The Akron RubberDucks are back and better than ever. Six months after their stellar postseason surge that saw them go all the way to the Eastern League Championship series against the Trenton Thunder and end up sweeping their way to the title, the ‘Ducks are ready to fly once again.
The team has gone through a bit of turnover from last year as there are a bunch of new faces coming into Canal Park this year. The most significant change is the ‘Ducks are no longer managed by Dave Wallace. The former Akron manager has been promoted to special advisor within the Indians front office this year. Instead, the RubberDucks are now being managed by former Lynchburg Hillcats manager Mark Budzinski.
The new Akron skipper took the High-A Hillcats all the way to Mills Cup Championship last season but fell short as they dropped the series 3-1 against the Myrtle Beach Pelicans, coincidentally the High-A affiliate of the Chicago Cubs. He was also named the 2016 Carolina League Manager of the Year for his leadership in the Lynchburg clubhouse.
Budzinski may have some big shoes to fill, but he is not entering the Akron clubhouse as a stranger to a lot of the players as he has had the pleasure of managing most of the players on the Akron roster as they have come up through the system. He is inheriting an Akron team that has a lineup that strongly resembles the same lineup he had the good fortune of managing last season with the Hillcats.
“I’m just excited for the guys to get back out there,” Budzinski smiled, "They put in a lot of hard work into this winter and during spring training and earned the right to go compete at this point so we’re gonna get them out there and get the season going.”
There are a lot of expectations for this new RubberDucks team. While some of the faces are new, they feature several top prospects in the Cleveland Indians organization. Leading things off will be center fielder Greg Allen, who had a breakout season with Lynchburg in 2016, earned himself a promotion to the RubberDucks in the middle of the season and ended up playing a key part in their championship run.
The middle of the order will be anchored with the likes of slugging prospect Bobby Bradley and top catching prospect Francisco Mejia. Both were key cogs in the Lynchburg lineup last season and helped push the Hillcats into the postseason and make the championship series. Bradley hit .235/.344/.466 while slugging a team-high 29 home runs and knocking in 102 RBIs.
“It’s just an unreal experience,” Bradley grinned, “I’m just ready to get the season started now.”
Mejia didn’t join Lynchburg until the middle of the season. He began the year with the Class-A Lake County Captains and did nothing but pound the ball and earned himself a midseason promotion to High-A and was a huge boost to the lineup there as he capped off a historic 50-game hit streak with the the Hillcats. He ended up owning a sizzling .333/.380/.488 batting line with four home runs and 29 RBIs in just 42 games in Lynchburg last year. He is a rising star in the organization and the Indians clearly view him as the potential catcher of the future.
The lineup may be new but the players are no strangers to each other. Most of them have played with each other during their time in the minors so the comfort factor of being with old teammates and a familiar manager is definitely a key element in the clubhouse.
“It definitely helps,” second baseman Tyler Krieger noted. “It’s a great group of guys and the familiarity with Bud is obviously a good thing. We kind of all know how each other works and operates on a daily basis and I definitely think that’s gonna help us throughout the season.”
It’s not just the batting lineup that is looking impressive as the pitching staff also looks to be formidable as well in 2017. Key pitchers Adam Plutko and Shawn Morimando are no longer pitching at the Double-A level, but the staff is still in good hands with right-hander Julian Merryweathe, another player whom earned a midseason promotion last year and helped the team in the postseason, leading the charge. The righty put up a solid 3.89 ERA in 74.0 innings of work across 13 starts with the team and is looking to build off his strong season by becoming the ace of the RubberDucks and getting the team off on the right foot on opening day.
“It’s obviously a great honor at any level to be able to get that Opening Day start so I’m just gonna try and make the most of it and get our team off to a good start,” Merryweather said.
Merryweather is joined in the rotation by the likes of right-hander Michael Peoples and left-hander Rob Kaminsky, two key cogs in the rotation during the postseason for the ‘Ducks. The rotation looks to be another key strength of the team heading into the beginning of the season in the Eastern League.
A lot of changes have swept through the Akron clubhouse but there is still talent there. The ‘Ducks appear to be positioned perfectly to make another strong run at the postseason and take the Eastern League by storm thanks to the balance in both their lineup and rotation. They are also backed by a strong leader in Budzinski.
Buckle up Akron fans, it looks like it will be another fun season down at Canal Park.