After seven months of hibernation, the Gateway Grizzlies are set for the start of the 2016 Frontier League season.
Looking to put behind the memory of disappointing 45-50 record and fourth-place finish in the Frontier League’s West Division a year ago, the Grizzlies will make their season debut when they host the Washington Wild Things on Friday beginning at 7:05 p.m. in the friendly confines of GCS Ballpark in Sauget.
The first of a three-game series against one of the league’s perennial powers will feature the appearance of former St. Louis Cardinals fan favorite Willie McGee and is just one of several attractions planned for the opening home series which includes games at 7:05 p.m. on Saturday and 3:05 p.m. on Sunday against Washington.
The new season also marks veteran manager Phil Warren’s 10th with the Grizzlies and 17th season in all in the Frontier League. The 37-year-old Warren is hoping this is the season, Gateway adds a second league title to the one it captured in 2003. The Grizzlies have won division titles in 2003, 2007 and 2012.
“That’s the goal. To add another championship flag. But it’s the goal every year,” Warren said. “I like what I see in this ball club. It’s been a hectic two weeks and this year we really had some tough choices and tough cuts to make. Maybe that’s a good sign because the guys we kept are better then the ones that we had to let go. That’s one job I really dislike is letting players go and in some cases ending their dreams.”
Tickets remain for all three games this weekend Gateway Media Relations and Marketing Director Mike Rains said on Thursday. Gateway then takes to the road for series at Southern Illinois and River City next week before returning home on May 24 to open a series against the Normal Cornbelters.
Warren said former Carlyle High School star Trevor Richards will get the opening night start against Washington. Richards was 6-6 with a 3.36 ERA in 14 starts a year ago for Gateway.
Grizzlies return six pitchers
Richards is one of six pitchers returning to the Gateway staff this season and is one of three Grizzlies pitchers returning who were in the starting rotation a year ago.
Two year veteran Vincent Molesky was 5-6 with a high 5.13 ERA in 18 starts a year ago while 23-year-old Dakota Smith returns for his second year with Gateway after going 2-3 as both a starter and reliever last season.
The two new members of the rotation are left-hander Corey Kimes and 23-year-old Will Landsheft, who pitched in the Arizona Diamondbacks organization a year ago. Kimes could be the only left-hander kept on the Grizzlies opening day roster.
“We don’t keep a left-hander just because he’s left-handed. If we see a right-hander that is better or fits what we’re looking for better, then we’ll keep him,” Warren said. “Would we like to have a couple of left-handers in our bullpen? Sure we would. But at this level, if you see a quality left-hander, he’s usually playing affiliated ball. Good left-handers in this league are hard to come by and then they’re hard to keep if you do have one or two.”
Veteran JaVaun Smith along with Jordan Wellander and Ross Spurgeon also pitched for Gateway last year and will start the season in the bullpen.
Solid Gateway infield
Leading the way in the Grizzlies infield will be a pair of veterans in second baseman Seth Heck and first baseman Ben Waldrip.
Waldrip led the Grizzlies in RBI a year ago with 65 to go along with 10 home runs and a .289 average while Heck, who joined Gateway midway through the season and played shortstop, hit .275 a year ago.
Heck is being moved to second base this season while 24-year-old Logan Davis, who played with the Class AA Northwest Arkansas Royals last season, will be the shortstop.
“I like what we’ve got in the infield. Ben Waldrip had a good year last season with a .289 average and 65 RBI and Seth (Heck) did a nice job after we signed him,” Warren said. “Logan Davis played Double A ball last year and he’s got a real good glove at short. Craig Massoni played a little first base last season and also was our DH (designated hitter), but missed part of the season because of an injury. He’s playing third base then we’ve got Sreve Pascual and Vin (Guglietti) who will be uttility guys in the infield.”
Massoni hit .289 with seven home runs and 18 RBI a year ago in 26 games.
Tyler Tewell, who hit .270 in 51 games returns at catcher while rookie Tyler Nordgren will be his backup.
Speed, power in outfield
Powerhitting veteran Blake Brown makes the switch from center field to right field this season. But don’t think for a minute that it will affect Brown’s offense after the Bloomington native led the team in home runs with 22 and was second in RBI with 60 last season.
“We talked in the offseason and Blake is fine with it,” Warren said. “He’s got a very strong throwing arm and that should benefit this baseball team
“Plus we brought in Brandon (Thomas) from the Yankees organization who is a switch hitter and has a little more experience in center. Then we’ve got another quality player in Cody (Livesay) back to play left field and a versatile player in Sam Fischer who can play all three spots in the outfield and has great speed.”
Livesay led Gateway in hitting a year ago at .308, while Brown hit .261, despite striking out 110 times.
“I’ll still take the 22 home runs and 60 home runs that Blake (Brown) gives us. Sure he struck out 110 times, but I think he hit four or five walk-off home runs for us last year and like Ben (Waldrip), he has a flair of getting the two out hits with runners in scoring position,” Warren said. “I like this team and I like our potential.
“I think we’ve got a chance to have a good year. You are going to lose games. It’s going to happen. Our goal is to keep improving every day and win a series. If we win two of every three games we play and somebody beats us, then you tip your cap.”
Grizzlies on the radio
1400 AM KJFF will once again carry the majority of Gateway Grizzlies games, while 1570 AM/94.3 FM WBGZ will air select games throughout the upcoming season. Every game can be heard online or via any mobile device by visiting GatewayGrizzlies.com/Radio.