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Wingnuts may be forced to tinker with 2014 roster

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Saturday, Sep. 21, 2013, at 7:21 p.m.

The same core group of baseball players got the Wingnuts to consecutive American Association championship series without being able to win one. Most of the important offseason decisions will revolve around whether to give that group another chance or to chase the elusive championship with a different blend.

Simply speaking, keeping the team together might be the smart choice. The Wingnuts set a league record with 68 regular-season wins and didn’t see real struggles until the final two games of the postseason, which they lost to league-champion Gary SouthShore.

Several players also reached individual milestones, including C.J. Ziegler’s 30 home runs, which established a league standard. Abel Nieves won the batting title and veteran designated hitter John Rodriguez reached 1,500 professional hits and 900 RBIs.

League rules and other circumstances might not allow the Wingnuts to operate simply. Wichita was hugging the salary cap for most of the season before finally getting under it by operating its roster one player short late in the season. New rookies will have to be found to satisfy the league minimum of four, and inevitably some players will either retire, sign elsewhere or be traded.

It’s difficult to make those decisions in the aftermath of a season that ended in disappointment, though, so manager Kevin Hooper will be deliberate in putting the 2014 Wingnuts together if he decides he wants to be a part of them. His contract expired at the end of this season.

“I’m going to re-evaluate a lot of things this offseason, depending on what I end up doing and what we decide to bring back,” Hooper said.

Hooper has been mentioned, at least as speculation from media that covers the team, as a possibility for the managerial opening with the Toledo Mudhens, the Triple-A affiliate of the Detroit Tigers. Hooper played for Toledo for three seasons and made his major-league debut with Detroit in 2005, becoming a favorite of manager Jim Leyland.

Hooper has turned down offers in the past to coach in the lower levels of the Tigers and Florida Marlins organization.

If Hooper stays, one of his and general manager Josh Robertson’s toughest decisions could be what to do with Rodriguez. Though Rodriguez finished second on the Wingnuts in batting, homers and RBIs with a .337-19-86 line, the team may elect not to use its highest salary on someone who doesn’t play the field.

In five seasons as manager, Hooper has often replaced dependable players with more productive ones. Though it would be difficult to find a player to duplicate Rodriguez’s numbers, Hooper’s track record in finding quality players means the team might not regress even if it loses several important players.

“Talent-wise, we were the best team hands-down, you can’t even argue,” Hooper said. “(The loss in the championship series) goes to show you, we’ve been talented for a lot of years and put ourselves in this situation and still haven’t won one.”

Whoever makes up the team Hooper – if he returns in 2014 – fields next year, they will collectively represent a group he feels gives the Wingnuts their best chance to finally break through.

“We’ve won four division titles in five years,” Hooper said. “I would think the time is coming.”

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