Wichita Wingnuts

Wingnuts ready to start year

Wingnuts manager Kevin Hooper advertised a two-week spring training that would feature several closely contested position battles and come down to tough decisions on the final day.

It didn't quite work out that way. Some players were unable to make the most of their brief audition, and Hooper had his team picked by Sunday, four days before the season opener.

But as the Wingnuts begin their fourth season tonight at Amarillo, one of the American Association's four new teams, there isn't a player on the 22-man roster with which Hooper is unhappy.

"That's probably always going to be the case no matter where you're at," Hooper said. "A couple guys just don't show up and aren't as good as expected, therefore another guy is getting a job because of it. I didn't really feel that way this year a whole lot, because I think everybody on this team deserves a spot on this team."

Hooper specifically mentioned a tough bullpen decision, to which he gave much thought before the spot went to 6-foot-10 right-hander David Miller. He'll be part of a relief corps anchored by closer Josh Dew and setup man Cephas Howard, a 2010 holdover.

The Wingnuts have raved about the potential of their offense, but Hooper's hallmarks are pitching and defense, so his most important roster construction involves making sure those are strengths.

The rotation is led by two right-handers who have history as No. 1 starters in the American Association, returning ace Nick Singleton and former Fort Worth All-Star Dan Grybash, who didn't pitch in 2010 after undergoing elbow surgery.

Two aces at the top gives the Wingnuts the depth in the rotation they were lacking for most of 2010, when Singleton missed the final month with a broken finger. Falling in behind the top two are newcomers Trent Lare, Junior Guerra, and Ryan Hinson. Lare and Hinson are left-handers.

"I'm real excited about our rotation, and I know (pitching coach Luke Robertson) is, too," Hooper said. "There's two rookies (Guerra and Hinson) at the tail end, but they're rookies with some experience. They're not just rookies that are fresh out of college."

Grybash's health might be the difference between the Wingnuts being in the hunt for a playoff spot and being the team to beat in the Central Division. In 2008 and 2009, Grybash was a combined 14-7 for Fort Worth.

"The first night we saw him at (an exhibition against) Emporia State, we were all really excited," Hooper said. "He was 89 to 91 (mph), and that's his first time back on the mound against live hitters in a game situation since 2009. We're just hoping he's going to get stronger and stronger and stronger, because he was every bit of 94, 95 back in '08 and '09."

The lineup took a hit when newly acquired former major league outfielder Brent Clevlen was sold to the Cincinnati Reds over the weekend. Clevlen was slated to hit No. 3 in the order, and he hit three home runs in exhibition play.

Hooper believes the Wingnuts have the depth to survive such a loss. They signed former supplemental first-round draft pick Mike Conroy to take Clevlen's spot, and the Wingnuts added power to the lineup by acquiring third baseman Juan Richardson.

Returners Jorge Delgado and Jorge Cortes will also be relied upon to produce runs, and ex-major league catcher Edwin Bellorin could be a tough out in the lower third of the order.

"(Clevlen) is definitely a tough loss and not a guy you're going to go out and be able to replace," Hooper said. "But we got him late, and I was pretty happy with things before his name came up."

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