TEXAS LEAGUE BASEBALL: RockHounds open season with wealth of returners

MIDLAND After another title-winning campaign in 2016, the Midland RockHounds are ready to start a new season with a lot of familiar faces.

Midland returns 19 players from last year’s club that captured a third-straight Texas League title. While many of the players returned, the coaching staff will have a new look.

Fran Riordan takes over as manager for the RockHounds after Ryan Christenson was promoted to Triple-A Nashville and Don Schulze will serve as the pitching coach after John Wasdin left to become the minor league pitching coordinator for the Baltimore Orioles.

Both Riordan and Schulze moved up from Oakland’s Single-A club in Beloit, Wis.

“I think part of development is having a culture of winning and there’s no better example of that than Midland winning three championships in a row,” Riordan said. “When you look at the fact that so many of the players have gone on to excel at Triple-A or at the big league level — guys like (Ryon) Healy and (Ryan) Dull. The list is pretty long. I think the players understand that and know it’s an important part of the development when they reach the big leagues and winning is the only thing.”

In the outfield, J.P. Sportman, Tyler Marincov and Brett Vertigan are all back with the RockHounds after playing a combined 331 games during last year’s title season to go with newcomer B.J. Boyd, who a fourth round pick by Oakland in 2012.

“In their own ways, they’ve all gotten better,” Riordan said of the outfield. “Marincov’s power has always been there and I know he’s working hard on his defense. B.J. Boyd has been an interesting player in our organization for a lot of years and he’s starting to hit his stride. J.P. Sportman is such a versatile player. He’s got so many skills that make him special. He can run, has a fantastic arm and does have a little bit of juice in the bat. Brett Vertigan is more of a grinder who gives you everything he has.

“Those are all guys you want to have on your side.” 

The middle infield will be a place to watch for Midland with a couple of highly touted prospects in Richie Martin and Max Schrock playing shortstop and second base. Both players were called up to the RockHounds near the end of last season and took part in Oakland’s spring training as non-roster invitees this year.

“I think the middle of our infield will be special,” Riordan said. “Max and Richie had the chance to spend all spring in major league camp and they worked together every day.”

Many of the pitchers for the RockHounds’ stretch run last season will also begin their 2017 year back in Midland.

Joel Seddon and Cory Walter are back after starting 42 games between them last year. Jake Sanchez and Sam Bragg return to the bullpen where they made 80 appearances.

“I think the core of this team will be the starting pitching,” Riordan said. “We’ll be using a different rotation this year with the eight-man instead of the five-man.”

Grant Holmes, who was acquired from the Los Angeles Dodgers in a trade last August, will be one of the newcomers to keep an eye on, along with Heath Fillmyer, who joined Martin and Schrock at A’s spring training this year.

“I just have to believe in my stuff and be consistent,” Holmes said. “That’s the key to making it to the big leagues.”

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