Monday, April 20, 2015

Spring training roster almost complete

Tanner Mathis

With the Frontier League's annual open tryout and draft only one week away, the Wild Things' spring training roster is almost complete.

On the Frontier League website, under the league and transactions tabs, recently listed were several roster moves made by the Wild Things. Another player from last year's team, pitcher Aaron Newcomb, was placed on the suspended list and left-handed relief pitcher Chris O'Hare was given his outright release.

Washington has signed right-handed pitchers John Bengard, Ben Carlson, Tim Giel, Kyle Vazquez, Tyler Wilson, third baseman Sam Mende and outfielders Chris Knott and Tanner Mathis. The club, however, has announced only the signings of Bengard, Carlson, Knott and Mathis. Here is a quick capsule rundown of the eight newcomers:

Bengard - Bengard was a very good pitcher at California Baptist -- that's the school California University recently beat to win the NCAA Division II women's basketball national championship -- then was drafted by the Chicago White in the 30th round in 2013 and spent two years in affiliated ball. Was used strictly as a reliever by the White Sox. He was 2-0 and saved eight games in rookie ball last year.

Carlson - Played at Furman University and was a 40th round draft pick of the Los Angeles Angels. Pitched better than what you would expected from a 40th rounder. He was 7-3 with 24 saves in two seasons, including 3-2 with a 2.70 ERA and 14 saves for Burlington of the Class A Midwest League. Those are numbers that usually keep you in affiliated ball.

Giel - The only WPIAL product of the group. Played at Shady Side Academy and then in the Ivy League at Columbia University. He is the second Columbia grad to be signed by the Wild Things. The first was Matt Buckmiller in 2003 (I'll have to revisit Buckmiller's brief stay in Washington because it provided my favorite story of all the people who played for the Wild Things). Giel is from Gibsonia and was a nondrafted free agent by the New York Yankees in 2013. He played two years in the organization, including last year at Staten Island, where his manager was former Wild Things catcher Mario Garza. Played summer ball in the Cape Cod League. Was a standout athlete in three sports at Shady Side Academy.

Vazquez - Is the player the Wild Things received from Sioux Falls of the American Association in the trade that sent Shawn Blackwell to the Canaries. An older guy by Frontier League standards, Vazquez will turn 27 in June. He was a teammate the last two years of new Wild Things pitching coach Ben Moore. Played at Franklin Pierce, a Division II powerhouse in New Hampshire and was drafted by the San Francisco Giants in 2012. Was both a starter and reliever in the Giants' system and had nine saves in 2009 but was released after the season. Pitched the last two years in independent ball and was only 8-14 with an ERA of more than 5.00 both seasons. The teams he played on, however, were lousy, finishing a combined 50 games under .500.

Wilson - With the Wild Things not announcing this signing and the player having a somewhat common name, I'm guessing about which this Tyler Wilson is. I'm thinking he's a pitcher who played college ball at Tennessee Wesleyan, the same school that produced Al Yevoli. Wilson had some walk issues last year at Tennessee Wesleyan but was drafted in the 20th round by San Diego. In rookie ball, he pitched only 8 1/3 innings but struck out 17 and walked only three batters.

Mende - The only player Washington has signed for 2015 that was listed as a third baseman, so you have to think it's his job to lose entering camp. Mende was drafted twice, including in the 31st round by the Colorado Rockies in 2011 out of South Florida. Mende actually got an at-bat last year in a major league spring training game with the Rockies and had a hit. A look at Mende's statistics shows that he probably hasn't played regularly at one position since 2012, when he played third base for Asheville in Class A. Has been playing multiple infield positions and right field in affiliated ball. Played in the Cape Cod League.

Knott - Played college ball at East Stroudsburg and was named the PSAC's East Division Player of the year last season. Drafted in the 34th round by Tampa Bay last year and hit .248 in rookie ball. Was the Warriors' first all-region selection since 1991 after leading the PSAC in slugging percentage, extra-base hits, RBI and runs. He set seven school records at East Stroudsburg.

