The harsh spring conditions of the Midwest League are often spoken of as a detriment to teams, as young players – often breaking into full-season ball for the first time – deal with less-than-ideal hitting conditions. But for a pitching-rich team like the Beloit Snappers, the cold weather may be just what the doctor ordered for a bounce-back 2015 season.
Beloit opens the 2015 season Thursday night (weather-permittin) with an Iowa road trip that includes three-game sets at Clinton and Cedar Rapids. The Snappers open the home slate next Wednesday with a three-game series against Quad Cities.
First-year manager Fran Riordan has the luxury of throwing out a starting rotation that features four pitchers the A’s took in the first five rounds of the 2014 draft. Not many MWL squads can match that quality of pitching, and the hitters typically struggle to warm up in the month of April. Riordan will be joined on the Snappers' coaching staff by hitting coach Lloyd Turner and pitching coach Steve Connelly.
University of Missouri third-rounder Brett Graves takes the ball to open the season, and will be followed by Jordan Schwartz (2014 4th-rounder), Heath Fillmyer (2014 5th-rounder), Junior Mendez and Daniel Gossett (2nd-rounder).
“All the guys are hard throwers, strike throwers and are out there competing every five days,” said Riordan, who comes to the A’s organization after 16 seasons managing in the independent leagues and most recently with the Florence Freedom of the Frontier League.
“It will be really exciting to watch those guys take the mound. It’s definitely a strength of our ballclub and will be a lot of fun for the fans to come out and watch. It’s definitely a focal point of what we’re trying to do this season. There’s a lot of power arms in that rotation, guys that are in the low-to-mid 90s consistently. They are guys that can overpower people, and that’s why I talk about the excitement and explosiveness they bring.”
Shortly after being selected in the draft, Graves struggled in a brief stint with short-season Vermont, pitching to a 6.86 ERA in 21 innings of work across eight games. He allowed 16 earned runs on 24 hits, posting a K:BB rate of 18:6.
Schwartz will also be looking for better results with the Snappers, after pitching in 11 games with the Lake Monsters following his selection out of Niagara. He posted a 4.82 ERA in 18.2 New York-Penn League innings, striking out 14 but struggling with his control by walking 13 batters.
Despite only making six relief appearances with the AZL A’s after being drafted out of Mercer County Community College in New Jersey, Fillmyer impressed this spring and was put on the fast-track to full-season ball. The 6'1'' right-hander allowed three runs on five hits, striking out 10 and walking five in 9.2 innings last summer.
A 16th-round selection in 2013 out of Southern New Hampshire, Mendez spent the entire 2014 season with the Snappers and started in 18 of his 25 games. The 6'1'' right-hander pitched well at times, but struggled to a 2-8 record and 4.77 ERA for a Beloit team that didn’t see a lot of success. Mendez posted a 61:27 K:BB rate and allowed 56 earned runs on 107 hits in 105.2 innings.
Rounding out the Snapper rotation is the highest 2014 draftee on the roster, Gossett, who was chosen in the second round out of Clemson. The A’s shipped Gossett straight to Vermont last summer and the 6'2'' right-hander made 12 appearances, including one start, and pitched to a 2.25 ERA. He posted an impressive 25:6 K:BB rate in 24 innings of work.
All of Beloit’s starters will be eased into their workloads this spring, Riordan says.
“Regardless of where you’re taken in the draft or the kind of prospect status you have, the organization wants to look out for the arm health of these guys,” he said. “They’ve been building up in spring training based on the roles they’re projected to have. With the cold weather we’re going to have in the Midwest League the first month of the season, there will be pitch counts and limits on how much they can throw. That’s being responsible with these young arms.”
Beloit will carry nine relievers to open the season, including prospects Michael Fagan, Rob Huber, Jose Torres and Trevor Bayless. All of the Snappers' relievers pitched well this spring,Riordan says.
Fagan was a 9th-rounder last June and made 17 relief appearances at Vermont. The southpaw pitched 19.1 innings, allowing 10 earned runs on 13 hits while posting a 25:15 K:BB rate for the Lake Monsters. Huber saw little success during a 15-game stint in Rookie ball, posting an 8.02 ERA and allowing hitters to post a .314 batting average against him.
A Venezuelan signee in 2010, Torres, another lefty, is getting his first taste of full-season ball after pitching at short-season Vermont the past two years. Bayless will get a chance to master the Midwest League after cameos with the Snappers in each of the past two seasons.
