Fresh Faces Fill RubberDucks Clubhouse as Akron Opens Season Thursday

The potential stars of the future united at Canal Park in Akron on Tuesday as members of the RubberDucks got settled into their new home after working out in Arizona over parts of the last two months.

The defending Eastern League champions will look to add a sixth title to the team’s mantel this season with a new skipper, some familiar faces, and an influx of new weapons with playoff experience who have advanced from High-A Lynchburg.

The quest for the championship begins Thursday night when the ‘Ducks host the Bowie BaySox.

One of the more notable changes for the RubberDucks this offseason hits right at the top of the leadership chain. Gone is manager David Wallace, who led the Akron squad to winning records in each of the last three seasons, including the Eastern League title last season. Replacing him at skipper is Mark Budzinski, who moves up one rung of the Indians’ farm system from Lynchburg after spending 2014 as manager at Class-A Lake County and the past two seasons with the Hillcats. A longtime Indians minor league outfielder, he spent parts of eleven seasons in the minors and played four games in the Majors with the Cincinnati Reds in 2003.

“I was fortunate to play in Akron in the late ‘90s,” he shared in a January press release. “It’s an awesome town with amazing fans and Canal Park is a great place for a ballgame.”

Budzinski’s coaching staff consists of Tony Arnold (pitching coach), Johnny Narron (hitting coach), and Omir Santos (bench coach). Arnold spent last season at Lynchburg and has been a pitching coach in the Indians farm system since 1993. He last worked with Akron in 2011 and 2012. Santos played in the Indians organization in 2013 and his one game with the Indians that season was his final big league game.

The Akron rotation will be led by Opening Day starter Julian Merryweather. The 25-year-old right-hander out of Oklahoma Baptist was a 5th round selection by the Indians in 2014 and split last season between Lynchburg and Akron.

“I had [Budzinski] for the first half of last year, so I’m already pretty familiar with him,” said Merryweather in an interview with Did The Tribe Win Last Night on Tuesday. “Having some consistency from a managerial position is huge and I think we have that with Bud this year just like we had with [Wallace] last season.”

He will be joined in the rotation by returning ‘Ducks Rob Kaminsky, Michael Peoples, D.J. Brown, and Nick Pasquale. Peoples was tied for the Eastern League lead in wins last season with 12, and Kaminsky was right on his heels with 11. Kaminsky was one of the top starting pitchers in the league, finishing fourth among qualified starters with a 3.28 ERA and second with a .241 batting average against.

Moving up from High-A as a rotation option as well will be Luis Lugo, the 23-year-old southpaw out of Venezuela who will be getting his first taste of Double-A after spending the last two seasons in Lynchburg. He was also a member of Italy’s team in the World Baseball Classic.

The bullpen will consist of right-handers Robbie Aviles, Travis Banwart, Mitch Brown, Cameron Hill, and Cole Sulser, and left-handers David Speer and Matt Whitehouse. Brown and Whitehouse will be making their first appearances on the Akron roster. Banwart returns to the states after spending the last three seasons pitching in Korea. The 31-year-old was briefly a member of the Indians’ Triple-A Columbus affiliate in 2014 before heading into the foreign league.

Dylan Baker, a member of the Indians’ 40-man roster, will start the season on the 7-day disabled list for Akron. He has missed nearly two years of action while dealing with Tommy John surgery in 2015 and a cleanup procedure on the same elbow last year. He is expect to make his return to the mound for the RubberDucks later this month.

The infield will have a new look to it as several of the organization’s top prospects have moved up from Virginia to the Double-A level.

Bobby Bradley, the power-hitting 20-year-old first baseman, continues his steady ascent through the organization as he enters his fourth season of professional action after being selected in the third round of the 2014 draft out of high school. He will replace Nellie Rodriguez at first base for Akron and is coming off of a season in which he hit 29 homers and drove in 102 runs while being named the Carolina League Most Valuable Player.

His teammate from Lynchburg, Yu-Cheng Chang, will be throwing baseballs across the diamond to Bradley in his first taste of the Double-A level. The 21-year-old from Taiwan finished his third season in the Indians farm system with strong improvements to his offensive game, as he hit 30 doubles, eight triples, and 13 homers while driving in 70 for the high scoring Hillcats offense in 2016.

Cleveland’s fourth round pick in 2015, Tyler Krieger, will make the jump to Akron after just a half season at Lynchburg. The 23-year-old second baseman, who did not play in his first half season after being drafted by the Indians out of Clemson while recovering from injury, opened last season at Lake County and hit .313 with a .385 on-base percentage, earning him a Midwest League midseason All-Star nod prior to his late-June promotion. He put up similar positive numbers with the Hillcats, hitting .282 with a .369 OBP during the final two months of the season.

Also returning to the Akron infield mix are utility men Ivan Castillo, Todd Hankins, and Joe Sever, and shortstop Eric Stamets.

Greg Allen returns to Akron for a second season after his midseason promotion one year ago. He hit .290 with a .399 OBP and 26 runs scored in just 37 games with the ‘Ducks. He hit .298 with a .424 OBP in 92 games with Lynchburg and was 45-for-58 stealing bases. The 24-year-old is 121-for-155 in his minor league career stealing bases. His well-rounded game earned him a trip to Goodyear as a non-roster invitee to the spring festivities.

Mejia - Tim Warner/Getty Images
Mejia – Tim Warner/Getty Images

Dorssys Paulino, 22, will appear at the Double-A level for the first time in his professional career. The former shortstop prospect has converted exclusively into an outfielder, but has struggled to remain on the field due to injuries. Taylor Murphy and Mike Papi are the other outfielders on the roster.

Behind the plate, Francisco Mejia will make his Double-A debut this season after spending last season between Lake County and Lynchburg. The switch-hitting member of the Indians’ 40-man roster spent the spring in camp with the Indians and had an opportunity to learn from some of the better defensive catchers in the game today.

“I feel good. I worked hard in the spring with the big league coaches and with the big league team,” Mejia shared with the media on Tuesday. “I learned about the routine every day with the hitting coach. I learned about hitting a lot. I was surprised, I was excited to be there.

“Gomes and Perez [taught] me a lot about catching. And Sandy Alomar, too.”

Mejia is the number two prospect in the Indians farm system and one of the top 100 prospects in baseball today. He found notoriety last season with his incredible 50-game hitting streak, the fourth-longest in the history of minor league baseball.

Catcher Eric Haase will return to the RubberDucks roster to start the season. He hit .208 with a dozen homers last season and was instrumental in the ‘Ducks run to the Eastern League title, as he drove in seven runs, including a grand slam in the EL Championship Series against the Trenton Thunder, and was later named the postseason MVP.

The ‘Ducks home opener is scheduled for a 6:35 PM ET first pitch from Canal Park on Thursday as the organization beings its 21st season in Akron. The first 5,000 fans at the park will receive a magnet schedule and there will be both a pre-game ring ceremony and championship banner unveiling as well as postgame fireworks.

The club will be in town for a week, playing four with Bowie through the weekend and three against Trenton before hitting the road for a six-game trip.

Photo: David Monseur/Akron RubberDucks

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