The State College Spikes will begin their New York-Penn League title defense with a new manager at the helm.
Joe Kruzel, who led the Peoria Chiefs to a winning record in each of the last three seasons, is poised to take the reins from Johnny Rodriguez as the Spikes start their 2017 campaign with a matchup with the Williamsport Crosscutters on Monday.
Entering his 10th season in the Cardinals organization, Kruzel is surrounded by many familiar faces, making his transition from Peoria to State College a bit easier.
“It’s been a great advantage for me, I hope the Cardinals feel the same way,” Kruzel said. “It really doesn’t matter what city you’re in. It’s just an opportunity to go out and work with players and help them develop, and teach them.”
Even at a lower level of the Cardinals system where many players are still raw and unproven, Kruzel said he plans to take a more laid-back approach to development, allowing his players to learn from their own failures.
“I just think regardless of how many years they’ve been here, you still have to let them play, let them breathe, let them go out and make mistakes,” Kruzel said. “Sometimes that’s how you’re going to have to learn, is by making mistakes. But hopefully, as the season goes on, those mistakes will wane a little bit.”
The roster Kruzel inherits features eight players who spent time in State College a year ago, including RHPs Steven Farinaro and Spencer Trayner.
Farinaro posted a 9-1 record to go along with a 3.46 ERA for the Spikes last season, but struggled in Peoria to begin 2017. The same can be said for Trayner, who was lights out in the bullpen in 2016, pitching to a .52 ERA before starting this year with a 5.56 ERA with the Chiefs.
Among the notable newcomers are catcher Dennis Ortega, TCN’s 43rd-ranked prospect, and outfielder Bryce Denton, TCN’s 26th-ranked prospect and a former second-round draft pick.
Ortega is coming off a breakout season with the Gulf Coast League Cardinals, hitting .357 with a .439 OBP while also catching 41 percent of would-be base stealers from behind the dish. The 20-year old was named TCN's 2016 GCL Cardinals Player of the Year.
Also looking to build on his best season as a pro, Denton began the 2017 campaign in Peoria, bit was hampered by a bout with appendicitis.
Excited for the opportunity to start over in State College, he said he hopes to learn to let the game come to him.
“Just slowing the game down, you know, not putting too much pressure on myself,” Denton said. “I had the appendicitis injury, the first April day we landed in Peoria. So I had to start rehabbing, going back and forth. I really just needed a fresh start. So, I’m happy to be here and play baseball again.”
Since becoming a Cardinals affiliate in 2013, the Spikes have epitomized success, reaching the New York-Penn League finals three times and winning twice.
There’s no telling whether they’ll do so again this season, but Kruzel likes the way his squad is shaping up.
“I really like this ballclub,” Kruzel said. “I really like the way they go about their stuff, and hopefully we can carry that over to the games, where we play hard from the first pitch to the last pitch regardless of the situation. But, all in all, all of the guys in some way, shape or form have impressed me.”
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