Last season, the Omaha Storm Chasers went 58-82, a record that landed them in last place, 22.5 games out of first, and among the worst finishes in franchise history. They were in first place in late May, but suffered a free-fall after losing a number of key players like Cheslor Cuthbert, Whit Merrifield, and Brett Eibner to fill emergency gaps in Kansas City.
A rejuvenated roster should produce different results in 2017. The minor league season begins Thursday night, and the Storm Chasers are sending out a team that features power bats and power arms alike. “We've got some youth, but we've got some veterans in there,” said manager Brian Poldberg. “We've got some power, we've got some speed. It's a very versatile lineup, so I'm looking forward to that.”
Poldberg noted that the last-minute oblique injury to third baseman Hunter Dozier left him worried, but not for long. “Losing Dozier with three days to go in spring training didn't help, but finding out I got [Whit] Merrifield a day later filled that void,” he said.
Whit Merrifield was, for the third consecutive year, with Kansas City until the very end of camp. He had options remaining, and the Royals decided to use them to keep other players on the big league roster. He had to make the familiar trip much further north on I-29 than he wanted to. “You bang your head against the wall for an hour or so, and then you move on. It's all you can do,” he said.
After playing half a season in the Majors, 28-year-old Merrifield shared some observations:
The biggest thing I took away is that I can play at that level. It's the biggest stage of baseball. But there are a lot of things that are going for you in the big leagues as opposed to down here, like advanced scouting reports; you have video on everybody; you're always playing under bright lights with a white ball and a great backdrop. There's a lot of things in the big leagues that make the game a little bit easier, but then again you're playing the best competition so it levels out. I gained a lot of confidence last year knowing I could play at that level.
Merrifield will be joined in the lineup by a few returning members of last year’s Chasers: outfielders Jorge Bonifacio and Bubba Starling, and infielder Ramon Torres.
Royals farmhands receiving promotions to start this year are catcher Cam Gallagher, and first baseman Ryan O’Hearn and infielder Corey Toups. Speedy outfielder Billy Burns played two games with Omaha in 2016 before being called up to nurture the Rally Mantis, and will start 2017 with the Chasers.
The Storm Chasers also brought in a few veteran position players from other organizations includking infielders Dean Anna and Garin Cecchini, former Royals catcher Brayan Pena, and power-hitting outfielder* Peter O’Brien.
*O’Brien is listed on the roster as an outfielder, but can also catch and play first base.
Werner Park’s short porch in left field, along with frequent winds that blow out have not escaped O’Brien’s notice. “[the short porch] definitely makes it a little bit more exciting,” he said. “But at the end of the day, a ballpark is a ballpark. I just try to stay within myself, and go out there and have fun.”
O’Brien said he spent the spring taking advantage of time with Kansas City’s Hall of Fame third baseman, George Brett. “He is definitely a guy that when he talks, you listen. It was a lot of fun, and I got a lot of great things from him, and we had a lot of laughs.”
While O’Brien is a veteran of the Pacific Coast League, first baseman Ryan O’Hearn is getting his first look at Triple-A. He comes in as Baseball America’s #8 prospect in the Royals’ system.
“I'm grateful to the Royals, man,” O’Hearn said. (He punctuates many sentences with ‘man’ or ‘dude.’) “They've done a lot for me, and giving me the opportunity to come to Omaha to play with this team is pretty awesome.”
Outfielder Bubba Starling, no stranger to the pressure that accompanies prospect hype, hopes to avoid repeating his terrible 2016. After a July 3rd promotion from AA Northwest Arkansas, Starling batted just .181/.213/.265.
“Obviously last year wasn't a great season for me,” Starling said. “I came up, and started feeling good for the first couple weeks, and then kind of got down in the dumps and never got out. But you can't look back on that. It's a new season, I'm confident and I'm ready to go out and have some fun with my teammates.”
The theme of “fun with teammates” kept coming up throughout media day. Billy Burns credits general manager Dayton Moore with a family-first philosophy that players do feel:
The way that they run things from a front office perspective, which trickles down into the organization is just the family vibe that they give. That is something that is very special. I've seen organizations that don't have that, and it's pretty miserable sometimes. It makes it more fun for a player to learn and grow with a teammate or a friend that they're kind of coming up with. To excel with your buddies, and to reach the big leagues with your friends.
Ultimately though, baseball is a results-oriented game. “You can't get complacent in this game,” Starling said. “Defensively, I've got to keep working. And now I've just got to hit, hit, hit. Once that comes along, we'll see what happens.”
On the mound, Omaha should excel. The bullpen will feature MLB veterans Al Alburquerque and Bobby Parnell, plus younger players like Kevin McCarthy, Malcom Culver, and Andrew Edwards.
Jonathan Dziedzic, Luke Farrell, and Jake Junis all return after spending time in the Omaha rotation last year. They’ll be joined by Kansas City’s #1 pitching prospect, Josh Staumont, who has wowed scouts with his 100 mph fastball.
Staumont is of course aware he’s considered the organization’s top prospect, but tries not to be distracted by it. “It's a nice thing to have in the back of your mind, but at the same time it doesn't really affect anything in between the lines.”
The 23-year-old continued: “Between the lines there's not a single guy on the field that cares about who has said something about you. It's your talent against theirs. At the end of the day, it's just a battle between you and the batter, and sometimes the umpire.”
Omaha’s season opener is tonight at 7:40 p.m., at Colorado Springs.
Omaha Storm Chasers roster
(bold indicates on 40-man roster)
Catchers: Cam Gallagher, Brayan Pena
Infielders: Dean Anna, Garin Cecchini, Whit Merrifield, Ryan O’Hearn, Ramon Torres, Corey Toups
Outfielders: Jorge Bonifacio, Billy Burns, Peter O’Brien, Bubba Starling
Starting Pitchers: Jonathan Dziedzic, Luke Farrell, Jake Junis, Josh Staumont
Relief Pitchers: Al Alburquerque, Scott Alexander, Yender Caramo, Malcom Culver, Andrew Edwards, Kevin McCarthy, Bobby Parnell, Mark Peterson, Eric Stout
Disabled List: Seth Maness, Chris Withrow