Rounding out the Beloit bullpen are Jerad Grundy, Kevin Johnson, Corey Miller, Carlos Navas and Cody Stull. All five pitchers are making their full-season debuts. Johnson has missed the past two seasons rehabbing from Tommy John surgery, while Grundy and Miller move up from Vermont and Navas and Stull arrive from the Arizona Rookie League.
“The bullpen is very interesting, because a lot of these guys really had great springs, put themselves on the map and competed to make a ballclub,” Riordan said. “Every guy in the bullpen is an interesting story. It will be interesting to see how it develops and how the roles are defined. There are question marks on where guys fit in, because there is versatility and guys that can do a lot of things.”
Although the Snappers will be known for their pitching staff, especially early in the season, Riordan’s group of position players have the potential to become good Low-A players. Infielders Yairo Munoz and Sandber Pimentel have developed into solid prospects and will be getting their first taste of full-season ball.
Munoz played in 66 games at Vermont last summer, posting a slash line of .298/.319/.448. He’ll have some work to do with the Snappers increasing his walk rate, as he drew just seven free passes with the Lake Monsters while striking out 42 times in 252 at-bats. Pimentel will be appearing with his first United States affiliate of any kind this season, after posting a slashline of .311/.432/.458 with the A’s DSL squad in 2014.
“Munoz is going to be the everyday shortstop,” Riordan said. “He’s going to have some days off and rest, but at the same time we want to see what he can do in a full season with consistent at-bats and consistent days in the field. He’s an exciting and explosive player, a guy we’re going to be looking at.
“[Pimentel] has all the potential in the world. He’s got an idea of what he’s trying to do in there, an idea of the pitch he can drive and an idea of the strike zone. He knows when he can attack and the counts he can attack in. He’s an imposing physical presence. He’s a big kid that has a lot of bat speed and power. It will be interesting to see how he adapts to a new situation.”
Although the lineup figures to have some mainstays like centerfielder Brett Vertigan, left-fielder Joe Bennie, second baseman Trent Gilbert and third baseman Edwin Diaz, there will be a lot of moving parts as Riordan looks to find the best possible matchups each day.
“I don’t think we’re going to have a really consistent one and that speaks to the versatility of some of the players we have,” Riordan said. “Diaz is going to be our third baseman to start the season. Melvin Mercedes has some experience under his belt and can play [multiple positions]. Trent Gilbert will probably start the season as the second baseman and has developed a lot in the limited time I’ve seen him. At first base, we’ve got Sandber Pimentel and Max Kuhn. Pimentel is strictly a first baseman, but Kuhn can play the corner infield and outfield positions.”
Vertigan returns to MWL after spending his entire 2013 season with the Snappers, where he posted a .243/.333/.321 slash line in 123 games for a team that made the playoffs. The 2012 10th-rounder played out the 2014 campaign with short-season Vermont, where he batted .265 in 47 games.
A 28th-rounder in the 2013 draft, Bennie will get his first taste of full-season ball after being one of the top hitters for the Lake Monsters last summer, posting a .288/.369/.378 slash line in 45 games.
Left-handed hitting Shawn Duinkerk and right-hander Robert Martinez are poised to split time in right field. Duinkerk struggled through the 2014 campaign with the AZL A’s, hitting just .167/.222/.254 across 35 games, but the Aruban native was one of the organization’s top hitters in minor-league spring training and forced an early-season assignment to Beloit. Martinez posted a .219/.339/.411 line in 2014 with the AZL A’s and gets his first shot at full-season ball.
A pair of advanced college bats, Kuhn and Gilbert will get a lot of time in the field after being drafted last June. A 13th-rounder out of Kentucky, Kuhn spent most of his summer with Vermont where he slashed .277/.348/.418 in 52 games. Gilbert, a 15th-round selection out of Arizona, posted a slash line of .242/.300/.317 in 51 contests with the Lake Monsters and AZL A’s.
Diaz will skip short-season ball and go straight to Beloit after playing with the AZL A’s the past two years and slashing .241/.318/.359, while Mercedes makes his return to the Snappers after struggling to a .222 average in 98 games in 2014.
A pair of young catchers will split the duties to start the year. Jose Chavez played in 46 games with the Snappers last season, and while he showed improvement behind the plate, never got comfortable with the bat in his hands and struggled to a .205 average. Argenis Raga is surpassing short-season ball to join him behind the plate, after posting a .338/.400/.479 slash line in 26 games last summer with the AZL A’s.
“Chavez and Raga are two young, really skilled defensive catchers that are both growing into their offensive ability,” Riordan said. “They’re both getting better defensively and are hungry to learn and get better.”