Reno Aces open season Thursday | NevadaAppeal.com

Reno Aces open season Thursday

Steve Ranson
LVN Editor Emeritus

RENO — Reno manager Greg Gross gave his assessment of this year's Aces on Tuesday as he begins his first full season as the team's skipper.

Gross, who began 2017 as both hitting coach and interim manager, guided the 80-62 Aces to first place in the Pacific Coast League's Pacific Northern Division, one of just four PCL teams to advance to the playoffs. Reno, though, dropped three games to El Paso in the first round. Gross, a Pennsylvania native who grew up in York but still resides near Philadelphia, has made Reno his second home since 2013 when he became a coach under then-manager Brett Butler.

Gross definitely had a spring in his step and confidence in his voice when discussing this year's team and players, who open the 2018 season today at 6:35 p.m. at Greater Nevada Field.

Reno, the Diamondbacks' Triple-A club, opens with Fresno in a five-game series that launches the Aces' 10th season in Northern Nevada.

"It feels great," Gross said when asked how it felt to return to Reno from almost two months of spring training in Arizona. "This is the best time of year. The expectations are for everyone. We had a great spring training, and a lot of the guys had a good camp. We're ready to go."

This will be more of a transition year for Gross as he gives up the hitting-coach responsibilities for managing the team. Yet, he has been with many returning players for three to four years, and he expects good things from both his veterans and newcomers.

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"Offensively, we look pretty good, but we still have to go out and play," he said. "The guys had a decent spring, and the attitude leading into today has been good."

Pitching

Gross is looking for his pitching corps to be more consistent this year, both in Reno and at the Major League level when called up.

"A lot of guys go up there, pitch a game or two, but the hard part is consistency," he pointed out.

Coach Mike Lansing returns, and Jason Camilli steps in as the new hitting coach. Gil Heredia, the Aces pitching coach, assembled his pitching rotation before learning Matt Koch had been called up to Arizona. Heredia will start with former University of Nevada standout Braden Shipley on Thursday, followed by Taylor Clarke for the third game, Kris Medlin and Albert Suarez. He said the pitching staff has undergone few changes since spring training.

"I'm prepared and confident in myself this year whether it's a bad start or good start," said Shipley. "I'm confident knowing I did everything during the offseason to prepare myself and pitch well in the spring. It's going to be an exciting night and hopefully get the Aces their first win of the year."

Shipley has a 15-11 record in two seasons with Reno including 7-6 last year. He was 4-5 with Arizona in 2016 but 0-1 in 2017.

Clarke was 3-2 in 33 innings for Reno after coming to the Aces from Jackson, where he was 9-7. Medlin posted a 3-7 record for the Braves' Triple-A club, and Suarez, who played for San Jose and Sacramento, both San Francisco Giants minor-league teams, also pitched at the Major League level for the Giants.

Koch returns to the D-backs after third baseman Jake Lamb was placed on the disabled list for an injured shoulder. He was 2-2 in Reno last year and also pitched in one game for Arizona.

Gross said the bullpen will be solid with returning relievers Jimmie Sherfy and Silvino Bracho, who had 30 saves between them. Both pitchers are veterans with success at the Triple-A level and, at times, have seen success in the Major Leagues.

Sherfy, the workhorse out of the bullpen in 2017 with 20 saves in 49 innings, had a 3.12 earned run average and a 2-1 record, and Bracho pitched 20.2 innings with the D-backs and 35.1 innings with Reno with a 4.08 ERA.

Arizona called up Sherfy in September where pitched 11 innings and compiled a 2-0 record. Before his call-up, Sherfy became the Aces' all-time saves leader with 32. Southpaw Jared Miller spent the first part of last season at Double-A Jackson before coming to Reno in July. Miller posted a 3-3 record in 31.1 innings in 22 games for Reno and had a 1.72 ERA.

"We have a good relief staff," Heredia said.

Other pitchers to watch, said Heredia, include Jack Barrett and Jake Buchannan, both right-handers who played for Reno last season.

Infield

Anchoring the offense as well as the infield is first baseman Christian Walker, last year's PCL Most Valuable Player. He hit .309 with 32 home runs and 114 RBI. In 11 games with the Arizona Diamondbacks, the Pennsylvania native hit .250 and belted two homers.