Mathis - This is the player on this list that I find most interesting. Mathis comes to Washington after playing two seasons in the Houston Astros' system and four years in the SEC at Mississippi. What Mathis does best is get on base. His on-base percentage at two levels in the Houston organization was .390. In four seasons at Ole Miss, his OBP was .422 including .466 as a junior. Was signed as a nondrafted free agent by Houston.

By my count, Washington has 31 players under contract. None of the 31 are catchers. The Wild Things still hold the options on catcher Maxx Garrett, second baseman Austin Wobrock and pitcher Matt Sergey from last year's team and pitcher Matt Phillips who missed all of last season with an injury.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Flurry of roster moves

Scott Dunn had a 38-15 career record in the Frontier League.

Six players from last year’s Wild Things team that made the Frontier League playoffs won’t be returning for the 2015 season. Another will be starting the season on the disabled list.

Washington has put catcher Jim Vahalik, third baseman Carter Bell, utility infielder Garrett Rau, outfielder Andrew Heck and pitchers Zac Fuesser and Scott Dunn on the suspended list. The Wild Things do retain the Frontier League rights to these players for one year, if they opt to return to baseball.

Fuesser was Washington’s top starting pitcher last season with a 9-2 record and 2.25 ERA. The latter was the second-best mark in the league. Fuesser also pitched Washington to a 4-2 victory over Evansville in a wild-card playoff game last September. Fuesser pitched 8 2/3 innings in that game.

Dunn, a former South Side Beaver High School and Slippery Rock University player, spent one season in Washington and four with Traverse City. He had an 8-5 record with the Wild Things and was 38-15 in his Frontier League career.

Vahalik, who was acquired in a July trade with the London Rippers in 2012, had been the Wild Things starting catcher for 2½ seasons. Bell and Rau each played one year with Washington. Bell was the starting third baseman and Rau played in 93 games and started at all four infield positions. Heck, who is the baseball coach at Sewickley Academy, has played for the Wild Things each of the last three years.

The Wild Things also placed pitcher Zach LeBarron on the 60-day disabled list, and put pitchers Hamilton Bennett and Andy Noga on the suspended list. Bennett and Noga were acquired from Kansas City of the American Association in exchange for closer Jonathan Kountis.

The Wild Things still hold the options on four players from last year's team: pitchers Aaron Newcomb and Matt Sergey, catcher Maxx Garrett and second baseman Aaron Wobrock, They also picked up the option on pitcher Matt Phillips, who had a very good 2013 season for Washington but missed all of last year with an injury. The Wild Things have not announced yet if these players are returning.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Two position players returning

Danny Poma (26) and Ryan Kresky, right, are the first position players to re-sign with the Wild Things for 2015.

The Wild Things have re-signed two key players, center fielder Danny Poma and shortstop Ryan Kresky, from last year’s Frontier League playoff team.
Poma was one of the top outfielders in the league. In his first season in Washington after playing in the Arizona Diamondbacks’ system, Poma batted a team-high .308 with 22 doubles. Poma also finished second in the league in stolen bases with 30.
Kresky was slowed by a wrist injury that landed him on the disabled list in the middle of the year, but he had 17 extra-base hits among his 45 hits and stole seven bases. Kresky, who was acquired in a trade with Evansville prior to the 2014 season, played in 63 games and committed only six errors.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Competition to the south

Monongalia County Ballpark
If you're a fan of the Wild Things or just minor league baseball in general and you live south of Washington, say in Waynesburg or Carmichaels or Uniontown, you have a interesting decision to make this summer. Do you continue to go to Consol Energy Park and watch the Wild Things or do you travel 30 minutes south and check out the West Virginia Black Bears, the Pittsburgh Pirates' affiliate that will be making its debut this year in the New York-Penn League? The Black Bears will play in the new Monongalia County Ballpark that opens tonight when West Virginia University hosts Butler.

The 3,500-seat ballpark is an an easy location to get to, just off I-79 at the Star City exit.

