Columbus may open the International League schedule on Thursday night, but even more eyes will be on the club on Friday, when the Clippers will become Los Veleros de Columbus for the first of 397 Copa de la Diversión games scattered across the minor league landscape on the 2019 schedule.
In addition to the new nickname and colorful new jerseys and logos coinciding with their participation in the “Fun Cup” this season, the Clippers will also begin life anew with a new skipper at the helm, Tony Mansolino, who takes over for long-time Columbus captain Chris Tremie.
Tremie had spent each of the last six years in the command chair for the Clippers, guiding the club to .500 records or better in each of his last five years in town. Prior to heading to the state capital, he managed at every level of the Indians farm system dating back to 2006 (his first season after hanging up his playing cleats after a four-year MLB career). Now 49, Tremie is still in Ohio, but is getting out from the dugout in a brand new capacity, serving the Cincinnati Reds as their minor league field coordinator.
The 36-year-old Mansolino heads to Columbus after working with Double-A Akron a season ago and becomes the 22nd Clippers manager. His coaching staff will consist of 32-year-old Kyle Hudson at his side as the team’s bench coach, 45-year-old Andy Tracy as the hitting coach, and 49-year-old veteran pitching coach Rigo Beltran. Hudson was the bench coach with Lynchburg in 2017 and Lake County in 2018. Beltran has been a pitching coach in the Indians’ minor league system since 2014.
“This 2019 season will mark the biggest change we have ever had in our on field staff,” said Clippers President and General Manager Ken Schnacke in a January press release announcing the team’s coaching staff. “While all but one of them will be new to Columbus, we are looking forward to having them join us and guide our players through this upcoming season.”
Mansolino has been on the fast track through the Indians’ farm system since moving into a managerial role for the organization in 2016. After spending five seasons as a minor league hitting coach, he took the lead of the Class-A Lake County Captains in 2016. He moved to Virginia for the 2017 season, leading the High-A Lynchburg Hillcats to the Carolina League championship while being named Manager of the Year. He spent last season in Akron with the Double-A RubberDucks, finishing the year with a winning record for the third straight campaign.
The Clippers will begin the season with four of the Indians’ top 30 prospects on their roster (according to MLB Pipeline).
Eric Haase will be the primary game caller for the Clippers. The 26-year-old has developed significant power over the years and has worked hard at his craft behind the plate, throwing out 49% of would-be base stealers last season. He worked in 120 games with Columbus last year, slashing .236/.288/.443 with 24 doubles, three triples, 20 homers, and 71 RBI. He made his Major League debut in September with the Indians and appeared in nine games, hitting .125 with two singles and one run batted in.
The infield has some question marks and will change over the course of the season due to Cleveland’s injured list residents Francisco Lindor and Jason Kipnis. The latter is expected to begin a rehab assignment with the Clippers on Friday.
The known is slugger Bobby Bradley at first base, the Indians’ number six prospect. The 22-year-old and third round pick in 2014 concluded another power-packed season in his fifth pro campaign in 2018 while reaching the Triple-A level for the first time. His overall triple slash numbers were down due to 148 strikeouts over 129 games played, but he still set a new best with 26 doubles and five triples while adding 27 homers and 83 RBI. While he hit 40 points higher in Triple-A, his power did not necessarily follow him from Double-A, as he hit 19 doubles and 24 homers in 97 games in Akron, but just seven doubles and three homers in 32 games in Columbus.
Yu Chang, the number eleven prospect, will also see a heavy workload in Columbus. The 23-year-old from Taiwan has steadily climbed the organizational ladder and spent all of last season with the Clippers. He worked in 127 games (a career-high), putting up a .256/.330/.411 slash with 28 doubles, two triples, 13 homers, and 62 RBI. He hit 24 homers the previous season with Akron. A member of the 40-man roster already, he was thought to be a candidate to help the Indians’ depleted middle infield this season, but a spring injury and the desire to get him consistent at bats will have him beginning the year back at the top of the farm system. While he is expected to log the majority of his innings at short, he could see time at second and third for a second straight season while trying to improve his stock for a potential utility role in Cleveland down the road. He could also be a prime trade candidate later in the season, unless the Indians envision him in a role with the parent club next season at second or third base.
