When the Wingnuts begin training camp today, returning players won't be able to look around and experience the comfort created by seeing last season's top two starting pitchers and three best power hitters.
Right-handed aces Will Savage and Derek Blacksher have moved on, as have Greg Porter, Dustan Mohr and Kelly Hunt, who often filled the 3-4-5 slots in the batting order. Porter and Hunt tied the American Association record with 21 home runs apiece.
The Wingnuts will have a different look this season, but a major dropoff in success isn't anticipated. Wichita lost to Lincoln in the North Division Championship Series in September despite owning the league's best record (58-38) and ERA (3.98).
To fill the hole left by Blacksher and Savage, the Wingnuts traded for Sioux City right-hander Nick Singleton. After posting a 2.24 ERA for the Explorers in 2008, Singleton regressed to a 4.04 last season thanks mostly to a higher walk rate.
"You lose a Savage and a Blacksher, that's tough," manager Kevin Hooper said. "(Singleton) is a No. 1 guy and has been in this league the past couple years. We're going to give him the ball (for the season opener May 13) in St. Paul."
Behind Singleton in the rotation will be holdovers Adam Cowart and Gabe Medina. Doug Hurn, who was a reliever in 2009, is an option to join the rotation. Another candidate for one of the final two starting spots is Luke Massetti, who pitched in the AA with Shreveport last season.
Wichita brings 14 pitchers to camp but likely won't keep more than 11 because of the league roster limit of 22 players.
The Wingnuts will benefit from a full season with left-handed closer Justin Dowdy, who joined the team after a July trade with Shreveport and saved four games in five chances. He'll likely be set up by right-hander Cephas Howard, who had a 1.71 ERA in the independent Northern League in 2009.
"We were so good, but if we did have a sour spot it was the bullpen," Hooper said. "We worked hard to build that piece of the puzzle. We all smile when we talk about the bullpen around here now."
Offensively, the Wingnuts will feel the loss of Porter, who batted .372 with 86 RBIs and was named the independent player of the year by Baseball America. Porter joined Grand Prairie because he wanted to play closer to his Texas home.
With Hunt and Mohr, who combined for 34 home runs, also gone, Wichita acquired Ryan Patterson and Mario Delgado to occupy spots in the middle of the order. Each own a professional season of at least 25 homers.
The Wingnuts also signed center fielder Chris Colton, who played in Wichita in 2008 before the acquisition of Nick Blasi made him expendable. Colton spent 2009 in the independent Frontier League, where he hit 18 home runs.
Blasi wasn't the only former Wichita State player the Wingnuts had to replace. Like Blasi, catcher Joe Muich opted to retire, and to fill the void behind the plate Wichita signed Jeff Christy, a defensive specialist who played in Triple-A with the Minnesota Twins organization.
Four infielders — Steve Pearson, Patrick Brooks, Josh Horn and Michael Thompson — return for a team that won't rely as much on power but instead on speed and defense, Hooper's strengths when he played.
"I'm excited about the group that we have," Hooper said. "Defensively, we were the best in the league by far, but we're going to be way better."