A months-long offseason process for Wingnuts manager Kevin Hooper and staff was dismantled in 24 hours this week as the roster was decimated by injuries and departures.
After the Wingnuts lost six players in one day, Hooper no longer had the luxury of scoping out prospective players’ behavioral histories and determining how they would fit in with a group that had established superior chemistry.
Instead, Hooper had a list. All he could look up was their statistics — numbers that gave him no information about how good they would be in the clubhouse or whether they would support their teammates.
Hooper lamented the task of replacing more than a quarter of the roster he dilligently built during the fall and winter while expressing confidence he can do it again in a shorter timeframe.
"There’s not a whole lot enjoyable about it, especially losing the guys we lost," Hooper said. "It’s always fun finding a shot in the dark in the middle of the year, but now we’re trying some prominent guys to come in here and fill some big spots. It might take a little while; fortunately we’re off to the start we’re off to."
The Wingnuts built a 30-9 record with significant contributions from first baseman C.J. Ziegler and second baseman Jake Kahaulelio, who signed with Tabasco of the Mexican League along with reliever James Hoyt on Saturday. Wichita also lost third baseman Juan Richardson and pitchers Ben Graham and Nate Robertson to injury.
Hooper did his homework on those players before adding them to the roster, an accommodation not afforded him this week. At his service was a database of recently released players that Hooper and general manager Josh Robertson pored over Thursday night into Friday.
Hooper and the Robertsons have connections with major league scouts and ex-players, and they tap into those connections, as well.
"It’s just contacting as many as guys as I can, using all my ties I have — all of us," Hooper said. "Just seeing what the best options out there at the positions we need. I’ve been on my phone all night (Friday) night and all morning (Saturday) —— you can ask my wife, she’ll tell you. We’ve got to get some good guys in here and get us back on track."
The Wingnuts get no compensation if a player leaves for the Mexican League or other unaffiliated leagues overseas, the result of lawsuits more than a decade ago. Mexico offers higher salaries but, Hooper believes, little chance of being discovered by an MLB franchise.
Without months to acquire the "right" players, the Wingnuts hope they can duplicate positive results by finding the best ones.
"We’ve had an edge about us all season long," Hooper said. "We’ve got to keep that edge and that confidence and demeanor that we carry ourselves with."
Last man standing — On Thursday, Wingnuts veteran designated hitter John Rodriguez was surrounded by a trio of .300 hitters (Kahaulelio, Rodriguez and Ziegler) who all supplied power and protection for Rodriguez.
Friday, those hitters were all gone. But Rodriguez managed to produce, going 3 for 4 with a home run. Eventually, pitchers may decide to be more careful with Rodriguez, Wichita’s No. 3 hitter, and give the more hittable pitches to the batters surrounding him.
"It’s definitely going to be a challenge, but then again it might not be a challenge," Rodriguez said. "They might come at me all the time and not even let the other guys beat them. (Pitchers) are so confident right now that they can get those guys out that they think if I hit a home run it’s going to be a solo."
Rodriguez’s eight homers are the most of any player on the roster currently. No other player has more than three, while Ziegler, Kahaulelio and Richardson combined for 19.
Newcomer — The Wingnuts signed center fielder Sean Smith on Friday, and he was in the lineup batting second that night. Smith was recently released by Gary-Southshore, where he batted .298 in 16 games.
Smith is most notable for his speed — he stole 52 bases with Somerset of the Atlantic League in 2009 and has five othe seasons with at least 27 steals. He was a 15th round draft pick by the Pirates in 2000 and reached Double-A seven years later with the Chicago White Sox.