The 2014 Wingnuts might hit for unprecedented power, but manager Kevin Hooper isn’t abandoning old standbys – pitching and defense.
Hooper’s old-school mentality is hardly realized through the offense his recruiting efforts has constructed. As he tells it, six regulars have the potential to top 15 homers.
Hooper’s traditional outlook is shown in the defensive skills his players possess and in the pitching staff that will put them to work by pitching to contact.
“The defense this year is – jeez – best we’ve possibly ever had,” Hooper said.
The infield defense is anchored by second baseman Jake Kahaulelio and shortstop Ryan Khoury, who flashed instant chemistry and who are entering their third season together. First baseman Chun-Hsiu Chen is more athletic than the departed C.J. Ziegler, and third baseman Dillon Hazlett is an upgrade over Abel Nieves.
“Hazlett at third base is a heck of an athlete,” Hooper said. “His range – it’s going to be a lot different than last year, and Nieves was good over there. Haz is going to make some plays where we’re all going to say, ‘Wow.’ He’s a special athlete, that’s for sure.”
Outside of No. 2 starter Anthony Capra, the Wingnuts’ rotation isn’t filled with overpowering strikeout pitchers. That gives the defense added importance, as groundball pitchers will thrive with the Wingnuts’ infield and pitchers with tendencies to work up in the strike zone will benefit from speedy outfielders Brent Clevlen and David Amberson.
The rotation’s most significant addition was Tim Brown, who has a career 3.08 ERA with 4.3 strikeouts per nine innings, a statistic mostly offset by his ability to keep the ball in the park.
“He’s a proven winner,” Hooper said. “ ... Not overpowering, going to let the defense play behind him. Good sinkerball guy who is going to keep the ball down.”
The rotation was built upon the return of Link, who went 6-1 for the Wingnuts before being purchased by the Detroit Tigers organization.
Link reached the major leagues as a reliever and worked as a closer in winter ball after last season, but Hooper was searching for an ace after last season’s departures of Link, Ryan Hinson and Chris Smith, another ex-big leaguer.
“He knows where I stand on that, him being a veteran,” Hooper said. “I needed and wanted him to start again, but I didn’t know if he wanted to do that. But I also know that he loves this place, he loves being around our staff and this place in general. One-hundred percent, he wanted to come back here. And when a guy like that wants to come back, you welcome him with open arms.”