Gateway Grizzlies set to open 2017 Frontier League season

Gateway Manager Phil Warren watches the action and will make his final cuts for the opening day roster for Friday against Florence.
Gateway Manager Phil Warren watches the action and will make his final cuts for the opening day roster for Friday against Florence. SPECIAL TO THE NEWS DEMOCRAT

The last week before the start of each new season is always a hectic time for manager Phil Warren, his staff and the entire Gateway Grizzlies organization.

Putting the finishing touches on plans for opening day, sprucing up GCS Ballpark and for Warren, making tough decisions about who remains on the team is just part of what goes into getting ready for the start of another Frontier League season.

The 2017 season — Warren’s 11th as the Grizzlies manager — is about to begin.

Looking to rebound after a 44-51 finish that saw them end up 18 1/2 games behind West Division-champion Southern Illinois, the Grizzlies open their season Friday against the Florence Freedom at 7:05 p.m. at GCS Ballpark.

As usual, several new players along with a few veterans make up the Grizzlies roster heading into the opening series of the year. Warren also has a new coaching staff with Richard Barrett taking over the pitching coach duties from longtime Grizzlies coach Randy Martz and former St. Louis Cardinal Ken Oberkfell serving as the Grizzlies hitting coach in 2017.

New faces are nothing new in the Frontier League.

“I love the guys who were here, but the group of players we have back along with the new guys we brought in ... we have a great mix. You can already see some cohesion starting to happen,” Warren said. “It’s just a great group of guys with outstanding character.”

Warren will go with Grizzlies veteran Vincent Molesky in the opener against the Freedom. A fireworks display will follow the game. The series continues Saturday at 7:05 p.m. and concludes Sunday at 6:05 p.m.

Molesky, who finished 5-8 with a 3.70 ERA a year ago figures to be one of the mainstays of a Grizzlies staff that also returns right-handers Will Landsheft, Kevin Jefferis, Adam Eggenatz and Ja’Vaun West, along with southpaw Dylan Craig.

Craig could get the start against Florence on Sunday.

Filling out the rest of the Grizzlies man pitching staff will be newcomers Chris Dula, who pitched in the Texas Rangers organization; Michael Elwood; Javier Reynoso; Kaleb Earls; Tanner Cable; William Anderson and Colin Kelly.

Directing the Grizzlies pitching staff will be two rookie catchers in Bre’Shon Kimbell and Lou Iannotti. The duo was so impressive in the preseason that Warren made the decision to part ways with veteran Tyler Tewell, who was recently traded.

“They both stood out in training camp, and we feel like we can win with both those guys behind the plate,” Warren said. “Lou (Iannotti) has established himself as the frontrunner. He’s a good contact hitter, hits the gaps, and on the defense he blocks well, throws well and has the ability to communicate.

“The thing with both these guys is while you are excited about what you see right now, they aren’t the players they will be in the future. We have things to look forward to with both of those guys.”

In the infield, Craig Massoni returns and will be a key player at first base. Massoni hit .248 with 14 home runs and 52 RBIs a year ago. Others returning in the Grizzlies infield are Josh Bunselmeyer, who will start at second base, and Zach Levy, who will get the nod at third base.

Warren is also high on shortstop Garrett Mattlage who most recently played with the Detroit Tigers’ Class A Lakeland ballclub.

“He was kind of a late release by the Tigers. I did some research on him and watched Garrett on tape. He was a player who, once I saw what he could do, I did everything I could to get him here,” Warren said. “It really didn’t take that much because he and I think a lot alike when it comes to the game.

“Garrett is a switch-hitter, goes to all fields, hits for both average and power and defensively. He’s all you want your shortstop to be. He’s got a great baseball IQ.”

Evan Rogers, who last played for the Philadelphia Phillies’ rookie league team, will be the Grizzlies’ utility player in the infield.

Three players — Blake Brown, Cody Livesay and Sam Fischer — return for the Grizzlies in the outfield. Brown hit .235 with eight home runs and 35 RBIs, while playing a solid right field a year ago. Livesay battled .264 with a home run and 22 RBIs, while Fischer hit .213 but belted 12 home runs.

Terry McClure, a former minor league prospect with the Colorado Rockies, will also play in the outfield.