The boys of summer are back in town with familiar faces and new ballplayers.
The Reno Aces begin their ninth season in Northern Nevada with 12 returning players from 2016, and one player with local ties is more than ready for the season to begin.
Former University of Nevada pitcher Braden Shipley takes the ball tonight in the season opener at Fresno and will pitch the home opener on Tuesday when the Aces honor former manager Brett Butler, the Reno franchise’s first skipper who guided the team to both a Pacific Coast League championship and Triple-A World Series win in 2012.
At Media Day on Tuesday, Shipley, who grew a full beard during the offseason, said it’s disappointing not to start the season for the Arizona Diamondbacks, Reno’s parent team, after competing for half of 2016 at the Major League level.
“Yea, it’s bittersweet,” Shipley said, standing near the third-base dugout talking to reporters, “but I love this city of Reno, and I always have fun. I’m looking forward to playing baseball.”
The Diamondbacks picked Shipley 15th in the first round of the 2013 Major League Baseball draft, the same year he was named Mountain West Co-Pitcher of the Year with a 5-3 record and a 2.76 ERA in the conference.
Shipley posted an 8-5 record and a respectable 3.70 earned run average before Arizona called him up on July 25. He finished the second half of the season with a 4-5 record for the D-backs, pitching 70 innings and having a 5.27 ERA. While with both teams, he fanned 120 batters and walked 50.
Shipley’s goal is to return to Arizona before mid-season.
“It’s a different game, a little quicker. You pay for your mistakes a lot more,” he said of life with the D-backs. “This spring I was a different pitcher. I didn’t make too many mistakes. My focus is to pitch well every single time and control the things I can control.”
GROSS TAKES CHARGE
Interim manager Greg Gross said Aces’ pitching will be strong again with three to five starters who have Major League experience including Shipley. He said experience is important in the PCL. Gross, who begins his fifth year as the team’s hitting coach, takes over for the team when Arizona called up newly hired manager Jerry Narron to replace bench coach Ron Gardenhire who was diagnosed with prostate cancer.
“It’s totally a new unique situation we’re in,” Gross said. “We’ll keep it running smoothly until Jerry gets back.”
Asked if Narron gave the veteran hitting coach advice for managing the team, Gross shook his head no.
“Do what you think is best,” Gross said, repeating what Narron told him. “It’s going to be a team effort among (coaches) Gil (Heredia) and Mike (Lansing) and myself.”
Narron, a native of North Carolina, spent eight years in the majors playing for three teams, and he managed the Texas Rangers and Cincinnati from 2001-2007. Gross temporarily inherits a team who finished 2016 with a record of 76-68 and second place in the Pacific Northern Division. Former coach Phil Nevin moved on, becoming the San Francisco Giants’ third base coach.
Compared to previous teams Gross has coached, he said the versatility of utility players is a team strength, while the hitting will take time to develop. Last year, the Aces finished third in batting in the PCL with a .280 average. Gross’ Reno teams have constantly placed in the top three in most offensive statistics.
As for the 2017 edition, Gross said the players and he are learning about each other’s backgrounds.
“We’re building a relationship. I get to know them and how they work out and for them to know how I work,” Gross said.
PLAYING THE FIELD
Outfielder Zack Borenstein, who batted .272 and drove in 57 runs in 2016, returns to Reno. Gross said Reymond Fuentes and Jason Pridie also bring experience with the bat. Fuentes hit .257 in Triple-A Omaha and .317 for the Kansas City Royals in 13 games. Jason Pridie finished 2015 with a .327 average at Nashville, but the Oakland A’s released him after the season. He played in Japan last year.
“We have a lot of options in the outfield,” Borenstein said of this year’s talent. “The guys in the infield can also play outfield.”
Offensively, Borenstein said the team hasn’t been together for a long time as a unit because Arizona reassigned players to Reno on the last day of spring training.
“We’ll get a feel for it (the offense) as we go,” he added.
Borenstein said his goal is to compete every day at the highest level so he can earn a shot at the big leagues.
Missing from the lineup, though, was fan-favorite Peter O’Brien, who spent the last two seasons in Reno. O’Brien is now playing in the Royals’ farm system at Omaha after having a good spring. Arizona dealt last year’s top minor league prospect, Mitch Hanigan, to Seattle in the offseason. Hanigan played 74 games for Reno batting .341 with 20 homers and 64 RBI before the D-backs called him up.
Shortstop Jack Reinheimer played 132 games for Reno last year and batted .288, while second baseman Ildemaro Vargas arrived at midseason from Mobile after the Seattle Mariners claimed Mike Freeman. Vargas ripped the ball for a .341 average and hit 20 homers.
Other infielders include Sean Jamieson, second base; former Mariners player Ketel Marte, who was involved in the Hanigan trade, shortstop; Kristopher Negron, third base; and Christian Walker, first base.
Walker takes over for Kyle Jensen, a 2016 Triple-A all-star who batted .289 with 30 home runs and 120 RBI. Jensen is now playing in Japan.
“We have a lot of competitors, and that will help me,” said Reinheimer, who grew up in North Carolina.
Although he’s miles from home, Reinheimer said he’s happy to return to Reno.
“I love it here,” he said, “good atmosphere, good crowds and a good hitter’s park.”
Only one catcher returns. Ronnie Freeman played for Mobile and then Reno for 10 games. He batted .286 in 28 plate appearances. Also behind the plate is Hank Conger, who caught for Triple-A Durham of the International League and 49 games for Tampa Bay where he finished the year with a .194 batting average.
Former Giants outfielder Gregor Blanco made the Reno roster, but he was placed on the disabled list. Blanco, who played in two World Series for the Giants, hit .224 in 106 games last year.
EXPERIENCED PITCHING CORPS
Heredia, an Arizona native who spent last season in Reno as pitching coach, said he has a rotation of four to five starters and can go six deep on piggyback games. This is where pitchers work together in tandem where one will work up to five or six innings, and then the other pitcher comes in for a few innings. The philosophy is to get a pitcher’s arm in shape early in the season.
“We’re strong top to bottom,” said the former right-hander, who played for four Major League teams from 1991 to 2001. “Shipley had an amazing year last year and who knows what he needs to do (to play at the majors). Anthony Banda had a great second half of the year as did (Silvino) Bracho. Matt Koch made the big leagues last year and threw a lot of strikes.”
Koch posted a 4-2 record at Reno and 1-1 at Arizona after being called up. Banda is a 2012 10th-round draft pick and D-backs’ current No. 1 prospect, according to Baseball America. The Milwaukee Brewers originally selected the Texas native, but he was acquired by Arizona in a July 2014 trade. Banda also broke the Baseball America Top 100 prospects list, coming in at No. 88.
Heredia and Zack Godley team up again after they spent part of the 2015 season together at Visalia. Godley pitched at Mobile and Reno, where he went 2-1. Arizona called up the South Carolina native where he finished the year with a 5-4 record.
“I’m looking forward to getting on the mound and truly competing,” Godley said. “It’s getting past spring training and getting into my pitching. My goal is keep progressing as a pitcher and learning the hitters and keep getting better,” he said. “I had a pretty good spring. I made a lot of progress with a couple of different things.”
Godley said he has learned much from Heredia.
“He’s a really great coach,” Godley added.
As for the bullpen, Heredia said he has a good group of pitchers who played for Reno last year including Bracho and Jimmie Sherfy, who began the season at Visalia, moved up to Mobile and then finished the season at Reno with a 1-4 record in 23.1 innings in 24 games.