The idea of having the Pirates' New York-Penn League team share a ballpark with a local college team is not a new idea. The original plan, which was discussed about 15 years ago, was for the Pirates to place a team in the league and have it play in a new ballpark in Washington, which became Falconi Field/Consol Energy Park. The plan really wasn't as simple as that as it involved switching ownership and affiliations of some teams. When Cam Bonifay was fired as general manager of the Pirates during the 2001 season, the plan for a New York-Penn League team in Washington was put on the backburner for a decade. Thus, the Wild Things were born to replace the New York-Penn League that never came to Washington.

Here are two videos of Monongalia County Ballpark. You'll notice that it's still a work in process.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Former Wild Things in affiliated ball

C.J. Beatty
The minor league baseball season started Thursday night in the full-season leagues and there are were (at least) six former Wild Things players and ex-manager on opening day rosters, along with two Washington County natives and a guy with a famous name who played his college baseball at Consol Energy Park.

Here is what a few roster searches found:

Class AAA
Vidal Nuno - Reno - The only Wild Things player to go on and play in a major league game, Nuno was the Aces' opening night starter last night. It was his first opening day start since 2011, when he pitched for the Wild Things at Joliet. Nuno was the winning pitcher in Reno's 8-2 victory over Albuquerque. He pitched five innings, gave up two runs (one earned), did not walk a batter and struck out six.

Class AA
Quincy Latimore - Bowie - Former Wild Things outfielder and Pittsburgh Pirates prospect spent last year in the Eastern League with Harrisburg and batted .277 in 108 games. Latimore signed with the Baltimore Orioles and is back in the eastern League with the Bowie Baysox. Latimore went 2-for-6 in Bowie's 3-2 loss to Richmond in 14 innings.

Darin Everson - New Britain - Former Wild Things manager (2009-10) is the manager of the Colorado Rockies' affiliate in the Eastern League, the New Britain Rock Cats. Everson was the hitting coach last year for the Rockies' Class AA affiliate in Tulsa. The Rockies switched affiliates this year with the Los Angeles Dodgers moving into Tulsa. New Britain's season opener was rained out.

High Class A
C. J. Beatty - Winston-Salem - Beatty was signed away from the Wild Things by the Chicago White Sox late last season and assigned to his hometown Winston-Salem Dash. Beatty is returning to Winston-Salem of the Carolina League. Beatty was not in the lineup for the Dash's 13-0 win over Frederick.

Robbie Garvey - Rancho Cucamonga - An outfielder on the Wild Things' 2012 team until he left the team before he could be traded to the Road Warriors, Garvey is in his second season with the Rancho Cucamonga Quakes, the Los Angeles' Dodgers' affiliate in California League. Garvey batted .229 for the Quakes last year but had 32 extra-base hits and 22 stolen bases. Garvey also had two at-bats with the Dodgers' major-league team in a spring training game March 21 against Colorado. Garvey went 1-for-4 in the Quakes' 3-2 season-opening win over Bakersfield.

Stewart Ijames - Visalia - Outfielder for the Wild Things the last two years was signed by Arizona shortly after the all-star break last season. He is currently with the Visalia Rawhide of the California League. Ijames was 2-for-3 with two run-scoring doubles and a walk as Visalia led 10-4 with two outs in the top of the ninth when the stadium lights went out, causing a late-night delay.

Low-Class A
Scott Kalamar - Like Ijames, a two-year veteran of the Wild Things. Kalamar was signed by the Arizona Diamondbacks after the 2014 Frontier League season. He has been assigned to the Kane County Cougars of the Midwest League. He was not in the lineup for the Cougars' season opener.

Spring training was not good for three former Wild Things who were released from affiliated ball. Pitcher Steve Messner was released after one season in the San Francisco Giants system but he has re-signed with the Wild Things. Pitcher Al Yevoli, who pitched two seasons for Washington, was released by Arizona and has since signed with the Wichita Wingnuts of the independent American Association. Pitcher Chris Smith, who was 9-6 with a 2.92 ERA for the Wild Things in 2012, has been pitching in the New York Yankees' system since leaving Washington. He was on the roster of the Class AA Trenton Thunder as recently as Sunday morning but was released later in the day.

