Coming off a season in which they won an Alaska Baseball League title, the Peninsula Oilers are on the verge of a brand-new season, one which will likely see a lot of change.
With six of their top seven hitters gone, the Oilers will be losing star power with the absence of players such as Mike Miller, Patrick Wisdom, Troy Channing and Chris Mallory, but head coach John Stevens said while it may be a challenge filling the gaps, he still expects the current roster to top expectations.
The Oilers open their new season Monday at 7 p.m. at Coral Seymour Memorial Park against the Adult All-Stars.
“We have some kids out there now that are new and have only been here a couple days and I haven’t seen them throw too much,” Stevens said. “The first part of the season you try to see what they have to offer you. I mean, last year we had about 14 pitchers on our roster at this time.”
Stevens said the team this year will be a “singles and doubles” team, meaning they will not be relying heavily on small ball play, such as bunting.
“We have a lot of speed, so we’ll probably do some skill bunting for base hits, but we’re not going to be a team that relies on sacrifice bunts,” he said. “We’re not going to play little ball, but if it comes to the final inning and we need one run, then we’ll play for that run, but we’re going to otherwise keep it simple.
“If we hit .275 as a team, but lead the ABL in doubles, then we’ll be just as strong as last year.”
With all of the roster changes in the last month or so, the team has finally begun playing together and practicing on the same field for the first time.
Starting from the mound, Stevens tabbed returner Jordan Mills from St. Mary’s College in California as one of the team’s effective pitchers. Mills’ ERA last year was 1.24, with a pitching record of 5-1.
“(Mills) is very tough to hit, and as long as he can throw strikes and keep the ball down, he’s very hard to hit,” Stevens said. “As a hitter, you don’t know where it’s going, and in fact I don’t think he knows where it’s going.”
Jon Maciel (Long Beach State), JD Salles (Fresno State) and Mike Compton (Florida State) will also be seeing time on the mound this summer, according to Stevens. Maciel and Salles are returners.
Frank Martinez, hailing from Cal State Bakersfield, will fill the catcher role.
Stevens said there will be a trio of players for first base. Returner Jeff Yamaguchi from Long Beach State, Trey Richardson from University of South Carolina and Jimmie Koch from Florida Tech should fill out first base this summer.
“Yamaguchi was great last year until he got hurt, and Koch has played well in summer ball, but seems to be inconsistent in college,” he said. “When he’s on, he should do very well.”
Yamaguchi was one of the Oilers’ top fielders last year, making no errors.
Oscar Sanay from Cal State Bakersfield will be put at second base, along with Jake Alvarez from Fresno State. Sanay will also likely be put to use as shortstop, and is expected to be a good hitter.
Nigel Nootbaar (University of Southern California) will play third base, and Stevens said he was Los Angeles County player of the year coming out of high school.
“He came here as a pitcher, but he plays multiple options,” he said. “It’s going to be hard to replace Mike (Miller) at shortstop and Patrick (Wisdom) at third, so these guys have a challenge.”
Returner Manny Acosta (Cal State Los Angeles) could also be an option for third, but will be mostly in left field. Returner Nate Ring (Cal State Northridge) and Jordan Hein (Cal State Bakersfield) are expected to fill out the remaining outfield, with Ring in center field and Hein in right.
“Nate can track anything down out there,” Stevens said. “When a ball is hit, you can usually rely on him to take care of it.”
Stevens said a strong pitching core combined with the fielding operation will provide dividends for the team, citing the fact that the Coral Seymour Memorial Park is not a haven for big hits or home runs.
“(Former coach) Dennis (Machado) used to tell me, he said if we have an ERA of over two, we’re only going to have a .500-win team, and after 10 games, it was true,” Stevens said. “I don’t know why it is, but the balls smash off the bat and go nowhere. That’s why it’s important to have Ring in center field, because he can get them.”
The Oilers’ versatility is what makes them a dangerous team, and thus the reason for switching players around and giving them time and experience with every position. Stevens said the fact that the players are starting to feel comfortable with different positions means they have another shot at the ABL title, and perhaps a trip to Wichita, Kan., to play in the National Baseball Congress World Series.
“Last year, the only times we lost is when they didn’t come to play,” Stevens said. “They’d come in here with blood all over their hands from fishing, and they’d be up all night fishing, then they would go out and stink. When we came to play, we’d go out and win the game every single time.”
Stevens said the Oilers, more so than the other ABL teams possess, a feeling of wanting to play in Alaska.
“So far, the guys like it, other than the fact that they have trouble getting used to all the sunlight up here,” he said. “Guys in Anchorage just want to go home, it seems, but here they enjoy it.”
The first league game will be 7 p.m. Wednesday against the Alaska Goldpanners of Fairbanks.