Eric Stamets will likely return to the Clippers and plug a hole in the infield at some point this month when Tribe players get healthy. In the meantime, newly re-signed utility man Ryan Flaherty, veteran Mike Freeman, and Mark Mathias will fill out the Columbus infield.
The outfield is a mix of young and old, with a big name to watch for the future.
Oscar Mercado’s stock has pushed him to the 19-spot on the Indians’ top 30 prospect list. A quiet trade deadline acquisition last year, the 24-year-old had an impressive spring that put him on the radar as a potential call-up candidate for the Tribe (he slashed .400/.415/.750 in 21 Cactus League games with three doubles, one triple, three homers, and nine RBI). An offseason swing adjustment may have factored in to his better numbers, and the need to get him regular at bats helped make the decision to send him back to the minors for more seasoning. A converted shortstop, his offense had picked up since moving to the outfield while in the minors with the St. Louis Cardinals, but his numbers were down with Columbus (.252/.342/.320 in 32 games with five doubles, one triple, no homers, and five RBI) in the final stretch of the season. He is a speed threat, too, stealing as many as 50 bases in 2015.
Carlos Gonzalez will be the other name to watch, albeit for a very brief stint, as the 33-year-old eleven-year big league vet has an out clause in his contract later this month. Unsigned until late in the spring, Gonzalez will work to get his legs under him quickly and to get into game shape to attempt to help the Indians outfield get more offensive. CarGo is a three-time All-Star, a three-time Gold Glove winner, a two-time Silver Slugger, and the National League’s batting title winner in 2010, but his numbers have been trending downward in the last few seasons. In his tenth season with Colorado last year, the right fielder hit .276 with a .329 on-base percentage and a .467 slugging mark with 32 doubles, four triples, 16 homers, and 64 RBI. No longer the consistent 20-20 threat on the field that he was early in his career, he has still been productive at the plate in recent years. He hit a career-high 40 homers in 2015 and reached the century mark in RBI the following season for the second time in his career.
Cameron Maybin joined the Indians minor league outfield mix last week on a minor league contract and will log work there until an opportunity arises in Cleveland or elsewhere. Trayce Thompson, 28, hit .293 in big league camp in 20 games and will keep fresh in the minors in the event that the Indians need him. Triple-A vet Brandon Barnes, 32, returns for his eighth season at the top farm level and his second with Cleveland. He was an International League mid-season and post-season All-Star with Columbus last year.
Mike Papi, 26, will return to Columbus for his third season of work there, but will open the year on the 7-day injured list. Former Clipper Bradley Zimmer could see time with the club during and after his rehab work is completed, and other current members of the Indians’ outfield puzzle could find themselves back in Columbus in the near future if unable to be productive.
The rotation, like the infield, is an unknown, especially after the right forearm injury that will sideline Adam Plutko to start the season. He is one of three different pitchers who will open the year on the 7-day injured list.
Plutko was expected to be the number one starter on the staff. Chih-Wei Hu will start the opener on Thursday, with Cody Anderson (returning from a lengthy Tommy John rehab), Shao-Ching Chiang, Michael Peoples, and offseason trade pickup Jefry Rodriguez rounding out the starting rotation.
Nick Goody could be the first of the arms called up to Cleveland when needed. He is working his way back from a right elbow strain that cost him four months of the 2018 season. Nick Wittgren, who came over from Miami in the offseason for former Clipper Jordan Milbrath, pitched in the Majors with the Marlins from 2016-2018. Henry Martinez and R.C. Orlan will return to the Clippers for the second straight year. Offseason additions A.J. Cole, Brooks Pounders, Josh D. Smith, and Asher Wojciechowski will also be called upon by Mansolino.
The Clippers/Veleros will open the 2019 season with a seven-game homestand, hosting the Indianapolis Indians for four games and the Louisville Bats for three, beginning with first pitch at 6:05 PM ET on Thursday night.