Two former Washington players who I could find no current information on are Mark Williams, a pitcher in the Milwaukee Brewers system, and Troy Marks, a starting pitcher from last year's Wild Things team. Williams was suspended for 50 games last August, so he might still be in the Brewers' system but serving the end of the suspension. I have no idea what has happened to Marks. He might be in extended spring training. I just don't know. If you know what happened to Marks since he signed with Arizona in the offseason, then let me know.

Two Washington County products continue to move up in the affiliated ranks. Pitcher Jordan Jankowski (Peters Township) has been promoted to Class AAA and is pitching in relief for the Fresno Grizzlies in the Houston Astros system. Matt Pierpont (Canon-McMillan) is with the Colorado Rockies' Modesto Nuts of the Class A California League.

Another tie to Washington County and the California League is Kyle Petty, a former California University standout. Petty is playing for the Bakersfield Blaze, an affiliate of the Seattle Mariners.

Examining the roster

The Wild Things will be playing games that count in only 36 days, so it's time we examined the team's roster to see if we can spot any trends, strengths and what positions still need to be addressed.

With the signing of former Washington pitcher Steve Messner on Wednesday, the Wild Things have 22 players under contract for spring training, including 14 pitchers. They also have three first basemen, an outfielder who they are converting to second base, a shortstop, two outfielders and a player who has pro experience at first base and the outfield.

The early trend -- and this can be said about several of the Frontier teams, which is a good sign for the league -- is that there is an increase in the number of players signed who have significant Class AA experience.

The most eye-popping signing of the offseason for Washington has been shortstop Jeudy Valdez, a former San Diego Padres prospect who spent three seasons and 311 games at Class AA. He also played in the prestigious Arizona Fall League in 2012 and was on the Padres' 40-man roster as late as 2013. The question with Valdez is, what happened to his hitting stroke last year? He batted only .197 in the hitter-friendly Class A California League and then .225 in 58 Double-A games. Valdez's best season was 2011 with Lake Elsinore of the California League. He batted .295 with 37 doubles and 15 home runs. He also hit .251 with 29 doubles and 10 home runs in Class AA in 2013.

Among the new signees at pitcher are Richie Mirowski, Kevin Brandt and Ryan Bores. Mirowski was a low draft pick of the Washington Nationals who moved up in the system and pitched in 23 games at Double-A Harrisburg and played in the Arizona Fall League in 2013. Brandt pitched in six games in Class AA last year for a team with one of the most interesting nicknames in baseball, the Montgomery Biscuits. A lefty, Brandt pitched in 36 games at high-Class A and made 14 starts. Bores is a former Kent State pitcher who pitched in 16 games last year for the Texas Rangers' Class AA team.

Another new pitcher to keep an eye on is Luke Wilkins, a 25-year-old native Australian who has pitched for five seasons in the Australian Baseball League.

Five pitchers will be returning to Washington, including three of last year's relievers. Pat Butler is back for his third season with the Wild Things, Matt Purnell returns after a very good rookie season and late-season pickup Chris O'Hare is back. Also returning is Tim Flight, a lefty who made the starting rotation at the beginning of last year but suffered a season-ending injury when he was struck on the wrist by a line drive in a game at Rockford. As mentioned above, Messner will be back with Washington. If you don't remember him, that's because he wasn't here very long the first time, pitching in eight late-season games in 2013 and then signing with San Francisco. He was 7-5, 4.17 at Class A last season.

The two holes in the roster are catcher and third base. No players with experience at those positions have been signed.

Casey Roche is a former Pitt outfielder who hit .300-plus in each of his first three seasons with the Panthers before dipping to .272 as a senior last spring. He has a chance to make the club.

Lee Orr is another player with Double-A experience, having played 96 games at that level in the Padres' system at outfielder and first base. He has a track record of being a clout-or-out guy, ala Jacob Dempsey. In the last two years, Orr had 552 at-bats with 52 extra-base hits. He also struck out 215 times.