"He makes everything go," Gross said. "He's a great RBI guy, hits for average, is a good defensive player. I look forward for him to put up good numbers again."

Walker, who played on two College World Series teams for the University of South Carolina, said he set several milestones for this season including cutting down on strikeouts and forcing pitchers to walk him more. The second-year Aces player said he needs to be more consistent, but he's ready for the season to begin.

"On paper, I'm excited we have a great team, and the experience will help," he said. "Those are the things you need to pull those games out."

Returning to the infield are second baseman Ildemaro Vargas and shortstop Jack Reinheimer. Vargas hit .313 and drove in 65 runs in 115 games, while Reinheimer played in 129 games, batted .278 and had 19 doubles and 56 RBIs. Kristopher Negrón, who played several infield positions, put up good numbers during 2017, batting .300 with 17 doubles, 11 triples, 13 home runs and 64 RBI.

Kevin Cron, who comes from a baseball program and has a brother, C.J., playing for Tampa Bay, batted .283 at Jackson last year. He remained in Arizona due to an injury and rehabilitation. Rey Fuentes is on the disabled list, but during the 2017 season, he played for both Reno, where he batted .343, and the D-backs. Daniel Robertson, who played for both Triple-A Columbus and Cleveland, rounds out the infielders.

Reinheimer, who played in the Arizona Fall League during the offseason, said he had a productive spring and is ready for the season to begin.

"Spring training went really well," said the third-year player, adding he worked on timing at the plate and defense. "We have a core group of guys coming back, and it'll be a fun season."

Michael Perez, who was called up late in the season and played nine games for Reno, will be one of three catchers, and newcomer Anthony Recker played in the Atlanta Braves organization last year. Marcus Littlefield played for Double-A Arkansas in 2017.

"I think he (Perez) has turned the corner and made a lot of progress," Gross said. "I look forward to seeing him."

Outfield

Despite hitting .293 with two RBI and three runs scored in spring training, the Diamondbacks outrighted leftfielder Yasmany Tomas and removed him from the 40-man roster. Tomas left professional baseball in Cuba and signed a six-year, $68 million contract with the Diamondbacks in 2014.

Gross said it will be a challenge for Tomas, who spent five games in Reno in 2015, to compete at the Triple-A level after playing for the Diamondbacks for three years. While at Arizona, Tomas hit .268 with 60 doubles, 48 home runs and 163 RBI in 305 games.

"I think he will accept that challenge and be out of here as fast as he can," Gross said.

Reno has five other outfielders who will see plenty of action this year including Socrates Britto, who played in 40 games for Arizona in 2017. While at Reno, he batted .291 with 44 RBI. Another outfielder with Major League experience is Jeremy Hazelbaker. He swung the bat for a .346 average with Arizona and batted .279 in 52 games with Reno. Hazelbaker played in 114 games for St. Louis in 2016.

Evan Marzilli, a teammate of Walker when both played for South Carolina, is on injured reserve and going through rehabilitation in Arizona. He started 2017 in Jackson and came to Reno where he played in 32 games.

Cesar Puello played for Triple-A teams Round Rock and Salt Lake City in 2017 as well as with the Major League Angels and Tampa Bay. Gross said it's nice to have Puello on the Reno bench rather than playing for an opposing Triple-A team.

"He beat us up when he was with Salt Lake," Gross said of the 27-year-old Puello, who had a .397 batting average with 74 hits in 184 plate appearances.

Aces’ 25-man roster

Right-handed Pitchers (12) – Jake Barrett, Michael Blazek, Silvino Bracho, Jake Buchanan, Taylor Clarke, Neftali Feliz, Matt Koch (called up), Joey Krehbiel, Kris Medlen, Jimmie Sherfy, Braden Shipley, Albert Suarez.

Left-handed Pitchers (1) – Jared Miller

Catchers (3) – Marcus Littlewood, Michael Perez, Anthony Recker

Infielders (5) – Daniel Robertson, Kristopher Negron, Jack Reinheimer, Ildemaro Vargas, Christian Walker

Outfielders (4) – Socrates Brito, Jeremy Hazelbaker, Cesar Puello, Yasmany Tomas

Disabled list (5) – Kevin Cron, Rey Fuentes, Daniel Gibson, Steve Hathaway, Evan Marzilli