The Wingnuts got used to having the same person at first base almost every day over the past two seasons, with the added bonus that C.J. Ziegler was the best power hitter in the American Association.
Through the first 43 games of this season, the Wingnuts have been without the stability and the power from a position that often employs a slugger. When offseason signee Chun-Tsiu Chen left the Wingnuts after six games to return to his native South Korea, it began a search for a permanent first baseman that hasn’t officially ended.
Trevor Whyte was acquired last week and has made six starts in a row at first, the sixth player this season to make multiple starts there. Ziegler played all 100 games last year and set the league record with 30 home runs. In 2011, Ziegler hit 18 homers while batting .320, though he left for three weeks to play in the Mexican League.
“(Chen) was a tough loss for us,” Wingnuts manager Kevin Hooper said. “I know he wasn’t hitting much for us, but it was just a matter of time before he got going offensively. I thought Chen might have had the best footwork over there from being a catcher in the past. He was fun to watch, defensively.”
Before Ziegler came to Wichita, the Wingnuts had similar troubles filling first base permanently, but the players who occupied the position almost always hit. The Wingnuts used eight first basemen in 2010, but Jorge Delgado batted .391 in 31 games and Carlos Rivera hit .372 in 28 games.
A year later, Rivera and Delgado combined for 86 RBIs as two of four first basemen the Wingnuts used.
The position hasn’t seen as much collective clout in 2014. Though J.T. Wise, Wichita’s designated hitter, has three homers and 12 RBIs in seven starts at first base, the other five players have combined for two home runs and 11 RBIs in 36 starts.
Colt Loehrs had 13 hits during his first seven starts at first, but he ended on a 1 for 19 slump before breaking his wrist on a hit-by-pitch earlier this month.
“It’s kind of a revolving door kind of thing,” Hooper said. “If there comes a time where we feel like we need to add some more punch in the middle (of the lineup), then we might need to do that.”
The Wingnuts, who own the league’s best record at 28-15, haven’t reached that point yet. They lead the league in runs thanks to a balanced offense and the emerging power of Wise, who has vaulted onto the AA leaderboards by hitting eight home runs with 15 RBIs in his last 10 games.
Wichita also has six regulars batting .287 or better and three with averages above .325, so there hasn’t been a need to add power, even if first base is traditionally a position that carries it. Whyte has a strong reputation defensively, and run prevention may prove equally important.
“Do I think that maybe we’re a piece or two away offensively? Yeah, I still think maybe we are,” Hooper said. “But I also like what we’ve got. We’re finding ways to win. It’s definitely a different team than we’ve had in the past. We hit a lot of doubles, we’ve gotten some big hits when we needed to at times.”
Lincoln 2, Wichita 0 — Three pitchers combined to blank the Wingnuts on Sunday in Lincoln, Neb., led by Lincoln starter Marquis Fleming, who threw six innings while giving up two hits, three walks and striking out six. Brian Joynt had both of the Saltdogs’ RBIs.