Meet the Nuts.
Yes, that’s an annual tradition around these parts as Modesto’s minor league baseball team enters the 10th season as an affiliate of the Colorado Rockies, but it also is true for first-year manager Don Sneddon.
There is a chance that he will look down to the bench for a pinch-hitter in tonight’s California League season opener at Bakersfield, look at a player’s face and blank on the name. What’s more, the players might be doing the same with each other.
All of that will be resolved within a day or two, but chalk it up as yet another difference between the majors and the minors. Major league teams are together for six weeks before opening day, with all but 3-4 players guaranteed opening day roster spots.
Minor league players – at least those not invited to major league camp – are in training for only about three weeks, and rosters are fluid during that time. A player may be in the Modesto work group on Monday, toil with Tulsa on Tuesday and Asheville on Wednesday, all the time working with different coaches.
“I’m very excited to get things rolling,” Sneddon said. “I haven’t had the chance to do much managing to this point. It’s all been development, and in spring training I’d be working with a kid and he’d move to a different group the next day. I know that can happen here, too. But it’s been an adjustment for me to get to know all the kids. This is going to be fun and I’ll enjoy that part of it.”
So to predict how the Nuts will finish this season, heck, even the style of play that will emerge as the 140-game season wears on, is a futile exercise.
Modesto’s lineup tonight at Sam Lynn Field will include several players expected to carry a lot of the offensive load, including returning players Trevor Story (shortstop/third base) and Will Swanner (catcher) plus newcomers Rosell Herrera (shortstop/third base) and Francisco Sosa (outfield.)
Sosa and Herrera both played in Asheville last season, and while the Tourists struggled to a 63-73 record in 2013, it wasn’t because of a lack of offense. Asheville hit .272 as a team, which led the South Atlantic League by 14 points, while the staff struggled to a 4.59 ERA.
“There is some potential offense that we’re excited about, and Story and Swanner are right up there, with Herrera and Sosa,” Sneddon said. “Those are the high-profile guys that we’ll hear a lot about. But the big questions will be on the pitching side. We just don’t know much about them, because we didn’t know who our pitchers were until the very last day. The guys were up and down between groups and we’ve haven’t seen them pitch.”
Ben Alsup, who led the California League with 13 wins last season, will be Modesto’s opening night starter. He and Tyler Gagnon, a starter last season who now is in the pen, are the only returners on the Nuts’ 13-man staff. The rotation initially will be filled out by Ryan Gibbard, Andrew Brown, Jayson Aquino and Matt Flemer, with the Dominican Aquino the only lefty on the staff.
Opening up with seven road game actually might kick-start the team bonding process. These guys have to be together for five months, so it helps that they get along.
“These guys know each other, so I’m not concerned about that,” Sneddon said. “They’ve been around each other and around spring training and some of them have been together in work groups. There have been guys who have been here before, so they’ll be fine with that part. It’s a matter of the guys being together and playing.”
But if there’s a prediction to be made about this year’s Nuts, it might have to do with the offense. Even the Modesto teams through the years that have ended up being excellent offensive squads struggled in April. Part of it is adjusting to the size of John Thurman Field, part of it is the cool early-season nights, and part of it is that pitchers always seem to be ahead of the hitters to start the season.
“The good news is that I haven’t been around for any of those slow starts, so I’ve going to be very optimistic and say we’re going to score runs,” Sneddon said. “The realistic value of this is that we know playing in this park requires adjustments.
“We played the guys who will be in San Jose, Visalia and Stockton down in spring training and it was tough to score runs down there. I don’t know who we were facing, and they could have been guys higher in the organization, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see scoring at a premium early in any baseball season, at any level. Usually the pitchers are ahead of the hitters in those first couple of weeks.”
With Tuesday’s exhibition game against CSU Stanislaus rained out, the home folks won’t get a chance to see the Nuts at John Thurman Field until next Thursday’s 7:05 game against Rancho Cucamonga.
By the time the seven-game homestand ends, Modesto will have played 20 percent of its first-half schedule, and introductions should no longer be necessary.
“We have an idea of who starters are through the organization and what direction they’re going, and how we’re going to be building a lineup around those guys,” Sneddon said. “As far as our team identity and becoming the Modesto Nuts, that’s done on the fly.”