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Fish hope to piece together another championship in 20th anniversary season

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The Winnipeg Goldeyes pose with their trophy after winning the American Association Championship.

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The Winnipeg Goldeyes pose with their trophy after winning the American Association Championship.

The pieces of the puzzle are spread out before Winnipeg Goldeyes manager Rick Forney, but the picture it will make is yet to be revealed.

As the Fish prepare to open training camp on their 20th anniversary season Saturday, the Goldeyes manager is getting ready to field an almost entirely new team from the one that hoisted the American Association championship trophy last year: lots of change, yes. But also lots of new young legs.

This is why Forney played patient building the Goldeyes roster this year. He waited for affiliated teams to open their spring camps, poised to swoop on quality players who didn't make the cut.

"We knew we were going to be going through a lot of change this year," Forney said. "We were going to have to produce a whole new roster. I wanted to wait until March... I wanted to find as much new product as I could find."

Now, he'll watch and learn about these new players, looking for a mix that has the chance to make a repeat.

Late last season, the puzzle pieces clicked into place: The Fish had been battered by injuries and struggled at stretches. But after the first game of the divisional playoff series, "this light bulb went off," Forney said. "Everybody seemed to be clicking on all cylinders. For whatever reason we played baseball at an unbelievable level, that I've never seen before at the American Association level."

That story closed with a championship, a victory party at Shaw Park and big hopes for the future.

But the team has changed. During the off-season, record-setting Fish favourite Ace Walker hung up his cap to settle down in Oklahoma with his fiancée; pitchers Zach Baldwin and Brian Beuning followed suit; infielder Yurendell de Caster left to take a swing at Mexican baseball. A slew of other players had to be returned to their previous teams to complete trade deals.

All told, only six players on the 26-man training camp roster were there when the Goldeyes won it all last season: catcher Luis Alen, who is back for his third season, pitchers Matt Rusch, Chris Allen and Kaohi Downing, infielder Amos Ramon and outfielder Josh Mazzola.

So this will be a younger Goldeyes team than last -- but for each hole left by a departing journeyman, there's a new opportunity for someone to show his stuff.

"We have a lot of youth on our team, and to be honest with you, I think that's required," Forney said. "It's a lot of baseball... you got to have some young, fresh legs. It helps avoid complacency. We have guys who are still very much career-oriented, and have goals."

Much of the pitching load is likely to fall on Rusch, who led the American Association last year with a 2.40 ERA and 113 strikeouts. But Forney also has intriguing new pieces, including 26-year-old Justin Garcia, who the Fish acquired from the Amarillo Sox, and southpaw pitcher Edgar Osuna, 25, the first Mexican national to suit up at Shaw Park.

There is also the hint of some ready-made chemistry on the roster. Five players came out of the Kansas City Royals organization, and four from the San Francisco Giants.

"That's going to be a plus," said outfielder Josh Mazzola, himself a Giants product, as he hit the workout room on Tuesdays. "Having those two groups, and the group that was here last year... we're going to have a lot of guys who already have that teammate experience. And the key is just to go out and have fun."

In all, there are 26 players on the training camp roster, a number that must drop to 23 before the first 10 days of the season, and then to 22. It's a puzzle as noted, and there are shapes that need to fit. Some will fit easily: American Association teams are allowed up to five veteran-status players, and the Fish have only outfielder Fehlandt Lentini, infielders Nate Samson and Leonard Davis and pitcher Rusch with that designation.

Teams must also have four rookies on the roster, and the Goldeyes have exactly four: catcher Jordan Guida, starting pitcher Aaron Correa, and relievers Reggie Hochstedler, who comes to the Goldeyes straight out of Indiana State and Kaohi Downing, who was with the Fish last year but retained his rookie status.

Other spots, though, will take some careful evaluation. Of the 15 pitchers coming into camp, Forney expects to keep 11 or 12; of the 11 position players, a couple are likely to get their walking papers. On what those training camp battles may look like, Forney chose to keep mum: Some of these guys he's just getting to know himself.

Still, as the Goldeyes look to clinch a championship repeat, the team's manager likes what he sees -- on paper, at least.

"We'll see how this all shakes out," Forney said. "I don't think I've ever come to spring training with so many quality pitchers... Hopefully they come in real good shape and nobody gets injured."

melissa.martin@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 2, 2013 D2

History

Updated on Thursday, May 2, 2013 at 10:06 AM CDT: adds fact box, adds missing info, changes headline

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