With 22 players signed, that leaves roughly a dozen roster spots that can be filled before spring training. At least two of those will go to players drafted at the Frontier League tryout later this month. The Wild Things still hold the rights to 16 players from last year's team plus pitcher Kyle Vazquez, who was acquired from Sioux Falls of the American Association in the trade for Shawn Blackwell, and pitchers Hamilton Bennett and Andy Noga, who were acquired in a trade for Jonathan Kountis.

I mentioned the signing of players with Class AA experience seems to be on the rise this year in the Frontier League. Among the signings that fall into this category are outfielder Teodoro Martinez (two-time all-star in the Class AA Texas League) by Rockford and first baseman Jon Griffin (15 home runs in Double-A last year) by the Greys. Griffin gained some recognition last year by hitting five home runs in five consecutive at-bats for Class AA Mobile. He is only the second player in the long history of the Southern League to hit four home runs in a game.

Among the other signings that caught my attention: Evansville bringing back Shayne Houck, who was last year's MVP and Southern Illinois getting pitcher Adam Lopez, who struck out 129 in 99 1/3 innings during a Class A season.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Nuno to Triple-A

Vidal Nuno
The Arizona Diamondbacks announced Saturday that former Wild Things pitcher Vidal Nuno will begin the season at Class AAA Reno.

Nuno had been competing for a spot in the Diamondbacks' bullpen. He was scheduled to start Saturday’s spring training game against the Chicago Cubs but was scratched. Nuno had an 8.20 ERA in four spring appearances.

Bart back in ball

Bart Zeller - Ozarks, Mo.-bound.

Former Wild Things manager Bart Zeller is back in baseball.

According to the website for the Ozarks Professional Baseball League,Zeller has signed a contract to manage the league's Ozark, Mo., franchise.

The Ozarks Professional Baseball League is a new independent league that, according to its website, will start play in June with 10 teams. The league says it will have teams based in the midwest and its ballpark in Ozark -- the former home to the Frontier League's Springfield-Ozark Ducks -- will be the league's base. No franchise locations have been announced, so I'm assuming that the league will play all games at one field, Price Cutter Park, but I don't know for sure. Judging only by the website and a quick Google search, I'd say its 50-50 at best that this league plays a game this year.

Zeller was the manager of the Wild Things for 1 1/2 seasons before he abruptly and unexpectedly resigned last year just before the all-star break with Washington in first place in the East Division.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Signing or hoarding?

Player signings, and the ensuing announcements by the Frontier League office in the transactions section of its website, definitely follow a trend.

For example, River City and Gateway, perhaps because they are battling for players with so many American Association teams that are located nearby, are annually the first teams to announce the majority of their offseason signings. The rosters for the Rascals and Grizzlies fill up quickly. Windy City and Normal also have been quick to announce players signings.

Then we typically see a few teams from the East Division and the remainder of the West squads check in. This year, however, the lack of player signings from East clubs make me wonder if some teams are simply hoarding the contracts and protecting them like they're a PIN number. It reminds me of many Division III college football coaches who refuse to give up the names of their recruits because they're afraid some Division II or NAIA coach with a few bucks of scholarship money leftover might notice that Johnny Doe is paying full tuition price and come late in the summer and steal the recruit.

Then again, I see nothing to be gained by a Frontier League team keeping under wraps who its has signed. It just seems odds that so little player movement has happened in the East this year.

Washington announced Wednesday the signings of five pitchers -- re-signed relievers Pat Butler, Matt Purnell and Chris O'Hare, and starter Tim Flight, along with adding rookie Ryan Wakefield of Plymouth State. Prior to Wednesday, the Wild Things had announced that only nine players (all either true rookies or second-year players) had signed contracts for 2015. Now, they're up to 14.

I did a quick check to see how many player signings have been announced by each FL team this offseason. I threw out the players who were sold to major league organizations or placed on a suspended list after signing a contract:

As of March 27, 2015:

Gateway - 28 players signed
Joliet - 17
Normal - 32
River City - 33
Rockford - 25
Schaumburg - 27
Windy City - 21

Evansville - 12
Florence - 29
Lake Erie - 23
Greys - 24
Traverse City - 12
Southern Illinois - 21
Washington - 14

Friday, March 27, 2015

We're back!

