Except for the ballpark itself, venerable Zephyrs Field, that there is a new regime with a new feel with the team was evident Tuesday.
Ace pitcher Justin Nicolino said there is no nonsense with first-year Zephyrs manager Arnie Beyeler.
“You get in, you get your work done on improving and you get out,” Nicolino said.
When the Zephyrs open the season Thursday at Omaha, however, they will have nine pitchers who were on last year’s staff that set a franchise record with 15 shutouts and finished second in the Pacific Coast League in ERA.
Last season, however, the staff was ravaged by call-ups to the parent Miami Marlins, which played a part in the Z’s finishing 58-86, the second-worst record in franchise history.
“We’ve got some depth, some good arms and some guys who know how to pitch,” Beyeler said. “Hopefully, we’ll get them consistent and ready to go.”
Nicolino, who made 12 starts last season with the Marlins, will be the opening-day starter for the second consecutive season. He will be joined on a staff that includes talented Kendry Flores and Andre Rienzo, with hard-throwing closer Jose Urena and Pacific Coast League All-Star Nick Wittgren heading the bullpen.
Only three position players return. However, former LSU standout Austin Nola, who batted .280 in 61 games with the Z’s, will start the season in Triple-A. Nola worked on his hitting during the offseason and batted .321 in 24 spring training games with the Marlins.
The biggest, most needed development could be improved hitting. The Zephyrs hit just 68 home runs last season, the lowest in franchise history.
This season, the Z’s may have some pop in their bats, although Zephyr Field in muggy summer doesn’t lend itself too much power hitting. Xavier Scruggs, an outfielder/first baseman who hit 35 home runs over the past two seasons with the Memphis Redbirds, is expected to provide power. Scruggs also spent parts of the past two seasons with the St. Louis Cardinals.
“If you look at his things from the past, he shows you he’s a pretty good baseball player,” Beyeler said. “He was with a good organization and came up through the system. He’s going to be a big bat in the middle of the lineup and expected to move the ball around and drive in some runs.”
Hitting coach Dave Phillips said there are plenty of “power potentials” in the lineup, mentioning first baseman Danny Black, who along with infielder Zach Lutz played in South Korea last season.
“We’ve put together a good plan, and we have a slot approach to what we’re trying to accomplish at the plate,” Phillips said. “As long as we stay on that plan and not deviate from what we’re trying to do, I think we’ll have some good results.”
The top of the batting order will have outfielder Kenny Wilson, who was second in the Double-A Southern League with 37 steals last season. Nola, because of his ability to hit behind runners, bunt and execute the hit-and-run, likely will be second, setting the stage for the power hitters.
However, Beyeler said he’s not overly concerned about hitting, last season’s results notwithstanding. With the Z’s pitching staff, the onus will be on defense and playing the game the right way, he said.
“Winning is part of development, and you’ve got to learn how to win,” he said. “You have to learn to move runners, to get guys out in tough spots. If you can’t do it down here, you certainly can’t do it in the big leagues when the pressure is on and it’s all about winning.”
Defense should not be a problem with the outfield. Wilson will be joined by returnee Isaac Galloway and newcomer Destin Hood, all of whom are very fast, with Scruggs also playing in the outfield.
“We’ve got some good athletes who can run down balls and take advantage of the space we do have” in Zephyr Field.
The infield may be the question mark, but Beyeler is betting on the veteran presence that will be there, including Black and Lutz.