AKRON Akron RubberDucks fans will see plenty of familiar faces in uniform as the new season gets underway, even if the team has undergone some major changes since winning the Eastern League championship last fall.
Of the 25 players on the team’s opening day roster, 16 have spent time in Akron before. New manager Mike Budzinski is among those getting used to unfamiliar surroundings in Akron, but is excited to see the season get underway.
“The number one thing is letting the guys get settled in, finding a place to live and the first couple days, just get acclimated to the area,” Budzinski said. “More so than anything, we just want guys to get their legs under them and get comfortable with their surroundings.”
There is plenty of exciting talent on hand even though a large number of top prospects who helped fuel last season’s title push have moved on. Infielder Bobby Bradley is a power bat who has been among the top home run hitters in each minor league he’s played in so far in his young career and outfielder Greg Allen is a speedy athlete who played a portion of the season in Akron last year.
Early in the baseball season, the maxim tends to be that pitching is ahead of hitting and if that’s the case in the Eastern League, the RubberDucks are well-equipped to succeed.
Returning pitchers Rob Kaminsky, Michael Peoples, Julian Merryweather and Nick Pasquale, all of who made an impact on the team last season.
Kaminsky came to the organization in July 2015 in a trade with the St. Louis Cardinals and is ranked by MLB.com as the 14th-best prospect in the organization. Merryweather, who earned the start in tonight’s season opener, was ranked by Baseball America as having the best fastball in the Indians farm system.
After splitting last season between Class-A Lynchburg and Akron, he’s hopeful to take another step forward this season.
“I just want to improve the consistency of my delivery … every pitcher has those moments and greatness and it’s just balling up and doing it over and over again,” Merryweather said.
Pasquale was one of the heroes of the EL title run in 2016, turning in two impressive postseason starts in which he threw a combined 13 2/3 innings and allowed just one run, including earning the win in Akron’s title-clinching win at Trenton.
Merryweather likes the depth of the rotation from the top through the fifth starter and expressed confidence that any time he hands the ball off to the bullpen, the game will be in good hands.
Getting the offense rolling can be challenging early in the season when the weather is often cold and inhospitable to hitting, but there is power in the lineup.
Bradley was a third-round pick by the Indians in 2014 and played the entire 2016 season in Lynchburg, hitting 29 home runs and driving in 102 runs. Baseball America ranked him as the top power hitter in the Indians minor-league system. He should have plenty of company in driving in runs in the middle of the lineup, as new shortstop Yu Chang will make the move up to Akron as well. Chang was inked as a free agent back in 2013 and the native of Taiwan hit 13 home runs and drove in 70 runs last season.
While it’s hard to know how good a team will be entering a new season because so many of its pieces haven’t played together before, there is a definite enthusiasm at Canal Park. Last year proved that even with trades, promotions and injuries altering the roster on a near-daily basis, the organization has the structure in place to continue winning.
Budzinksi will take on the challenge of continuing the winning ways the RubberDucks developed in three seasons under former manager Dave Wallace, who moved on to a non-managing position with the organization during the offseason. It’s a long season ahead, but a sixth EL championship for the organization is the driving force as the process gets underway and the chase begins.
Reach Andy at 330-580-8936
On Twitter: @aharrisBURB