Following a long break, in part because this has been perhaps the least interesting Frontier League offseason in, well, ever -- and that's a good thing -- the blog is back.

So what has been happening over the last five months? Not much if you like franchise movements, hirings, firings and player signings, especially out of Wild Things land.

There have been some changes, so let's recap:

Who's back: Bob Bozzuto. Boz will be returning for his first full season as Wild Things manager.

Who's gone: Kevin Gryboski. The Wild Things' pitching coach from last year will not be returning.

Who's new: Brent Metheny and Ben Moore. Metheny, the former manager of the Frontier League Greys, will be the Wild Things' hitting coach in 2015. Metheny managed the Greys in 2013 and spent last season as the hitting coach for the Sioux City Explorers of the American Association. You might recall that Metheny is the nephew of Bethel Park High School football coach Jeff Metheny.
The 33-year Moore is in his first coaching job in pro baseball. He was a pitcher for 12 pro seasons, is a two-time American Association Pitcher of the Year and holds the league's career record for wins and strikeouts.Moore played three of the last four years with the Sioux Falls Canaries.

Who's gone: Kyle Haines, who was manager of the Greys last season, is now the manager of the Salem-Keizer Volcanoes, the San Francisco Giants' affiliate in the Class A Northwest League.

Who's in: Vinny Ganz, the Normal CornBelters' hitting coach the last two years, is the new manager of the Greys.

Who's gone: Frontier League Hall of Famer Fran Riordan is no longer manager of the Florence Freedom. Riordan was hired as manager of the Beloit Snappers, the Oakland Athletics' affiliate in the Class A Midwest League. This will be Riordan's first coaching stint in affiliated ball. He is the Frontier League's all-time winningest manager with 625 victories.

Who's in: Dennis Pelfrey, a former Frontier League player, replaces Riordan as manager of the Freedom. Pelfrey was a good player for Dubois County, Kenosha and Springfield/Ozark. For the last four years, Pelfrey was an assistant for the Gary SouthShore RailCats under manager Greg Tagert, who is one of the most respected coaches in independent baseball.

What's out: The grass at Windy City's Standard Bank Stadium. The home of the ThunderBolts will have a new synthetic surface this year.

Who's out: For the Wild Things, it's pitcher Jonathan Kountis and Shawn Blackwell. Kountis, the top reliever in the Frontier League last year, was traded to John Massarelli's Kansas City T-Bones of the American Association in exchange for two pitchers, Hamilton Bennett and Andy Noga, and a player to be named. Blackwell, who was 10-4 with a 3.70 ERA last year, his second with Washington, was dealt last month to Sioux Falls for pitcher Kyle Vazquez. The last two seasons, Vazquez has been a teammate of Moore in the American Association. Vazquez is coming off a rough year (5-9, 6.02).

Interest from: Something you can count on every season is some politician and some prospective team owner in some city/town/hamlet in the midwest expressing interest in building a stadium for a Frontier League team. Last year, it was Kokomo, Ind., which landed a team, but in the Prospect League, a summer college league. This year, interest has been sparked in Jackson, Mich., and Jefferson City, Mo. Both, IMO, look like long shots to ever build and land a team. We'll give some more information on this two cities in the near future.

Then there is Parkersburg, W.Va., where Wild Things owner Stu Williams has turned his attention. With Bridgeport, W.Va., out of the picture because of the new ballpark in Morgantown, W.Va., Williams has an agreement to bring a Frontier League team to Parkersburg, if a ballpark can be funded and built. So far, everything is in the planning stages but the mayor in Parkersburg seems to be throwing his full support behind the project.

The question I have is, with the Wild Things' attendance basically stagnating the last two years and the Pennsylvania Rebellion struggling mightily to put butts in the seats at Consol Energy Park, is Parkersburg seen as a place for greener (as in money) pastures and a potential home for the Wild Things?

Excuse me if I sound a little like Mike Tomlin, but I'm sure this will be a hot topic moving forward.