Captains baseball is back as the Class-A Lake County squad opened the 2017 season on the road against the Dayton Dragons. While Mother Nature prevailed in the suspended opener, the Captains would win the continuation of the game, 9-1, the following day, giving new manager Larry Day his first career managerial win.
Day returned to the Captains after spending last season working as the hitting coach at High-A Lynchburg for Mark Budzinski, another former Captains skipper. He took over for Tony Masolino, who moved into Budzinski’s vacant seat with the Hillcats when he was moved up to lead the Double-A Akron RubberDucks.
Day is quite familar with the Lake County organization already, having previously worked as the Captains’ hitting coach in 2015.
The 32-year-old Day is joined by bench coach Junior Betances, who returns for his second season in the role with the Captains. Jason Blanton comes over from the Seattle Mariners organization for his first season as a pitching coach in the Indians organization. Former Tribe farmhand Justin Toole, possibly best remembered for appearing at all nine positions in one game, will serve as the team’s hitting coach.
Several exciting pitching prospects will make up the Captains staff to start the 2017 season, highlighted by 2015 first rounder Brady Aiken. The left-hander took the loss in the home opener on Saturday in his Captains debut after working in 14 games for the organization in the Arizona League and the New York-Penn League last year in his return from Tommy John surgery.
Twenty-year-old right-hander Micah Miniard got the start in the season opener against the Dragons and returns to the Captains after making eight starts for the club last season. Third round pick of the 2016 draft, Aaron Civale, joins them after making 13 starts for short-season Mahoning Valley a year ago. The Indians’ pick in the follow round, Shane Bieber, follows Civale in the rotation after some impressive numbers in limited action with the Scrappers in 2016 (over nine games, he posted a 0.38 ERA and a 0.50 WHIP). Nineteen-year-old southpaw Juan Hillman rounds out the rotation in Eastlake after making 15 starts for Mahoning Valley last season.
Right-hander Justin Garza and left-hander Tanner Tully are scheduled to work in relief of the starters. Tully joined the organization when he was selected in the 26th round out of the Ohio State University last season. He put up impressive numbers with the Scrappers on the way to being named a midseason All-Star in the league and he ended the year with a 4-1 record with a 1.17 ERA and 0.89 WHIP in 13 games (seven starts).
The rest of the Lake County bullpen will be comprised of left-hander Ben Krauth, who returns to the Captains roster for a second season, and right-handers Domingo Jimenez, Michael Letkewicz, Henry Martinez, Ryder Ryan, and Dalbert Siri.
Ice, 21, was an early draft pick for the Indians last season. The switch-hitting backstop worked in 39 games for Mahoning Valley in 2016. Chu, the 23-year-old out of Taiwan, spent 26 games with the Captains last season, while De La Cruz, also 23 and from Venezuela, split time behind Lake County and Lynchburg last season.
The infield features Erlin Cerda, Alexis Pantoja, Jorma Rodriguez, Emmanuel Tapia, and Luke Wakamatsu. Cerda was an All-Star and the game’s MVP while with Mahoning Valley last season and returned to Lake County to close out the season in September. Wakamatsu was a 20th round pick in 2015 and is the son of former Seattle Mariners manager and Kansas City Royals bench coach Don Wakamatsu.
Left-handed hitting Jose Medina is the senior man in the outfield at just 22 years old. He spent 60 games with the Captains last season, hitting .240 with eight homers and 22 RBI. Several young and fresh faces will fill out the lineup card in the outfield, including fourth-year speedster Gabriel Mejia, third-year pro Todd Isaacs, and 2016 draft pick Conner Capel.
Mejia, 21, spent the last two seasons in Arizona and with the short-season Mahoning Valley squad. He has stolen 140 bases in 180 attempts over his three partial minor league seasons and he hit .322 last season with the Scrappers. Isaacs, 20, had six homers and drove in 20 while hitting .333 over 44 games with Mahoning Valley in 2016. The newest of the bunch, Capel, was taken in the fifth round last season out of high school. He is the son of former MLB pitcher Mike Capel, who pitched in the Majors in 1988, 1990, and 1991 with the Chicago Cubs, Milwaukee Brewers, and Houston Astros, respectively.
The Captains won both games that they played on Friday at Dayton before returning home to Classic Park for two more with the Dragons. Aiken and Bieber were both dealt losses, as Lake County fell 7-3 to Dayton on Saturday and 6-0 on Sunday.
Isaacs was the offensive star of the trip to Dayton, hitting a pair of homers while driving in four in the season opening win. Mejia had two hits, a sacrifice fly, and three RBI in the regularly scheduled contest on Friday.
Aiken allowed two runs over four innings in his loss on Saturday, as the bullpen allowed five more runs after his exit. Bieber had a similar line on Sunday, with two runs surrendered in four and two-thirds innings while striking out seven, but the relief staff allowed four more runs and the offense managed just four hits against Dragons pitching.
The Captains will host the Great Lakes Loons for three straight starting Monday before hitting the road for three in Lansing against the Lugnuts beginning Thursday night.
Photo: Chris M. Worrell/Plain Dealer Correspondent