Chihuahuas roster takes shape prior to opening game

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Chihuahuas roster takes shape prior to opening game

Nina Titovets

Nina Titovets

Nina Titovets

Jason Green, Sports Editor

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When El Paso Chihuahuas pitcher Walker Lockett throws out the first pitch of the 2017 season to a Las Vegas 51s batter on Thursday evening, the book will officially be closed on the Chihuahuas’ 2016 Pacific Coast League championship season.

Gone are most of the cornerstones of that PCL championship team. Catcher Austin Hedges is deftly handling the pitching staff of the San Diego Padres in their opening series against the L.A. Dodgers currently.

Centerfielder Manuel Margot is batting .375, mainly out of the lead-off spot for the Padres. Slugger Hunter Renfroe hit his first home run of the season for the Padres off of Dodgers pitcher Rich Hill on Wednesday night in a 3-1 loss for San Diego.

The Chihuahuas are back, but the team is almost unrecognizable. Apart from a few returning stars, like 2016 PCL Rookie of the Year Carlos Asuaje and slugging outfielder Jabari Blash, the team will need a little bit of an introduction.

Manager Rod Barajas says that no matter who dons the red and black, the goal remains the same.

“We’re trying to do exactly what we did last year and maybe top that in whichever way we possibly can,” said Barajas with a big smile. “It was a lot of fun and the message is going to be, go out here and play hard and let’s see what happens.”

Before you head out to Southwest University Park, here’s an introduction to the defending champs’ new roster:

Starting Pitchers:

Walker Lockett (RHP, 6-5, 225 lb., age: 22) – Somehow Lockett has managed to avoid every Padres top prospects list, despite a 2016 season that saw him promoted from Fort Wayne (Low-A) to Lake Elsinore (High-A) to San Antonio (Double-A) to El Paso (Triple-A). Through those four levels, the Jacksonville, FL native carried a combined 2.96 ERA and 1.06 WHIP with 123 K’s over 164 innings. Lockett will start opening night for the Chihuahuas and it might be a good idea to catch him early in the season. He might not be in El Paso for long.

Matt Magill (RHP, 6-3, 210 lb., age: 27) – Magill made his major league debut on April 27, 2013 with the Dodgers, pitching 6.2 innings, allowing two runs and striking out seven. Most recently, Magill pitched in the majors in 2016 with the Cincinnati Reds as a reliever following 2015 Tommy John surgery. Magill will be the number two starter for the Chihuahuas, in an effort to regain his 2013 form and work his way into San Diego’s rotation.

Tyrell Jenkins (RHP, 6-4, 180 lb., age: 24) – Originally from Henderson, TX, Jenkins was swayed away from a Baylor football commitment by a $1.3 million contract from the St. Louis Cardinals after being drafted in the first round of the 2010 MLB Draft. In 14 major league games, Jenkins has a disappointing 5.88 ERA and a 2-4 record. However, manager Rod Barajas says that the young pitcher, who the Padres claimed on waivers from the Cincinnati Reds this offseason, has tweaked his mechanics this spring and seen a drastic improvement.

Dinelson Lamet (RHP, 6-4, 187 lb., age: 24) – The Padres number 12 prospect returns to the Chihuahuas after pitching two games late in the season for the PCL champs. Part of the same aggressive plan that saw Lockett called up from Single-A to Double-A, then Triple-A, Lamet started the season at Lake Elsinore where he spent 12 games. In Double-A San Antonio, opponents batted just .207 against the lanky Dominican. However, in his two appearances in El Paso, Lamet was tattooed for a .302 opponent batting average and five earned runs. The prospect will get plenty of starts to prove himself in the PCL this season.

Zach Lee (RHP, 6-4, 227 lb., age: 25) – To those in the baseball world, it could seem like Zach Lee has been around forever; mainly because his name has been out there forever. Because Lee was already enrolled at LSU to play football and baseball when he was drafted by the Dodgers in 2010, it took $5.25 million to persuade him to play professional baseball instead. He was immediately ranked as the number two Dodgers prospect by Baseball America. Lee pitched through 2016 in the Dodgers system, twice being named the Dodgers Minor League Pitcher of the Year, but never quite broke through to the major leagues to stay. To date, Lee has only pitched 4.2 major league innings.

 

Barajas on the rotation:

“Just pitching staff in general, I feel like we’re stronger this year than we were last year. I’ve seen some of the arms – Lockett last year did a great job when he came up. Magill, he kind of came out of nowhere, even on the major league side, there was a lot of talk about Magill and what he was able to do. Jenkins, Lee, Lamet – Lamet has been outstanding this spring training.”

