The Vermont Lake Monsters opened their 2015 season on Friday night with a 13-7 loss to the Lowell Spinners. Down 11-0 after two innings, the Lake Monsters clawed back into the game with a six-run third, but weren’t able to complete the comeback.
The Lake Monsters will be looking to return to the post-season for the first time since 2012. This is the A’s fourth season with the Lake Monsters as their short-season affiliate.
Vermont’s coaching staff features a couple of new faces this year. Manager Aaron Nieckula joins the Vermont staff after leading the Midland RockHounds to the Texas League title in 2014. Nieckula also serves as the A’s Minor League Field Coordinator, running the A’s minor league spring training and Instructional League season. Nieckula has managed at various levels within the A’s system since 2006 and is one of the most well-respected instructors within the A’s system.
Nieckula is joined on the Vermont staff by hitting coach Tom Everidge and pitching coach Carlos Chavez. Everidge returns for his second year as the hitting coach in Vermont. Everidge is a former prospect in the A’s system who played for Nieckula early in his career. Chavez spent the past two seasons as the pitching coach for the Arizona Rookie League A’s. Chavez spent 12 seasons pitching in the minor leagues before going into coaching.
The current Vermont roster features only players that were in the A’s system at the start of the season. However, the team will soon start to receive a wave of players from the A’s newest draft class. Second-round pick Mikey White, fourth-round pick Skye Bolt, ninth-round pick Jared Lyons and 10th-round pick Steven Pallares are all heading to Vermont on Saturday.
Lake Monsters’ Pitchers
A pair of talented young starting pitchers highlight the current Vermont pitching staff. Chris Kohler (the A’s third-round pick in 2013) and Dustin Driver (the A’s seventh-round pick in 2013) will both pitch for the Lake Monsters (note: Kohler isn’t currently on the Vermont roster because he is in a family wedding this weekend, but he will join the team early next week). Both Kohler and Driver missed most of the 2014 season with injuries, but the A’s are hopeful that they will get a full half-season of work with the Lake Monsters.
The Vermont Opening Day starter was Jordan Schwartz, the A’s fourth-round pick in 2014. It has been a tough year for Schwartz, and that continued on Friday when he allowed 10 runs (nine earned) in 1.1 innings. The hard-throwing Schwartz can hit 97 MPH with his fastball, but he is still developing a feel for locating his pitches. He had a 9.08 ERA in 36.2 innings with Low-A Beloit before being demoted to Vermont. Schwartz pitched for Vermont during his pro debut season in 2014 and had a 4.82 ERA in 18.2 innings.
The rest of the Vermont starting rotation currently features RHP Jon Massad and LHP Kevin Ferreras. Massad was a 25th-round pick in 2013. He spent last season with Vermont and had a 4.39 ERA in 26.2 innings. He struck-out 22 and walked eight. Ferreras split his 2014 season with Vermont and the AZL A’s. In 34 innings, Ferreras had a 6.35 ERA. He had a 31:17 K:BB. The 2014 season was Ferreras’ first in the US after three seasons in the Dominican Summer League.
There are plenty of hard-throwers in the Lake Monsters’ bullpen, including RHPs Lee Sosa, Cody Kurz, Jesus Rivas and Ty Willman. Sosa can really rush his fastball to the plate and he has an excellent slider, but he is still looking for consistency with his location. He had a 2.39 ERA and 21 strike-outs in 26.2 innings for the Lake Monsters last season after posting a 9.00 ERA in 19 innings for Beloit. Sosa was a 26th-round pick in 2012.
Injuries prevented 2014 12th-round pick Willman from making his professional debut last season. He debuted on Friday with the Lake Monsters and allowed an unearned run in 2.1 innings. Willman didn’t allow a hit, but he hit a batter and walked two. He struck-out two. The Western Illinois alum is still raw, but he hits the mid-90s with his fastball and has a promising slider, as well.
Kurz, a seventh-round pick in 2012, will be leaving the A’s Arizona complex to pitch for the first time in his career. A former high school football star, Kurz has been a project, but he has a big right arm. Rivas is another project. The former position player moved to the mound in 2013. He split his 2014 season between Vermont and the AZL A’s, posting a 2.78 ERA in 22.2 innings. He struck-out 11 and walked seven. Rivas pitched in Friday night’s opener and allowed an unearned run in 2.1 innings. He struck-out three and didn’t walk a batter.
