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Rockies minor league preview: Triple-A Albuquerque looks to build on strong 2nd half

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The Isotopes nearly made the PCL playoffs last year on the strength of a 34-19 post-All-Star-break record. A roster full of returnees hopes to take that a step further in 2017.

The Albuquerque Isotopes begin the 2017 season tonight at 6:35 p.m. MT in the first of five games with the visiting Salt Lake Bees (Angels).

It will mark the franchise’s 15th season overall and third as the top affiliate of the Colorado Rockies.

For the fans, the opener will also bring a sense of familiarity. The Isotopes return 14 players who spent part or all of last season with the club, which unofficially was a team record.

“I think it is a reflection of our player development and how committed we are to our system,” said manager Glenallen Hill, back at the helm for his third season in Albuquerque and fifth overall as the Rockies’ Triple-A manager. “Anytime you see that it’s a trust factor with the people responsible for putting the players on the field.”

Even with those eight returning pitchers and six returning position players, the Isotopes will not have the exact same look as they did at the end of 2016, particularly at the plate.

“Teams are different from year to year,” Hill said. “Last year we had more power potential. If you look at our roster, that’s not going to be the case.”

“I think we are a lot younger this year,” the skipper added. “We are looking for our players to have more professional at-bats, strikeouts low, contact high. When you have that kind of situation, a lot of good things can happen.”

The returnees include three on the Rockies’ 40-man roster: first baseman/outfielder Jordan Patterson (.293/.376/.480, 14 HR, 61 RBI), infielder Pat Valaika (.257/.297/.425, 14 HR, 80 RBI combined at Albuquerque and the Double-A Hartford Yard Goats) and outfielder Raimel Tapia (.328/.361/.458, 8 HR, 48 RBI, 23 stolen bases with the Isotopes and Yard Goats). “It’s just getting used to it over there,” Patterson said of playing first base, which figures to be his primary position this season. “I had some experience with it playing in college and grew up kind of playing it in high school and stuff. It’s really just getting comfortable … and trying to become as smooth and good of a first baseman as can be.”

Also back are infielder/outfielder Rafael Ynoa (.262/.326/.356, 3 HR, 33 RBI), outfielder Noel Cuevas (.296/.331/.414, 3 HR, 35 RBI) and outfielder Mike Tauchman (.286/.342/.373, HR, 51 RBI, 23 stolen bases), who finished last season with a franchise-record 25-game hitting streak.

It was part of a big second half for Albuquerque, which went 34-19 after going 37-53 prior to the Triple-A All-Star break. The Isotopes ended up just two games behind El Paso, which went on to win the Pacific Coast League championship.

“We finished the season last year in a pretty high way, which is very exciting,” Hill said. “For those players that are returning, I know they’re looking forward to that continuing.”

A big part of that continuation will come from the returning pitchers. Right-handers Jeff Hoffman (6-9, 4.02 ERA, 124 Ks, 44 BB in 118 ⅔ IP) and Matt Flemer (6-4, 3.74, 63 Ks, 24 BB in 96 ⅓ IP) will be back in the starting rotation with lefties Ryan Carpenter (2-3, 7.47, 68 Ks, 25 BB in 68 ⅔ IP) and Harrison Musgrave (8-7, 4.30, 79 Ks, 40 BB in 113 IP). Right-hander Zach Jemiola (8-10, 4.39, 92 Ks, 46 BB in 162 IP) earned a promotion from Hartford to join them.

Returning faces in the bullpen include right-handers Matt Carasiti (0-2, 1.96, 31 saves, 48 Ks in 46 IP with the Isotopes and Yard Goats), Shane Carle (5-8, 4.52, 88 Ks in 111 ⅓ IP), Nelson Gonzalez (3-3, 5.09, 32 Ks in 35 ⅓ IP) and lefty Sam Moll (3-5, 4.94, 2 saves, 39 Ks in 47 ⅓ IP). They will be joined by right-handers Johendi Jiminian (2-2, 2.30, 50 Ks in 58 ⅔ IP with the Yard Goats) and C.C. Lee (6.48, 13 Ks in 16 ⅔ IP with the Seibu Lions), and lefty Jerry Vasto (4-4, 2.91, 20 saves, 70 Ks, 22 BB in 55 ⅔ IP with the Yard Goats and High-A Modesto).

As for the rest of the lineup, the Isotopes will open with two new catchers in Anthony Bemboom (.222/.293/.305, HR, 14 RBI with Triple-A Salt Lake and Double-A Arkansas) and big league veteran Ryan Hanigan (.171/.230/.238, HR, 14 RBI with the Boston Red Sox). The infield newcomers are Daniel Castro (.257/.279/.346, 3 HR, 20 RBI with Triple-A Gwinnett) and Derrik Gibson (.281/.363/.362, 2 HR, 35 RBI, 14 stolen bases with Double-A Binghamton).

The outfield will be augmented by veteran Chris Denorfia (.255/.308/.382, 4 HR, 15 RBI with Triple-A Sacramento) and youngster Rosell Herrera (.292/.374/.379, 5 HR, 66 RBI, 36 stolen bases with the Yard Goats).

“We have a lot of young guys; a lot of young, talented players who like to win,” Patterson said. “That’s kind of the culture we’re trying to build is winning ballgames. It’s nice having G (Hill) and those guys back. It’s always nice being comfortable.”

The Isotopes’ staff also has two new faces in hitting coach Darin Everson and pitching coach Mark Brewer. Everson was the manager at Hartford last season, while Brewer served as the pitching coach at Low-A Asheville.

They will assist Hill in pushing the Isotopes forward in 2017, all while supplying the Rockies with the necessary reinforcements of players, young and old.

“If you ask a player at the end of his career what is the most important thing his peers can say and they would say he was a gamer, essentially he was a ballplayer,” Hill said. “We have ballplayers in our organization, we have a lot of ballplayers. We are in a good place.”