After making it to the big dance the previous two seasons, only to fall short in the finals, the Wichita Wingnuts finally took home the American Association Championship in 2014. It was an amazing run that saw the team set several league records, including most wins in a season by a team (73). Outfielder Brent Clevlen was the league’s MVP and several of the Wingnuts players were selected by the Minor League Sports Report to the American Association All-Star Team. It was a banner year all the way around.
Great success has come with a great price as the team has watched several key players from last season’s championship run sign with Major League organizations, and others have departed to aid new teams to reach their own championship aspirations. This should make the 2015 season a lot more challenging, but manager Kevin Hooper has shown that he can lose key players and still create a champion.
September was an exciting time, as the team reveled in their first American Association championship, but as the calendar turned to October, the team saw its first departure. On October 13, relief pitcher Chris Peacock was signed by the Pittsburgh Pirates organization, joining former closer Matt Nevarez who signed with the Pirates last August.
Several late season moves had depleted the Wingnuts bullpen as the season was winding down, but Peacock arrived as a key piece of the championship puzzle. The 25-year-old was signed from the Rio Grande Valley WhiteWings of the United League, and immediately made a contribution. The right-hander made 6 appearances after being acquired, going 2-0 with a 7.50 ERA. Despite the high ERA, Peacock had was only scored upon in two of his six outings, and did not allow a hit in the other four appearances. In the playoffs he was virtually lights out, making 4 appearances and posting a 2.70 ERA.
In October, star shortstop Ryan Khoury chose to be a play out of his option and became a free agent. Khoury was an MVP candidate, who finished second in the league in runs scored (87), and led the team with 31 steals. He also had 39 extra-base hits and a .315 average, spearheading the Wingnuts’ impressive offensive attack.
At the end of October, Wichita traded LHP Frank Del Valle to the newly added Joplin Blasters. The lefty was 1-1 with a 5.69 ERA, pitching in nine games for the Wingnuts, seven as a starter.
On November 3, the team sought to start filling some of their roster spots, when they added two pitchers who had recently graduated from college. Vincent Molesky graduated from Mount St. Mary’s University in Maryland and had an outstanding senior season at the school. He pitched in 11 games, 10 starts, and posted a 5-4 record with a 3.92 ERA. The 6-4 right-hander struck out 42 batters in 57.1 innings pitched.
Scott Kuzminsky finished his college career at the University of Hawaii. In his senior season he appeared in 15 games, 12 of them as a starter, posting a 4-7 record and an outstanding 3.25 ERA. He also had two complete games and a save. Kuzminsky already made his debut in the city of Wichita this August when he pitched in the 80th annual NBC World Series for the Seattle Studs. He was dominant in his two outings, winning both and allowing just one run in 17 innings pitched.
November 7 was a bitter-sweet day for the Wingnuts as the team acquired infielder Ryan Cavan from Forth Worth of the United League, but lost star second baseman Jake Kahaulelio. Cavan played for the Southern Illinois Miners of the Frontier League last season, where he hit .309 with 44 runs scored. His time in Wichita did not last long, however, as the 27-year-old was dealt to Kansas City in January for T.J. Mittelstaedt.
The loss of Kahaulelio was a huge one, as he had teamed with Khoury to make the most formidable top of the batting order in the American Association. The second baseman hit .327 last season with 52 runs scored and 59 RBI before geting hurt in August, an injury that cost him the rest of the season.
On November 13 the team announced the signing of LHP Jarrett Leverett. Leverett is looking to restart his baseball career, after suffering a severe tear to the ulnar collateral ligament in his left-elbow in 2012. For two years he worked to regain the strength in his arm, and finally regained his health, signing with the Frontier Greys of the Frontier League. He made 33 relief appearances, posting an 0-6 record, but had an amazing 2.72 ERA and saved five games. He struck out 44 in 46.2 innings pitched.
On November 18 came the news that superstar Brent Clevlen had signed with Pericos de Puebla of the Mexican League. Clevlen was the Minor League Sports Report’s MVP in the American Association last season after ranking in the top ten in virtually every offensive category. The loss of Clevlen was the third key member of the Wingnuts batting order lost in less than two months.
On the same day that Clevlen left the team, 1B/OF Mackenzie Handel was signed by the club. Handel played last season for Stephen F. Austin, leading the Lumberjacks in several offensive categories, including hits, home runs, RBI, runs scored, and slugging percentage. He also showed an amazing eye at the plate, walking 36 times while fanning just 32 times. He hit .272 last season with 21 runs scored.