 

Bullpen:

Logan Bawcom (RHP, 6-2, 220 lb., age: 28) – Yet another Texan and former Dodgers draft pick, Bawcom has yet to reach the majors since being drafted in 2010. That hasn’t stopped him from compiling 87 saves in 105 opportunities in the minors to go along with 429 K’s in 443.2 innings.

Carlos Fisher (RHP, 6-4, 220 lb., age: 34) – Fisher was originally drafted by Cincinnati in 2005 and has a wealth of major league experience compared to some of his other Chihuahuas teammates. Signed this offseason, Fisher has a 2-5 record in the majors with a 4.74 ERA and 86 strikeouts.

Keith Hessler (LHP, 6-4, 244 lb., age: 28) – Hessler made his major league debut for the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2015, appearing in 18 games, but was placed on waivers at the beginning of the 2016 season and claimed by the Padres. Last season he pitched for both the champion Chihuahuas and the Padres. In 34 innings in the majors, he has a 5.56 ERA.

Jason Jester (RHP, 5-11, 205 lb., age: 25) – Drafted out of Texas A&M by the Padres in the 23rd round of the 2014 draft, Jester has progressed rapidly through the San Diego farm system. His lone hiccup along the way was with the champion Chihuahuas last season when he posted a respectable 4.67 ERA and 14 K’s in 17.1 innings. It was the first time in his career that he had not struck out more batters than innings pitched. In two seasons, Jester has struck out 153 batters in 130.2 innings pitched.

Phil Maton (RHP, 6-3, 220 lb., age: 24) – Talk about a Cinderella story, Maton is it. Right now, he is listed as MLB’s number 18 prospect for the Padres, but this is after he was undrafted out of high school, then undrafted as a junior in college and then taken in the 20th round of the 2015 draft. Maton has discovered an insanely explosive fastball that dodges bats to the tune of 136 K’s in only 61 minor league games. In a brief five game appearance with the Chihuahuas last season, Maton held opponents to a .053 batting average. He is definitely one to see before he heads to San Diego and never comes back.

Kevin Quackenbush (RHP, 6-4, 235 lb., age: 28) – Speaking of coming back, Quackenbush is back for his fourth year as a Chihuahua; one of only two players to be on the roster for every year of the team’s existence, along with catcher Rocky Gale. Quackenbush was once the closer of the future for the Padres, but has seen his strikeouts per nine innings fall consistently at the major league level (2014 – 9.3, 2015 – 8.9, 2016 – 6.3). He will head back to El Paso trying to regain some confidence and race guys like Maton back to San Diego, hopefully to stay this time.

Andre Rienzo (RHP, 6-2, 195 lb., age: 28) – Rienzo is the first Brazilian to start and win a Major League Baseball game. He has actually won six in his 10 year career, starting 21, mostly for the Chicago White Sox. Rienzo has now settled into a relief role, most recently for New Orleans of the PCL.

Bryan Rodriguez (RHP, 6-5, 180 lb., age: 25) – Not necessarily a strikeout guy, Rodriguez puts the ball in play with the aim of keeping it down. The sinkerballer has been a starter throughout his career till now, even making 16 starts for the champion Chihuahuas last season.

 

Barajas on the bullpen:

“I’m excited about the pitching staff. I feel like this year the bullpen’s stronger. Last year where maybe offensively that was kind of our strength, I feel like this year with what we’ve brought in and who we have coming up here, our strength might be our pitching this year.”

 

Catchers:

Tony Cruz (R, 5-11, 215 lb., age: 30) – Cruz brings a wealth of experience to the Chihuahuas from his time in the Major Leagues, including a World Series Championship with the 2011 St. Louis Cardinals. Cruz has over 1800 at-bats in the minor leagues over 10 years, compiling a .265 average and 44 home runs.

Rocky Gale (R, 6-1, 185 lb., age: 29) – At this point, Gale might as well be called “Mr. Chihuahua.” Gale was with Tucson for three seasons prior to the teams move to El Paso and has been with the team for all four seasons in the Sun City. In six years in the minors, Gale has a .255 average and nine home runs – although if you ask the El Paso fans, he always seems to hit one at the right time, as the fans chant “Rocky, Rocky, Rocky.”

