats. 

McCarthy is in a similar position, although he found particular success in one aspect of his game last year while with Arizona. His numbers didn’t jump off the paper, except for an impressive 26 stolen bases out of 30 attempts. This spring, he is nearly sure to be slotted into the Diamondbacks’ starting lineup come their opening series against the Colorado Rockies later this month. 

The slate of former Cavaliers with big league pedigree is not just reserved for youngsters, and there is none more glaring than the case of the Dodgers’ utility player Chris Taylor. A truly seasoned veteran at this stage, Taylor has found himself a key figure in his team’s success for nearly a decade. Although his proficiency at the plate shows signs of decline — evidenced by a .237 batting average last season — he still holds a lot of what has made him a special player, including deceptive power with the bat and a keen eye for aggressive baserunning. 

Taylor compiled 15 home runs last year to go along with 16 stolen bases in 117 games. Although there is a swath of young talent emerging through Los Angeles’ system, particularly at the middle infield positions, Taylor’s spot in this roster is etched in stone and his role as a utility player will be highly valued as they look to make another postseason run. Back in 2011, Taylor played a crucial role in Virginia’s trip to the College World Series. 

In one of the more interesting turns of events this spring, Cavalier great and long-time closer Sean Doolittle has found his home in a new role. Retiring after a career that earned him a World Series ring with the Washington Nationals and 112 saves to boot, he will now work as a pitching strategist in Washington and will continue to be in a big league dugout in 2024. 

With all these storylines and plenty more making their way through the many stages of affiliated baseball, Cavalier fans are sure to have a packed viewing schedule as they continue to cheer on their prodigal sons, no matter how far they stray from lovely afternoons at Disharoon Park. 

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