With the loss of Clevlen the team needed a spark to their lineup, and on December 4 they signed someone they hope will fill part of the void. First baseman Chris Garcia was signed after sitting out the last two years with an injury. Prior to going down he proved that he has a potent bat that could be just what the Wingnuts are looking for. In 2012 he played in 125 games for Lynchburg of the Carolina League, hitting .285 with 11 home runs and 59 RBI. He has a sweet swing that should fit in well in the Wichita lineup.
On December 8 the team resigned RHP Mike Zouzalik as well as RHP Omar Bencomo. Zouzalik had an outstanding season in Wichita, going 4-0 with a 3.06 ERA, and pitching four scoreless innings for the team during their championship run. The right-hander made an amazing turnaround last season. On June 6 his ERA was 7.45, but over the righty’s next 36 appearances (37.1 IP) he posted an ERA of 1.92, allowing just 34 hits and 8 walks during that stretch. He became a key cog in the team’s bullpen rotation and his return is a real shot in the arm for the Wingnuts.
Bencomo has been playing winter ball in Venezuela over the last two seasons, and returns to the U.S. looking to nail down a spot in the team’s rotation. He is 3-1 for the Margarita Braves so far this winter.
Six days later the team’s rotation got a whole lot better when staff ace Jason Van Skike agreed to terms with the Wingnuts to return for the 2015 season. The right-hander was tied for the league lead in wins (12-5), and finished with an impressive 3.35 ERA. He showed great control last season, walking only 33 in 110 innings pitched, and won both of his starts in the post-season.
On December 17 the Wingnuts made two deals. First they acquired OF Jayce Ray from Sonoma of the Pacific Association. Ray had an outstanding season for Sonoma last season, leading the league with a .355 average and was named the Pacific Association MVP. He also led the league in on-base percentage.
On the same day, RHP Matt Robertson was dealt to the Florence Freedom of the Frontier League. Robertson was o-2 with a 6.02 ERA in 2014, and this season he was going to find it hard to crack the team’s starting rotation, so he was dealt to give him a chance to pursue his desire to start.
Just before Christmas, Wichita re-signed two more pieces of their stellar bullpen from 2014. Daniel Bennett had teamed with Zouzalik to form one of the best setup combinations in the American Association. The right-hander was 6-1 with a save and a 3.16 ERA. Bennett was scored on just twice in his last 14 appearances of the regular season.
Chase Johnson, who also re-signed, was another late season acquisition that added depth and skill to the bullpen. He was dominant for the Wingnuts, allowing just one run in his eight appearances to close out the regular season, and he gave up zero runs in five post-season appearances. Zouzalik, Johnson, and Bennett should, once again, make this a talented and formidable bullpen.
The New Year saw another piece of that amazing Wingnuts lineup catch the attention of Major League scouts, as outfielder Jake Luce’s contract was sold to the Baltimore Orioles. Luce was signed late in the season, and became a force in the Wingnuts lineup, first hitting in the No. 9 spot, and then moving to the No. 2 spot in the order following the injury to Kahaulelio. Luce delivered, hitting .341 with 2 home runs and 16 RBI. He also stole 10 bases in 13 attempts and posted an outstanding .397 on-base percentage.
To mitigate the loss of Luce, the team made two key moves to bolster their batting order. First came the signing of slugger Alex Cabrera. The 42-year-old, known as “El Samurai,” began his playing career at the age of 19. Besides playing in every level of baseball in America, Cabrera has played in Mexico, China, and Japan. In 2013 he starred in the Venezuelan Professional Baseball League, winning MVP honors after hitting .391 with 21 home runs and 59 RBI in 62 games. Last season he played in the Mexican League where he batted .404 with 4 home runs and 10 RBI.
Next came the re-signing of infielder Abel Nieves, an all-star last season for Grand Prairie before being traded to the Wingnuts in August. Nieves hit .326 in 82 games for the AirHogs and, after coming to Wichita, he simply caught fire, hitting .558 in 12 games with 11 runs scored and 10 RBI. He also posted a ridiculous .635 on-base percentage for the ‘Nuts. In 2013, he won the American Association batting title while playing for Wichita.
On January 26 the team traded closer Dan Sattler to Somerset of the Atlantic League. Sattler was acquired from St. Paul after Nevarez signed with the Pirates. He was 3-4 for the Saints with 19 saves and a 1.80 ERA. For Wichita he made five appearances, saving three games. In the playoffs he yielded no runs in four outings, recording two saves.
With Sattler gone the team will likely turn to Bennett or Johnson to close out games now. Both pitched exceptionally well last season, and will deservedly earned the first crack at the job.
By Robert Pannier