Left-handers Mike Fagan, Victor Veliz, Tyler Painton and Derek Beasley, and side-armer Dominique Vattuone complete the bullpen. Fagan, a ninth-round pick of the A’s in 2014, began the year with Low-A Beloit, but was sent back to Arizona after posting a 9.22 ERA in 13.2 innings. Fagan has a promising fastball, but his command and secondary offerings are still works-in-progress. Veliz threw three scoreless innings in relief on Friday. The 2014 season was his first in the US and he had a 3.54 ERA and a 24:18 K:BB in 48.1 innings between Vermont and the AZL A’s.
The A’s signed Painton as an undrafted free agent out of Oregon State last season. He appeared in just four games with the AZL A’s last year, allowing seven runs in four innings. Mono kept Painton from really getting a chance to settle in last season, both with Oregon State and in Arizona. Beasley was 30th-round pick last season. He spent his pro debut with the AZL A’s, posting a 6.27 ERA in 18.2 innings. He struck-out 21 and walked 11. Vattuone changed his throwing motion from over-the-top to sidearm last season. He had a 3.89 ERA in 39.1 innings for Vermont and Beloit last year with the new arm slot. Vattuone was a 32nd-round pick in 2013.
Lake Monsters’ Hitters
Two of the A’s recent high school draft selections highlight the current Vermont roster on the position player side. Shortstop Trace Loehr was the A’s sixth-round pick last season out of a high school in the Portland, Oregon, area. He had two hits and two walks in his Vermont debut on Friday. Loehr got off to a slow start with the AZL A’s last season, but he hit .291 with a .361 OBP in August. Catcher Iolana Akau was the A’s 20th-round pick in 2013 out of a Honolulu high school. He spent most of the last two seasons in the Arizona Rookie League. During his Vermont debut on Friday, Akau had a double and a single and two RBI. Akau has a plus throwing arm and is a promising defender behind the plate.
Seong-Min Kim will share time behind the plate with Akau. The native of South Korea spent the first two-and-a-half years of his career in the Arizona Rookie League before jumping to Vermont for the final six weeks of the 2014 season. He hit .441 with three homers in 12 games for the AZL A’s last season, but he struggled with Vermont, posting a .192 average. Kim had two doubles in four at-bats on Friday for the Lake Monsters.
Middle infielder Jesus Lopez was one of the A’s biggest international free agent signings in 2013. The native of Nicaragua made his pro debut with the AZL A’s last season. He hit .221 in 42 games. Lopez had a strong spring and he had a double and a walk for the Lake Monsters on Friday. He is the only switch-hitter on the current Vermont roster.
Gabriel Santana and Argenis Raga will also see time in the infield for the Lake Monsters. Santana spent all of last season with the Lake Monsters. He hit .246 with a .294 OBP. Santana has experience at every position on the infield except for catcher. Raga is also very versatile. He can play third, first and both corner outfield spots, and he can catch. Raga began the year with Low-A Beloit and he hit .157 in 89 at-bats. Raga hit a grandslam in his Vermont debut on Friday. He also singled.
The current Vermont outfield features three graduates of the A’s Dominican Academy: Vicmal De La Cruz, Robert Martinez and Shawn Duinkerk. De La Cruz finally reaches short-season A after three frustrating seasons with the AZL A’s. De La Cruz hit .318 with a .438 OBP in 2011 in the DSL, but he hasn’t hit higher than .230 since then. He went 0-for-5 in his Vermont debut on Friday.
Martinez and Duinkerk both began the year with Low-A Beloit. Martinez, a 19th-round pick in 2012 out of Puerto Rico, hit .191 with three homers in 43 games for the Snappers before joining Vermont. He went 0-for-4 with a walk for the Lake Monsters on Friday. Martinez had a 749 OPS for the AZL A’s last season, his first year in the US. Duinkerk, a native of Aruba, hit .237 with a 574 OPS in 43 games for Beloit before being sent to Vermont. Duinkerk spent the 2012-2014 seasons in the AZL and had a huge spring that landed him a surprise spot with Beloit on Opening Day. Duinkerk had three singles in five at-bats on Friday for Vermont.