In many ways, the Opitz family is both Colorado sports royalty and Heritage’s first family of baseball. But they’re still looking for their first big-leaguer.
Jake (33 years old), Shane (28) and Casey (21) all starred at the school, where their parents met at a baseball game in 1979. All three were drafted out of Heritage. Jake played at Nebraska and reached Triple-A with the Phillies, and Shane reached Triple-A with the Blue Jays.
Now, the family’s last shot at the majors comes with Casey. A two-year starter at Arkansas, the switch-hitting catcher is projected to be selected in the five-round MLB draft on Wednesday.
“I sure hope this is the greatest Opitz to come, because neither one of us older brothers could crack the big leagues,” said Jake, the manager for the rookie-league Grand Junction Rockies. “So, it’s on him now. But he’s got a unique skill-set and he’s maybe the best catcher in the country. He’s just unbelievable behind the plate, and that, along the adjustments he’s made in his switch-hitting, is going to take him a long way.”
Casey began switch-hitting at about 10 years old, which was around the same time he converted to catcher from middle infield. The positional change had then-Heritage coach Scott Hormann initially unsettled — until he got to witness firsthand the prowess of the youngest Opitz behind the plate.
“I knew I had a pro player before he even came to high school just because of his brothers, but when Jake, Shane and (dad) Jeff decided to turn him into a catcher, I was like, ‘I don’t know, guys — he’d be the best shortstop this school would ever see, or the best second baseman,’” Hormann said. “But it was very obvious by his sophomore year that I had on my hands the best defensive catcher I’ve ever been around (at the prep level).”
Those defensive skills translated to the SEC. As a freshman Casey served as a backup on the Razorbacks’ national runner-up team, and was the primary catcher last season as the school made another College World Series appearance. This spring, as a junior, he was named to the watch list for the Buster Posey National Collegiate Catcher of the Year.
“As far as catching and handling a pitching staff, he’s about as good as it gets at this level,” Arkansas head coach Dave Van Horn said. “Offensively, he’s also made a lot of the strides the last couple years, and he’s put on some good weight and gotten stronger.”
After slashing .235/.370/.290 as a sophomore, the 5-foot-11 Casey hit the weight room and put on about 25 pounds last offseason. Those gains, in conjunction with a more aggressive approach in the box, had the 21-year-old slashing .302/.361/.509 through 16 games as a junior before the NCAA season was canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“He had his struggles in 2018, and people like to focus on that, but at the same time that was a 170-pound kid playing in the best conference in the world,” said Shane, who was an assistant coach this spring at Northern Colorado. “He still did a (heck) of a job and helped lead his team to the College World Series. And so this year, all of a sudden that 170-pound kid is 195 and he’s getting the bat through the zone quicker, he’s being more aggressive.”
Jake said he’s “heard a lot of interest” from various teams in Casey, although nothing on the Rockies’ front. Even if Casey isn’t selected in an immensely shortened draft that normally runs 40 rounds, the catcher can repeat his junior year at Arkansas in 2021 if he wants, per the NCAA’s granting of an extra year of eligibility due to the pandemic.
‘With the rule change where guys get the year back, it’s always good to have that in my back pocket in case something changes,” Casey said. “But right now, I’m ready to take the next step in my career.”
The silver lining to all the current uncertainty and Casey’s canceled season at Arkansas, where the Razorbacks were primed for a third straight trip to Omaha, is the time the three brothers have been afforded to spend together. Not since Jake was in high school has the trio been able to indulge in the game with each other on a regular basis. Over the last several months, they’ve been lifting in the gym in Shane’s basement and then hitting at Coach Hormann’s facility.
All the while, Casey continues to soak in the wisdom of two ex-ballplayers who want to see him succeed more than anyone.
“They sprinkle in advice whenever they can,” Casey said. “They’ve been teaching me since I picked up a bat and glove the first time; prepping me for high school ball, college ball, minor league ball, the whole process. Everything from baseball to life, I’ve learned from them… It was hard to see my college season get taken away, but it’s awesome I’m going through the final stages of this (draft) process with the brothers who have pushed me since the start.”