In 2015, the Omaha Storm Chasers failed to win the Pacific Coast League Championship for the first time in three years, but they still featured a number of exciting players. Many of those players - Brett Eibner, Jose Martinez, and Balbino Fuenmayor - return for the 2016 season. The Storm Chasers invited media members to Werner Park this week to have a chat with some players and with manger Brian Poldberg.
Poldberg is starting his third year as the Chasers' skipper with a new-look pitching staff. The rotation is set with pitching prospect Miguel Almonte pitching in tonight's opener, followed by John Lannan, Luke Farrell, Jonathan Dziedzic, and Brooks Pounders.
As for the bullpen, it is different from the stable of long-tenured arms Omaha has seen for a few years.
"The bullpen that we've had over the last couple years -- Colemans [Louis and Casey] , [Michael] Mariot, [Buddy] Baumann – they're gone now," Poldberg said. "We've got a lot of new faces who will come in and learn on the run and see how the pitching's gonna pan out."
One of the relievers who is new to the Storm Chasers is not new to the city of Omaha. Longtime Minnesota Twins left-hander Brian Duensing joined the Royals in free agency this winter but did not make the big league roster out of spring training. On the plus side, he gets to pitch near home, as he and his wife live in Omaha and are active in the community.
Duensing's Nebraska ties made the Royals a natural choice during his free agency period. He said he had a number minor league offers with spring training invitations, and narrowed it down to the Royals and Giants.
"I feel I've thrown against the Royals lineup enough that I knew them already. It was easy to walk in the clubhouse and feel like I knew them somewhat already," he said.
Of course, it also helps that his old friend Alex Gordon is a member of the organization. It has become somewhat of a running gag online, how Ryan Lefebvre cannot let a broadcast against the Twins pass by without retelling how Duensing and Gordon are best friends from way back, played at Nebraska together, and were in each other's weddings. Duensing said he did not talk to Gordon about signing with the Royals, but having Gordon around made it easier to walk into a new clubhouse for the first time in his career.
One player looking to make an offensive impact is utilityman Whit Merrifield, who found himself in the frustrating position of being the last cut from spring training two years in a row. He said that last year, Ned Yost described a scenario to himr where he would have made the club, but the Royals went in another direction and left Whit to "stir up the storm" in Omaha.
"I feel like I've done almost everything I can in my career - I hit .340 one year, I've stolen 32 bases, I've had 42 doubles, I've played all these positions," Merrifield said. "The only thing I haven't done is hit double-digit home runs."
With that goal in mind, Merrifield put himself through some extreme diet and workout regimens over the winter to add 20 pounds of bulk. "My goal is not to take away from my game. I still want to drive the ball the other way, but maybe a couple of those doubles will turn into homers and a couple of those balls off the wall will go out."
Merrifield said he doesn't yet know where Poldberg will play him. He has played all over the field, but his top preference would be to get more time in center field and at shortstop. Last season, he only got to play four games at short, and one game in center. In 2015, center field was occupied by a rotation of Reymond Fuentes, Paulo Orlando, a bit of Lane Adams, and Brett Eibner. This year, the outfield remains crowded, with Eibner and Jose Martinez joined by free agent Travis Snider and hitting prospect Jorge Bonifacio.
Eibner is coming off one of his better professional seasons and he said his focus for this season is staying healthy the whole year. He has had a few injuries that have cut his past few seasons short, costing him opportunities with the big club.
"I always feel like the front office and coaching staff knew what I could do. It's just a matter of being able to stay on the field and being able to do it for a full season," Eibner said.
The Royals have tasked Eibner with improving his base stealing. "With the leg injuries that I've had, I'm a little bit more careful running, but this year I'm looking to come out and steal as many bags as I can," he said. "I definitely know what they do up there in the big leagues, that's defense and taking the extra bases, so I want to incorporate that in my game and show them that I can do that."
Citing many years of playing in center, Eibner said that position is where he feels most at home, but he is confident in his abilities to play right field as well. Left field, he said, is a bit tricker.
"The ball gets on you a little bit quicker there, with the way the ball moves off a lefty's bat and the hook down the line from a righty. There's still some things to work on out there to get comfortable, but it's coming along."
Don't look for Eibner, who also pitched in college for Arkansas, to return to the mound. Ever. "I never really enjoyed pitching. I knew I was never gonna be an actual pitcher," Eibner said. "I would just get up there and try to throw as hard as I could and try and throw a secondary pitch that broke a little bit, enough to change speeds. Other than that, I was like, forget it. I'm not doing this." The 27-year old has not pitched in a professional game in his career.
"My arm didn't feel good when I was doing it then; it's definitely not gonna feel any better now, being almost ten years older."
The Storm Chasers open their season with an eight-game home stand at Werner Park starting tonight against New Orleans at 7:05. You can check out their entire schedule here and watch games with a subscription at MilB.com.