The start of the Wingnuts’ season on Thursday will be a relief for manager Kevin Hooper and his seemingly endless efforts to put together the team’s outfield.
Wichita’s plans have often gone awry during the offseason, as the Wingnuts had designs on an outfield filled with players who had previous success in the American Association and/or in affiliated baseball.
Injury and untimely and unforeseen defections have hampered those efforts, and the Wingnuts are left with an outfield made up of no players with affiliated baseball experience beyond rookie league and who are largely unproven.
That might not be a bad thing, though. The Wingnuts’ outfield — Derek Perren in left field, returner Jared McDonald in center and David Amberson in right — is abundant in speed and in young players looking to make an impression.
"Speed is my best asset, and I feel like that plays a role in defense, baserunning and hitting," Amberson said. "I think that can really help a team out. It’s just little stuff … where my speed can really help, and I’m willing to go that extra mile."
Former Wichita State two-way player Damon Sublett was slotted as the team’s left fielder and was going to return to pitching after spending the last six years as a position player in the New York Yankees organization.
But Sublett will miss most — and possibly all — of the season with a hip injury that has bothered him in the past. Perren, originally slotted as part of a platoon in right field with Amberson, will get the majority of the time in left while occasionally being spelled by recent signee Colt Loehrs.
Sublett’s injury followed a jumble in right field. David Peralta, who batted .332 with 70 RBIs last year as a rookie, was traded for power-hitting outfielder Adam Buschini. Shortly after the trade, however, Buschini was picked up by the San Diego Padres organization, where he is currently struggling in Double-A.
"Buschini would be nice to have, no doubt," Hooper said. "But none of those guys can run like (Amberson). He adds that nice dimension. He puts some pressure on them, and I love having those two guys (Amberson and McDonald) at the bottom to turn that lineup over."
The unfortunate circumstances for the Wingnuts turned out positively for Amberson. He likely wouldn’t be with Wichita if Buschini hadn’t been picked up, and if Sublett were healthy, Amberson would open the season splitting time in right field with Perren.
Instead, Amberson gets an everyday role, where he’ll disrupt pitchers and opposing defenses with his speed and help out his own pitchers by chasing down fly balls in the gaps. Hooper, the Wingnuts’ fifth-year manager, said Amberson is the fastest player during his tenure.
Amberson and Perren will be trying to vault into affiliated ball while McDonald, who had two stints with the Wingnuts last season while shifting between the outfield and third base, could thrive as the permanent center fielder.
"We’ve got some good team speed out there," Amberson said. "Having turf, you can just pivot and go. There’s no thought in the back of your head like when you’re on grass where you’ve got to chop your steps. You can just cut on this stuff. It really displays our speed really well."