The Wingnuts team that will return home on Saturday from a 13-game road trip will look much different than the one that left.
The Wingnuts have had a new look after just about every road trip this season, though. Their season of almost endless transactions continued when they acquired six new players — pitchers Bubba O'Donnell and Jae Jung, former major leaguers Carlos Rivera and Raul Gonzalez, infielder Cesar Suarez and catcher Kent Wright. Jung was acquired from Sioux City in exchange for Stephen Pearson, the last of the original Wingnuts from the 2008 season.
Some of the moves were necessary because of injuries to ace pitcher Nick Singleton and backup catcher Michael Sharp. The sale of closer Justin Dowdy to the Tampa Bay Rays organization left a hole in the pitching staff.
"We added two big leaguers and guys with some pretty good track records," Wingnuts manager Kevin Hooper said.
Singleton, the starter for the North in last month's American Association All-Star game, injured his finger trying to field a groundball bare-handed in his last start, against Pensacola on July 29. His loss prompted the Wingnuts to sign O'Donnell, an Atlantic League All-Star this season.
When Dowdy was signed by the Rays, the Wingnuts opted to add depth to the rotation, trading Pearson for Jung, who is a two-time All-Star in the AA. The addition of Jung moved Luke Massetti to the bullpen.
After the trades of Michael Thompson and reliever Doug Hurn, Pearson was the only Wingnuts player remaining from the inaugural season. He leaves as the team's leader in games played (253) and hits (259). Pearson joined Sioux City just as the Wingnuts were traveling there for a three-game series.
"He was kind of the odd man out," Hooper said. "I told him, 'Look, you've got three weeks left. Go enjoy yourself for three weeks, then you get to go play wherever you want.' And that might be back here sometime, who knows. I told him we have to go find a way to get him out for three days."
Rivera and Gonzalez played this season in the Mexican League, which is listed as a Triple-A league even though it isn't affiliated with the majors. Rivera played in a combined 85 games for the Pirates in 2003 and 2004, and Gonzalez is a 36-year-old veteran of 168 major-league games spanning five seasons.
The Wingnuts' offense was their biggest weakness early, and it contributed to several slumps during the season's first half. That problem seems to have been corrected with the acquisitions of Rivera, Gonzalez, Suarez and infielder Joe Spiers, who was signed earlier in July and is batting .319.
Hooper said having former major leaguers on the roster will give the Wingnuts leadership. He has noticed it already from the 32-year-old Rivera, when Rivera communicates with infielders from first base or encourages pitchers during difficult innings.
"Little stuff like that makes a big difference," Hooper said. "He's pulling for everybody. He cares about what's going on and he's going to do whatever he can to help us."
While the Wingnuts have addressed their offensive shortcomings, the pitching staff lost stability with Singleton's injury and Dowdy's sale. The loss of two All-Stars left four rookies in the bullpen and made a closer out of Cephas Howard, who hasn't allowed a run in 13 of his last 15 outings.
The relief corps also became stronger with the addition of Massetti, allowing Sean Teague to remain in the No. 5 spot in the rotation behind Gabe Medina and Adam Cowart.
"We'll see, that's going to be our biggest test," Hooper said. "Mass was excited about that idea. He said that ever since Dowdy went down he'd been thinking about that. That's going to make his stuff even more live, coming out of the bullpen. We'll see how Jung works out in the rotation, and that gives us the ability, if we don't like something, to move Massetti back into the rotation."
Horn update — Shortstop Josh Horn was activated from the disabled list more than a week ago, but he hasn't played a game because his ankle isn't completely healthy. He injured it in a collision with outfielder Jackson Melian at Sioux Falls on July 18.
Horn is close to returning, and he almost did last week before a slip during batting practice aggravated the injury. When he does return, he'll regain his starting position and move Spiers to a utility spot.
"I had a big-time sitdown with him and told him, 'Look, I know you want to play,' " Hooper said. "That's hunger and desire, but we've got to be smart here because I can't have it happen again. It's going to be sore the rest of the season, so if we can get some of that discomfort away on side-to-side movement, we'll see. We're going to be precautious here. Even if he comes back next week, he could roll it again."