The Rockies Single-A team has become one of the premier clubs in the South Atlantic League in recent years with championship appearances in three of the past four seasons. This year's team is made up of almost entirely new players, but when asked if a fourth championship season was a goal for the team, manager Warren Schaeffer responded with a refreshing passion.
"Absolutely man! If you aint trying to win, then what are you trying to do out here? We talk about it, guys are pumped. It's a long ways away, and it's a long season, but hard work every day gets you there."
Asheville first established its dominance back in 2012 when a 19-year-old shortstop named Trevor Story led the team to 89 wins while slugging 18 home runs. This year's club will be led by another 19-year-old shortstop, a player named Brendan Rodgers who was drafted third overall and considered by some experts to be the best overall talent in the 2015 draft. While Schaeffer acknowledged how good Rodgers is and said he's looking forward to working with him every day. Starter Parker French may have the best perspective on Brendan as they both played together last year in Grand Junction and then worked together this spring.
"He's a really developed high school kid," French confided about Brendan's approach. "I like the way he works the count, has a good eye, works the other way, not trying to pull off pitches. He has a very advanced and mature approach for a young guy."
The Tourists are blessed with talent this season and are stacked at middle infield where in addition to Rodgers this team boasts Carlos Herrera, Max George and Jonathan Piron. Carlos Herrera was signed by the Rockies in 2013 for a then record $1.2 million international signing bonus and has quickly moved through the system displaying a slick glove and decent contact skills, hitting .281 with 38 stolen bases over two levels in 2015.
"We have a lot of guys defensively who can pick it," praised Warren about his infield.
Max George is a former Colorado Gatorade Player of the Year and was signed well over slot value out of Regis High School in 2014. George batted .301 with a 137 wRC+ in Grand Junction his first season, but injuries limited him last year and he finished with a combined .168/.306/.282 slash line over two levels in the organization. Second baseman Jonathan Piron is an intriguing prospect after last season in Grand Junction where he hit 11 home runs and posted a .312 average with a 118 wRC+.
When asked to describe his rotation, Asheville's manager emphasized how they like to pound the zone. Command will be a strength for this pitching staff as three starters in particular have proven extraordinary control. Parker French, Jack Wynkoop and Peter Lambert combined to walk just 22 guys in 128 innings last season.
All five of Asheville's starters were drafted in the top 10 rounds of the 2015 draft. It's unusual to see so many starters from the same draft class make it to Low-A ball together. Second round pick Peter Lambert is the baby of the bunch at just 18-years of age, but he also has shown maturity such as playing for Team USA's U-18 squad and in Grand Junction last year posted a 3.45 ERA while striking out 26 batters in 31.1 innings.
Fourth rounder David Hill will anchor the rotation, the 21-year old is coming off of a 3.09 ERA season in Boise where he struck out an average of a batter per inning pitched. Parker French was drafted in the fifth round after leading the University of Texas to a Big 12 Championship. French was incredibly stingy with walks, allowing just two in 48.1 innings pitched last season.
With a four-pitch mix, lefty Jack Wynkoop carries a full arsenal which he utilized in Boise last season to earn a 4.25 ERA in 48.2 innings pitched. Trey Killian rounds out the rotation, drafted in the ninth round last year Killian struggled allowing too much contact which resulted in a 9.09 ERA, with most of the damage coming from the 14.7 hits he allowed per nine innings.
Other players to watch that Warren Schaeffer was high on includes first baseman Bryan Mundell. The big first baseman was described by his manager as a player who has a lot of ‘thump' in his bat. The 6-foot-3, 230 pound Mundell hit .275 with a 119 wRC+ in Boise last season. Outfielder Mylz Jones was another player who Schaeffer was high on because of his versatility. Drafted in the 13th round out of Cal State Bakersfield, Jones played six different positions for Grand Junction last year and Schaeffer predicted he'll play just as many this year, calling him his ‘super utility' player. Jones handled business on the offensive side last year as well, posting a .300/.360/.401 slash line in 234 plate appearances.
Overall Schaeffer was excited about the talent level in this year's team and understands this level is all about development and emphasized the importance of the basics and how they were working on getting the player's mental game up to par.
"At this level we have to get everyone better at everything. We work all the time, whatever the player individually needs. When they leave we want their baseball IQ to be higher. We want them to think smarter baseball."
Asheville opens its season on Thursday, April 7 at 7:05 PM Eastern time against the Greenville Drive. For more on Asheville and its historic McCormick Field, watch for Bobby DeMuro's article next Thursday, April 14 on the day of the Tourists' home opener.