Last season, we saw a lot of changes come to Canal Park. A rebranding of the team name, renovations throughout the park, and haul of new prospects ready to give their all in effort to someday make their way to The Show. After a hot start to the season, the RubberDucks hit some bumps along the way due to injuries to key players, player promotions, and some end of the season fatigue. They still worked their way into the Eastern League playoffs, but were eventually eliminated in the first round, despite their best efforts. Now in their second season as the RubberDucks, returning manager David Wallace looks to continue to compete with a lineup that seems just as deep as it has been in years past.
To start off the season in 2014, there were plenty of household named prospects like Francisco Lindor, Giovanny Urshela, Joey Wendle, and Tyler Naquin. While Naquin is returning this year, starting on the disabled list, the rest of the players listed have either been promoted, or traded to another team. The squad coming into this season is full of guys that many casual baseball fans may not have ever heard of before. Players like Todd Hankins, Bryson Myles, Erik Gonzalez, or Anthony Gallas.
“They might not be as well known outside the organization, but to us they’re right up there…When I’m making out the lineup, and it’s laughable who I’m putting down in the 7-8-9 hole. We’ve got [Tony] Wolters, Myles and [Alex] Lavisky tonight who could be middle of the order guys. It’s a real balanced lineup, but we feel like we could be a threat to score in any inning, with any outs.” Wallace said following Thursday night’s victory against the Binghamton Mets.
When looking at the RubberDucks roster, the first thing that pops up is the amount of depth that Wallace has to work with in each position. He has three catchers in Tony Wolters, Jake Lowery, and Jeremy Lucas. A plethora of infielders in Hankins, Erik Gonzalez, Yandy Diaz, and Ronny Rodriguez once he returns from the disabled list. Also, there are some quality outfielders, most notably Gallas, Myles, Jordon Smith, and Ollie Linton. The depth in the offense makes it easy for Wallace to create his lineup, but also a challenge as well. It’s the kind of challenge that a manager would be happy with having: determining which one of his great players is he going to put in the 7-8-9 slots?
“Bryson won’t stay in that eight hole all year, you’ll see him in the middle of the order, even the top of the order. That’s just how I wrote it out tonight,” Wallace said. “It’ll change up. I told the guys to not read too much into it where they are in the lineup. We could have flipped the lineup upside down and be fine.”
The only spot of weakness in the RubberDucks roster is found at first base. Last season, one-time all-star Bryan LaHair manned first base for the majority of the season, along with Rodriguez. This season, Lowery is going to be spending the majority of his time at first base due to Wolters being the primary catcher. Even then, Lowery is not a natural first basemen, but he is learning the position. In time, we could see a first base prospect from High-A Lynchburg make his way to Akron to take over that role. As for now though, Wallace expects Lowery to be a guy that he can rely on, not only on the field, but also in the clubhouse.
“All of these guys have leadership skills and abilities, which we love. Jake Lowery is a guy I think will really step up. He’s not afraid to say something when it needs to be said,” Wallace said.
As far as the pitching rotation goes, Cody Anderson and Will Roberts are leading the pack. Both Anderson and Roberts spent their whole season in Akron in 2014, and are looking to improve from the previous year. Anderson, the number ten prospect according to MLB.com, was victim of a horrendous year in 2014. From what has been seen in spring training, and in his first start this past Friday where he went 6.1 innings and gave up only one run on three hits, one walk, and three strikeouts, he looks to be in better shape going forward. Roberts, who was the workhorse of the rotation last season, got the nod for the opening day start where he pitched a gem through five, and scuffled a bit in the sixth where he surrendered four runs on six hits, one walk, and four strikeouts. Wallace is expecting big things out his returning pitchers this season.
“From what I’ve watched so far in the short time that we’ve been here, and in spring training, they’ve taken on a leadership role,” Wallace said.
Following up Anderson and Roberts, the rotation will be Shawn Morimando, Michael Clevinger, and Ryan Merritt, who was the recipient of the Bob Feller award for the top pitching prospect in the Indians system in 2014.
“Pretty sure we have the best fifth starter in the league,” Wallace said about Merrit. “Those guys don’t read too much into it…We definitely want to breakup Morimondo and Merrit due to similarities in being lefties and style. We’re confident with whoever’s going out there.”
Joseph Colon and Cole Sulser are also technically part of the roster, but they are both on the disabled list. Neither of which have a time table for when they’ll return. Colon was the undisputed ace of the rotation for most of the season in 2014, and Sulser pitched well at High-A Carolina and spent some time in Akron last season before suffering his injury which will sit him out for most, if not all, of 2015.
The bullpen consists of a mix of new and old faces. Some of these guys spent some time in Akron towards the end of the season like Grant Sides and Trey Haley. While some of them were here most of the season like Louis Head and Jordan Cooper. The new guys include Josh Martin, Clayton Cook, and Jeff Johnson. Martin came on in relief of Roberts on opening day, and was throwing smoke to each person he faced.
“I just thought the ball was really coming out of his hand,” Wallace said. “Real heavy ball. Real explosive. Sharp breaking ball. Down in the zone, elevated it when he wanted to. He was aggressive tonight.”
The pen is expected to be as solid as it was last season, but this is an area in minor league baseball that is always changing as pitching is always needed at every level. Half of these guys won’t even be in Akron come midseason, and we’ll see who gets brought up to replace them in time.
As far as the coaching staff goes, Wallace has returned for his second season along with pitching coach Jeff Harris. Tony Mansolino starts his first season with the RubberDucks as the hitting coach. Rouglas Odor was promoted to the Columbus Clippers in the offseason, and so Mansolino will slide into his role.
Going forward, this team is looking like they could make something special each night at Canal Park. The moto of the RubberDucks is “Affordable Family Fun,” and this team can definitely make each game fun to watch. Whether you’re coming down to check out which prospect is playing in the game, or just to enjoy the atmosphere created by Ken Babby and his crew, Canal Park is going to be an exciting place to be this summer.
As of Monday, the RubberDucks are currently 1-3 after dropping three consecutive games over the weekend. Merrit looks to make his debut Monday night against the Trenton Thunder.
Photo: Ed Suba Jr./Akron Beacon Journal