A blend of new faces and familiar ones always mark a new American Association season, and Thursday’s round of openers which kick off the second decade of play will be no different.
The most prominent of the newcomers, at least in terms of a name, belongs to Wichita manager Pete Rose Jr., who emphasized to The Wichita Eagle recently he is just as normal as everyone else except “my dad’s got more hits than anybody else’s dad”. Yes, his dad is all-time major league hits king Pete (Charlie Hustle) Rose.
Rose brings four seasons of managerial experience to the Wingnuts, all in the Chicago White Sox system, and he promises a few things to American Association foes: “We’re going to show up on time and we’re going to play hard.” The replacement to longtime Wichita skipper Kevin Hooper, who has moved into an infield coordinator role with the National League’s San Diego Padres, also told The Eagle “I like to play wide open and that’s being aggressive and playing the game the way it’s supposed to be played.”
He admits his first Wichita team is primarily a hybrid between approximately half of a holdover roster from Hooper and new faces brought in by general manager Josh Robertson. While Rose’s aggressiveness will be worth watching, he praised Robertson: “I just kind of set back and got on board with what he’s doing. It turned out the way I think he wanted it to, and I added a couple guys, and I think it’s going to work out great.”
Of course, defending champion Laredo along with 2015 regular-season powers Sioux City and St. Paul, the divisional winners along with Wichita one year ago, will stand as sizeable obstacles Rose and Company must battle.
Pete Incaviglia returns potent batting average leaders Ty Morrison (.366), Travis Denker (.361), and Abel Nieves (.353) to Laredo, and Sioux City manager of the year Steve Montgomery has four every-day players coming back along with 14-game winner Ryan Zimmerman (14-2). The Saints have all-star first baseman Angelo Songco (.339-17-82) back, and have the making of a powerful mound staff headed by returnees Jeff Shields (13-2, 3.11), Robert Coe (12-3, 3.11) and Ryan Rodebaugh (25 saves) and recently acquired 11-game winner John Straka (11-3, 3.27) from the Explorers.
St. Paul also has a name returning in southpaw reliever Caleb Thielbar, who pitched for the Saints five years ago (3-3, 2.54 in 43 games), then worked in 109 major league games for the Minnesota Twins between 2013 and early last season (5-3, 2.73) before finishing the year in Triple-A in their farm system and that of San Diego.
“I love the Saints,” the 29-year-old told The St. Paul Pioneer Press, while explaining he did not get an invitation from any major league organization this past winter. “That (2011) was some of the most fun I’ve ever had playing baseball. It’s awesome. It’s a fun atmosphere to play in. And obviously with the new stadium, they’re drawing all types of fans.”
Onetime Wichita Hurler Stingy in A’s System
Chris Smith has not pitched in the major leagues since 2010, but the 35-year-old right-hander now with Oakland’s top minor league team in Nashville blanked Houston’s No. 1 farm club (Fresno) for seven shutout innings in his last start. The right-hander, who was 8-4, 3.55 in 20 starts for Wichita three years ago, has now allowed only five earned runs and 18 hits in his last 25 innings (four starts) and is 2-5, 4.40 for the season.
Previously the chief spokesman for Commissioners Bowie Kuhn and Peter Ueberroth, Bob Wirz has been writing extensively about Independent Baseball since 2003. He is a frequent contributor to this site as well as writing his own blog, www.IndyBaseballChatter.com.