The Columbus Clippers will kick off a special 2018 season on Friday night.
Huntington Park will play host to both the Triple-A All-Star Game on July 11 and the Triple-A National Championship Game on September 18, putting the home of the Clippers in the spotlight for some of the biggest games in minor league baseball in 2018. This season also happens to be the tenth anniversary of the Clippers move downtown from their old digs at Cooper Stadium.
Last season, the Clippers missed the playoffs, finishing second in the International League’s West Division with a 71-71 record. The team has a lot of new faces for 2018, looking to improve upon that mark under another year of Chris Tremie’s leadership. It will be year 13 as a manager for Tremie in the Indians’ farm system, including his sixth straight season at the helm in Columbus.
Tremie brings plenty of experience with him to the dugout. A minor league catcher for 14 seasons and a veteran of 22 games over four different Major League seasons for the White Sox, Rangers, Pirates, and Astros, he jumped right into the coaching ranks following his final season of play in 2005. He had spent no more than two years at any one stop in the organization until he landed in Columbus.
Tremie is joined on his coaching staff by pitching coach Steve Karsay, hitting coach Johnny Narron, and bench coach Bobby Magallanes.
Shawn Morimando has been named the Clippers’ Opening Day starter on Friday when the club opens in Indianapolis. The southpaw struggled in spots last season in his second stint in the Clippers rotation, going 10-9 with a 4.41 ERA and a 1.47 WHIP in 26 starts last season.
Stephen Fife, Alexi Ogando, Adam Plutko, and Adam Wilk are expected to join him in the starting rotation. A completely new bullpen will feature the returning Louis Head as well as new faces Jeff Beliveau, Preston Claiborne, Jack Leathersich, Evan Marshall, Neil Ramirez, Ben Taylor, and Robert Zarate. Cam Hill and Josh Martin will start the year on the disabled list. Julian Merryweather, who was expected to be one of the top arms in the rotation, will miss the season after undergoing Tommy John surgery during the spring. R.C. Orlan, a left-handed reliever, was moved to Akron on Thursday and Cole Sulser has been temporarily reassigned to Mahoning Valley.
IN THE FIELD
One of the players to keep an eye on for the Clippers is the Indians’ top prospect, catcher Francisco Mejia. How much time Mejia gets behind the plate, however, remains to be seen. His path to a role at the Major League level is clearly blocked by two of the better defensive catchers in the game in Yan Gomes and Roberto Perez, so he is expected to log some innings in right field for the Clippers to increase his chances of contributing with the Indians at some point during the season.
It will be Mejia’s first exposure to Triple-A pitching after jumping from Double-A to the Majors in September of last season. While with the RubberDucks in 2017, the 22-year-old switch-hitter played in 92 games, putting up a .297/.346/.490 line at the plate with 21 doubles, 14 homers, and 52 RBI.
Eric Haase will also get his first real look at the Triple-A level after a breakout performance last season splitting time behind the plate with Mejia at Akron. A free agent after the season, the Indians re-signed him to a minor league deal and added him to the 40-man roster as a swing adjustment led to a massive uptick in his power numbers. The 25-year-year old six-year pro launched a career-best 27 homers in 2017, including 26 in just 95 games at Akron, and slashed .260/.352/.578. He added one more in his brief two-game stint at the end of the season with Columbus in his first appearance at the top level of the farm system.
Backing up Haase and Mejia in Columbus at some point will be free agent addition Jack Murphy, who came over from the Los Angeles Dodgers organization. The season opener will mark the 30th birthday for the switch-hitting nine-year pro out of Princeton, but he will start the season on the disabled list.
Diaz is just a phone call away from a return to the Indians after a good spring, but Jose Ramirez stands in his way of regular playing time at third base. Diaz has proven himself capable of handling the minor league game, but he has not been able to latch on permanently in Cleveland, especially with the roster crunch the club was facing with out-of-option players and former Clippers Erik Gonzalez and Gio Urshela in March.
Rodriguez had a tough year in his debut in Columbus, hitting just .170 with a .271 on-base percentage in 120 games. His 17 homers were his fewest in a season since 2013.
Former Indians first baseman Mike Napoli will start the season at Columbus, providing the Tribe with an insurance policy. If he starts the season well, chances are that he would be dealt to an interested club if an opportunity does not present itself with the Indians. He hit 29 homers last season with the Texas Rangers, but he hit just .193 and is 36 years old. He could see time at both first base and DH.
Yu Chang was a late addition to the roster. He was earmarked for Akron, but the injury to utility man and fellow 40-man roster member Eric Stamets and the loss of Drew Maggi to a PED suspension for 50 games created a need at short. He will be joined in the infield by veteran Adam Rosales, who was a camp cut by Philadelphia, at second base and Todd Hankins.
In addition to the potential work put in by Mejia, the outfield will see Greg Allen, Brandon Barnes, Tyler Naquin, Mike Papi, and Richie Shaffer. Allen will get his first extended look at Columbus after being added to the 40-man roster by the Indians last September. He played significant innings for the Indians down the stretch last season and could get another look this year. The 31-year-old Barnes joins the organization for the first time after spending last season at Triple-A New Orleans (Miami affiliate). Naquin was optioned to the club on Thursday to make room for the activation of Michael Brantley and will begin his fourth season with the Clippers. Papi returns for his second season in Columbus after hitting .235 there in 37 games last year. Shaffer was one of the leading home run hitters on the minor league landscape last season, hitting 30 homers and driving in 89 in 131 games. The corner infielder and outfielder was an MiLB.com Organizational All-Star, an International League mid-season All-Star, and the Triple-A All-Star Game Top Star for the IL last season.
The Clippers open their season with four games on the road against the Indianapolis Indians and three more in Louisville against the Bats. They will come home to Columbus on Thursday, April 12, for a home opening four-game series with the Durham Bulls.