The long-term planning of several of last year’s Wingnuts players didn’t help manager Kevin Hooper’s efforts toward putting together a roster over the course of a few months.
Six players retired from Wichita’s roster during the American Association championship series, which the Wingnuts lost to Winnipeg. Hooper was looking for replacements for more spots than usual.
Players retired for varied reasons, most with an eye on a productive life after baseball, and it put Hooper’s recruiting skills to the test. He’s happy with the 28 players the Wingnuts began spring training with last weekend, which include a trio former major-league pitchers.
"I’ve never been a part of anything like that, where five or six guys ended up retiring," said Hooper, who is entering his fifth season as Wichita’s manager. "It’s a little different on that side of things. Obviously, those guys are going to be dearly missed. A lot of those guys are going to be missed, but a lot of those guys are moving on in their life, too."
Catcher Jessie Mier, pitchers Jared Simon and James Baker, third baseman Juan Richardson, and outfielders Mike Conroy and Steve Stanley all retired. Multiple other players’ injuries will keep them from playing for much of this season, forcing Hooper and the Wingnuts into a major overhaul after their most successful season.
Nineteen of the 28 players in camp, which will be trimmed to 21 or 22 to start the season against Kansas City on May 16 at Lawrence-Dumont Stadium, are new additions. The pitching staff is seeing the most major changes, with three returners that include one member of the starting rotation, former Wichita State left-hander Anthony Capra.
Hooper believes the few players who do return will help the Wingnuts carry over the superior chemistry that pushed the team to its third postseason berth in four years. Veteran outfielder/designated hitter John Rodriguez, a former major leaguer, is back to form a potent 1-2 combination with power-hitting first baseman C.J. Ziegler.
"(Chemistry) is important to me all the time," Hooper said. "I want that atmosphere we had last year all the time. That starts by bringing good people in. That’s my top priority — not only good players, but good people where we can have a good clubhouse."
The Wingnuts have stability at the middle-of-the-diamond positions that many view as the most important. Second baseman Jake Kahaulelio briefly retired during the offseason before opting to return, keeping the double-play combination and top two spots in the batting order with Ryan Khoury intact.
Center fielder Jared McDonald had two stints and played several positions for Wichita last season, and new catcher Cole Armstron is expected to give the Wingnuts their first power-hitting catcher. Armstrong has spent much of the last four seasons in Triple-A and has a pair of double-digit home run seasons.
"A veteran catcher, that’s pretty solid," Hooper said. "And (Abel) Nieves at third base, he’s probably the best defensive guy we’ve had out there. It’s going to be pretty tough to get a ball through the infield, and we have a lot of speed in the outfield."
The outfield includes a possible rare platoon situation with left-handed hitting Derek Perren and righty David Amberson sharing time. Platoons are rare in independent baseball because rosters are smaller than in affiliated baseball and bench spots are limited.
Wichita can afford that because its left fielder, former Shocker Damon Sublett, will also be used out of the bullpen. That allows WSU to keep a full bullpen and still have three bench players.
Sublett is joined on the pitching staff by Chris Smith, Jon Link and Mike Burns, who all spent time briefly in the majors. They’re expected to occupy 60 percent of the starting rotation.
"(That’s rare) especially at this level, let alone at the Triple-A level, having three guys in your rotation that pitched in the big leagues," Hooper said. "... Talking to (Smith), he’s on a mission to get back to the big leagues. I want guys here who are going to be that way. Link is the same way. All these guys are hungry, and that’s what I want."