AKRON Whether the Northeast Ohio weather is ready or not, baseball season has arrived for the Akron RubberDucks.
After the Cleveland Indians organization broke camp at spring training in Arizona, new RubberDucks manager Tony Mansolino, his staff and newly assembled roster made their way north and east to Akron, readying for the 140-game trek in front of them.
Mansolino, speaking to the media in his new office as players and staffers rushed around the clubhouse carrying belongings and getting situated, sees a team with a lot of talent and a few question marks.
"Well-rounded … as I look at it, I feel like we have good starting pitching, a good bullpen, we have guys who can run the base and I feel like we have a solid offense one through nine," Mansolino said. "Our defense, right now, is probably the one area where we’re going to need some work. Defense is probably our weakest area, which is not what you want, but my hope and my guess is that by the end of the year, it’s going to be one of our strongest areas."
Having been with the organization for several seasons, including managing at Lynchburg last season, Mansolino has previously managed about 60 percent of the players on Akron’s opening-day roster. Not only does he believe that exiting relationship helps him with those players he knows, but the first-year manager also views that connection as a way to relate to players he doesn’t know.
"What it does for me is they understand the culture that my staff and myself like to create here and how we like to run the clubhouse," Mansolino said. "They’ve already been exposed to it for a year, maybe two for some of them, so it’s going to be easier to get the guys we haven’t had in the past on board with the culture."
One of the players who is familiar with Mansolino but has never played for him as a manager is veteran infielder Joe Sever, who played for the RubberDucks last season. Sever, whose uncle is Football Hall of Famer John Elway, said that as a player who has been in Akron before and knows the Double-A level, he can bring a good perspective to the younger players on the roster.
After working for some of spring training as a catcher, adding to his ability to play virtually any position on the field, Sever enters the new season looking to contribute to the team while hopefully earning a promotion within the organization.
"It’s (arriving in Akron to start a new season) always weird. I’ve luckily been doing it for a while, so I’ve been through it before. It’s always interesting to get here because you’ve been working so long in spring training and to finally have the team set is nice. There’s a sense of relief knowing who you’re going to be playing with, but it’s always interesting. I think we have a good group here," Sever said. "I said it last year, it’s fun to be around those (younger) guys and you see guys stress a lot … this is a big jump from high (Class)-A to here - it’s the biggest one I’ve been through, so being able to help them not worry about stats and not panic, I think I can help them in that aspect of the game."
Mandolin described Sever as "incredible" and said that if someone talked to 100 different staff members within the organization, all 100 would say positive things about Sever a both a person and a player. If Sever does catch, he’ll work with a pitching staff stocked with strong prospects, including opening day starter Shane Bieber.
Bieber, who saw time with Akron, Lynchburg and Lake County last season, is considered a top pitching prospect for the Indians and asked about his 6-foot-3 right hander, Mansolino zeroed in on Bieber’s focus and competitive fire as the linchpins for his success.
Other promising members of the pitching staff include left hander Shane Brady, right hander Mitch Brown, right hander Argenis Angulo and right hander Aaron Civale. Bieber, Brady, Brown and Civale were all drafted in the first five rounds, so hopes are high for their careers.
On the offensive side, Sever, base stealing threat Willi Castro and first baseman Bobby Bradley should bring pretty of production for RubberDucks fans to enjoy. Fans may do a double take when they see Bradley for the first time, as the burly infielder got married in February and said that at the urging of his new wife, he’s slimmed down and arrived in camp about 30 pounds lighter.
Whether that new physique helps him in the field or affects his power at the plate is to be determined, but Mansolino said that he’s confident Bradley will hit the ball effectively and added that his primary focus as a manager is to make Bradley a better base runner and defender.
With Bradley and all of his players, Mansolino wants to build good working connections in order to help each of them improve and enhance their chances to succeed and move forward in their careers.
"I feel like part off my job is to establish relationships, so with guys we’ve had in the past and even guys here we haven’t had, I feel like over the years, since I’ve been in the organization, I’ve created a blueprint to those relationships," Mansolino said. "That’s the name of the game for us as staff members, it’s hugely important."
With two season-opening series on the road, the RubberDucks won’t play their home opener until April 13. Before then, they’ll take on Altoona and Binghamton, the latter pitting them against the Eastern League’s most-famous outfielder, former Heisman Trophy winner and NFL quarterback Tim Tebow, assigned to the Binghamton Rumble Ponies to begin the season.
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