There were weeks, months, even, where it seemed that Winnipeg would never escape its bitter winter, when the idea of grass and baseball bats was very far away.
Well, those days are officially over. Goldeyes training camp is now open, and the boys of summer are getting ready to play.
The Fish are kicking off their 2014 pre-season today, the first of 12 evaluation days before the American Association season starts in earnest. The action starts at 11 a.m. with a fan open house at Shaw Park, complete with free hot dogs, prize giveaways and tours of the park. Meanwhile, on the field, Fish manager Rick Forney will put his team through their first formal workout of the year.
"Let's just say I'm anxiously excited to see a few people," said Forney, calling from his home in Maryland earlier this week. "I always like the beginning of the season. It's a lot of fun. Nobody knows what's going to happen. We've all worked so hard putting our teams together, and anxiously await the result."
On that note, baseball is a numbers game. So here are some numbers for fans to keep an eye on, as this Goldeyes team takes shape.
The Fish are bringing 26 players into camp, 14 of them pitchers. The American Association allows teams to start the season with 23 on the active roster, after which they have to whittle down to a final 22. Cuts aren't the only option to get under the bar -- there's also the inactive list -- but still, it's a good bet not all the players here today will be here when the season starts.
Compared to last season, this is a familiar group. Forney rebuilt the 2013 team almost from scratch -- only five players from the 2012 championship team came back -- but this year, half of the names on the roster are back in Fish caps. That doesn't mean they're a lock, Forney cautioned. They've still gotta perform. "Guys age fast in this league," he said. "Spring training is so short, and you're never sure how much time someone's put in preparing for this season."
Still, the familiarity lends some confidence in the clubhouse. Infielder Amos Ramon sees shades of 2012, when the Fish were stocked with returning core players, and raring to win. This year Forney has brought a bunch of the key performers back: Guys like pitcher Jason Jarvis, who was rock-solid when he joined Winnipeg late last season, ace hurler Chris Salamida and star catcher Luis Alen.
Yeah, there's a sense they have some unfinished business, after last year's August comeback fell just short of a playoff spot. "I think Rick's done a good job of bringing back a lot of the core guys," Ramon said. "I think we were pretty good. If we would have had another week or two, we would have been in the playoffs, probably won the whole thing. We were playing that well."
There are six starting pitchers in camp this season, with returnees Chris Salamida, Jason Jarvis and Matt Jackson joined by new acquisitions Ethan Hollingsworth, Kyle Anderson and Nick Hernandez. That reflects a lesson Forney took from last year, when he brought five starters into camp, but was left scrambling to find another reliable arm, when Edgar Osuna got hurt. "We're making sure we're protected," Forney said. "They're all very good."
One of the most intriguing new faces in the rotation is Hollingsworth, freshly released from the Pittsburgh Pirates organization. He's climbed as high as AAA ball, where he made two starts last season, and went 6-5 with a 3.55 ERA at the AA level. When he came on the market, independent ball managers swarmed. Perhaps the fact he was once teammates with star Goldeyes reliever Brendan Lafferty helped lure him north.
"There was a lot of people trying to acquire that young man," Forney said, with a laugh. "He has the ability, when he stays healthy, that I wouldn't be shocked to see him win 10 or 12 games."
Three's a crowd, when it comes to catchers, but that's how many the Fish have in camp. It's a no-brainer that longtime backstop and fan favourite Luis Alen will be No. 1. The backup job, though, is up for grabs. Fighting for it will be Jordan Guida, an athletic rookie who was with the Fish all of last year, and Matt Albaugh, fresh out of Kutztown University.
"I wanted to create a little camp competition for the backup job," Forney said.
For Albaugh, who snagged the training camp spot after a tryout at Forney's off-season baseball academy, the first taste of a pro camp is something of an adventure. "It's definitely a different experience," said Albaugh, a finance grad who batted .344 in the NCAA last year. "I went through college pretty much as a starter, so I'm just going to try and stay in myself and show I can play baseball."
Among a powerful bunch of batters in camp, two have seen some time in the bigs. Outfielder Reggie Abercrombie has seen action with the Florida Marlins and Houston Astros and returning outfielder Ray Sadler (Astros and Pittsburgh Pirates) was explosive in 59 games after being acquired last year: 22 doubles, two triples, 11 home runs and a sparkly .949 on-base-plus-slugging number.
Outside those two, Forney has assembled a remarkably experienced group of hitters. There's 2010 Northern League standout Jake Blackwood, just released from affiliated ball, and infielder Tyler Kuhn, who played in 199 games at the AAA level. Outfielder Donnie Webb is coming off of a huge season in Rockland of the Can-Am League, where he stole 30 bases and walloped 10 home runs in 97 games.
All in all, it's a pretty experienced group, full of guys with a proven records. And the players are pumped.
"It's easy for pitchers, when they have some runs behind them," Ramon said. "I can't wait to see what we can do on the field."
This could be a big campaign for Ramon, who trained hard through the off-season. Last season he showed flashes of the dynamo he can be, but he also worked through some slumps at the plate, and in the field. Now, at 30, he's raring to go.
"I think I finally had an off-season where I didn't have to worry about injuries," Ramon said. "I feel great, I'm ready to start the season. I gotta get back to where I used to be, where I was over .300, and a lot of RBIs. I just want to get back to my old form."