Stingers gear up for fifth season
WILLMAR — The 2014 Willmar Stingers that play their home opener tonight at Bill Taunton Stadium will be a very different looking team than the 2013 edition that went 41-29 and narrowly missed the playoffs.
Even in a league with as much roster turnover as the Northwoods League, the Stingers have been hit hard.
Gone is manager Matt Hollod, who managed the team for four years, amassing 160 wins (10th in NWL history) and making one playoff appearance.
Gone are lineup mainstays Michael Suchy and Max Kuhn, who combined for 856 at-bats in the middle of the Stingers’ lineup the past two seasons.
Gone is NWL co-MVP Marc Flores, and gone is top lefthander Colin Poche.
The Stingers will get a boost from returning pitchers T.J. Whidby, Sheldon Lee, Josh Matheson and Brady Anderson and returning shortstop Max Dutto.
Whidby led the Stingers with 58.1 innings pitched in 2013 and Anderson was an NWL All-Star in 2012 before missing last season with a knee injury.
Anderson, a Florida Gulf Coast redshirt sophomore, will start for the Stingers tonight.
He mainly worked out of the bullpen in his last stint with the Stingers but could be a regular member of the rotation this year.
“I think (starting) is what he’s going to do next year for Florida Gulf Coast,” new Stingers manager Drew Saberhagen said. “I know he’s an incredible asset at the end of a bullpen. It’s a versatile thing where he can start for us and if we need to move him to the pen we can do that.”
Lee posted a 3.69 ERA in 39 innings with 24 strikeouts for the ’13 Stingers.
Dutto struggled at the plate but drew rave reviews for his defense at shortstop, and he could see regular playing time there.
The rest of the team will be a mix of a few veterans and a whole lot of intriguing underclassmen.
Saberhagen said he doesn’t believe the youth of the team will be an issue.
“You don’t have to worry about the draft!” he said. “Anytime you’re dealing with a young summer team, you have an opportunity to get some returning players and develop relationships with them. They’re all-hands-on-deck — they’re excited and haven’t gone through it as much as the older guys.”
The starting lineup is not set yet but strong candidates for at-bats include California sophomore Dutto, Creighton redshirt sophomore and co-Big East Player of the Year Reagan Fowler, Pepperdine sophomore Hutton Moyer, Ohio State sophomore and All-Big Ten 3rd Team selection Troy Kuhn, Florida Gulf Coast sophomore Nick Rivera and Illinois State sophomore Sean Beesley.
Fowler beat up the Big East, hitting .362 and posting a .945 OPS.
Rivera, who could split time with Fowler at first base and designated hitter, hit six homers with a .327 average and .525 slugging percentage,
Dutto, Kuhn, Moyer, Brian Pruett and Frankie Rios will be options up the middle and could flash some serious leather.
“I think we’re going to be really good defensively, especially in the infield,” Saberhagen said. “Any time you have three shortstops you’ll be really good, and Rivera is extremely athletic at first, really good hands around the bag.”
The outfield will cover some ground, as well. The speedy Beesley was 18th in NCAA Division I with 27 stolen bases. He and Devyn Bolasky could split time in centerfield.
The pitching staff will be a lot of mixing and matching thanks to pitch counts and innings limits.
“The rotation in the Northwoods League is kind of an evolving thing,” Saberhagen said.
Some rotation candidates may be Franklin’s Hayden Cleveland, North Alabama’s Brantley Claunch, Walters State’s Andrew Towns and Portland’s Kurt Yinger, along with Will Lydon and Sheldon Lee, who started the first two games of the season.
The Stingers will not have a St. Cloud State player for the first time but will have several players with Minnesota ties.
They signed to temp contracts Minnesota Gophers outfielder Dan Motl and pitcher Tyler Hanson, Century College pitcher Dakota Belter, Bemidji State infielder Joey Hanowski and Matheson out of MSU-Mankato.
The Stingers are initially missing some key pieces: Pepperdine’s Moyer, Jack Ross and A.J. Puckett, Alabama’s Casey Hughston and Hunter Webb, Kentucky’s Matt Snyder and Cal Poly’s Brett Barbier are all still alive in the NCAA Division I College World Series regionals, and MSU-Mankato’s Josh Matheson in the Division II CWS.
Iowa Western’s David Parrett is also absent, still playing in the NJCAA CWS.