 

Barajas on Rocky Gale:

“I love Rocky to death. He’s been such a good soldier. He comes out and does whatever you ask him to do. Last year he was up a little bit when (Austin Hedges) was hurt and when he was up, we took off as a team. We started playing, we started winning baseball games. I think we were probably in last place when he showed up and by the time he left, we were in first place.”

Infielders:

Carlos Asuaje (L, 5-9, 158 lb., age: 25) – One of last year’s championship cornerstones who actually is back for 2017 is Carlos Asuaje. The diminutive spark plug does not have much left to prove to the Padres with his bat – he is a career .292 batter in the minors – but may need to work out some things defensively to land a spot permanently in the MLB. Asuaje is the highest rated prospect on this year’s team at number 11.

Dusty Coleman (R, 6-2, 205 lb., age: 29) – Coleman has 3019 at-bats in the minor leagues and has collected 738 hits. It took him seven years to finally get the call-up to the Kansas City Royals in 2015. In five at-bats, Coleman did not collect a hit. Let’s hope that the Padres organization is the right place for him to find his way back up there – and that he gets one this time.

Diego Goris (R, 5-10, 200 lb., age: 26) – Goris has played all over the field for the Chihuahuas for the past two seasons while batting a combined .266 in 293 plate appearances. He is an important bench bat and was key in the playoff run last season.

Jamie Romak (R, 6-2, 220 lb., age: 31) – Romak comes into the 2017 season with an even 200 minor league home runs. In the last series he played at Southwest University Park on August 1, 2015 with the Reno Aces, Romak hit a bomb to centerfield off of pitcher Jason Lane. It was his 21st of the season. He would finish that season with 27 home runs, before heading to Japan for the 2016 season.

Cory Spangenberg (L, 6-0, 195 lb., age: 26) – Spangenberg originally jumped El Paso on his way to the Padres and has only been here for an injury rehab. Now he is back, mainly to recover from an injury that took away all but 14 games of last season – and to work on a few new positions. Spangenberg is naturally a second baseman, but don’t be surprised to see him in the outfield and at third base, where the Padres need him most.

 

Barajas on Spangenberg:

“He’s probably going to be playing everywhere. You might see him in the outfield a little bit. He’s going to start the season at third base. He’s going to play some second base. For me, the more positions you play, the more valuable that player is. He’s a guy who, he’s played second base in the big leagues, now we want to get him a lot of looks, a lot of reps at third base. But, the outfield is also a priority, too.”

 

Outfielders:

Jabari Blash (R, 6-5, 235 lb., age: 27) – There was not much more that Blash could have done in spring training to make the Padres roster and had he been on the 40-man roster, he probably would have. Blash batted .241 with seven home runs and 19 runs batted in. His 26 strikeouts was probably too high for the Padres liking, but with only three outfielders on the current roster, Blash probably still could have found a spot. His mission in El Paso? To force his way back onto the 40-man roster.

Franchy Cordero (L, 6-3, 175 lb., age: 22) – The converted shortstop made the rapid ascension from Lake Elsinore last season that a few pitchers did, but his rise stalled in El Paso. Cordero struggled in his 13 PCL at-bats, with only one hit to call his own. The Padres number 25 prospect returns for a full season at Triple-A to show what his career .271 batting average and 86 stolen bases are really all about.

Collin Cowgill (R, 5-9, 190 lb., age: 30) – Cowgill may have the most major league experience of anyone on the Chihuahuas with 317 games in “The Show.” He has seen time with five different teams, the longest stint being with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim from 2013-2015. In the majors, Cowgill is a .234 batter and in the minors, he is a .284 career batter.

Rafael Ortega (L, 5-11, 160 lb., age: 25) – After an outstanding eight-year minor league career in which he batted .292 with 206 stolen bases, Ortega was rewarded with a call-up to the Angels last season. In 185 major league at-bats, Ortega collected 43 hits. He elected free agency at the end of the season and signed with the Padres.

Jose Pirela (R, 6-0, 220 lb., age: 27) – The former New York Yankee played all over the field for the PCL champions last season and even spent time in San Diego with the Padres for 15 games. As a Chihuahua, Pirela slashed .248/.295/.387 last season.

 

Barajas on the team and fans in general:

“Get ready for another special season. You’re going to come here and you’re going to watch some great baseball, guys giving you everything they have. All the excitement and energy that the fans brought last year – second to none. Keep it going. Stay behind us. Hopefully we can have another exciting, fun season for El Paso.”

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