Squirrels' Staff Should Equal Success
By Ryan Lazo, sports editor
Apr 1, 2014, 13:17
Ryan Lazo/Hopewell News/News-Patriot
RICHMOND — After four seasons of baseball at The Diamond with just one season of those campaigns ending in a playoff run, the Flying Squirrels have not had as much success as the team envisioned. Richmond has suffered through peaks and valleys during each one of the previous four seasons, including last year's 70-72 campaign left them six games out of a playoff spot.
It was a tough pill to swallow for a team which ranked in the Top 5 in home runs with 109 and runs batted in with 577, but fell among the bottom in the Eastern League in almost every pitching category. Leads were surrendered in the late innings while early deficits put the onus on an offense to carry the load which is a recipe for a losing season.
Yet, the 2014 season is one of optimism for Richmond.
While most teams are optimistic about their chances with the slate wiped clean, the Flying Squirrels have more reasons than most with a pitching staff which could be among the best in all of the Minor Leagues and perhaps even leave some Major League teams blushing.
Four of the San Francisco Giants' Top 10 prospects will start the year in Richmond with all four being starting pitchers. The staff will likely be led by the Giants' No. 1 prospect Kyle Crick, a 21-year-old Texan who participated in last summer's Future's Game.
Additionally, the rotation will also feature last season's mid-season and postseason All-Star Jack Snodgrass who is holds the best career winning percentage with the Flying Squirrels at .750. It's enough to make the 6-foot-6 lefty excited to see what the upcoming season will bring.
"It's great. From literally our rotation to the bullpen, it's loaded with talent," Snodgrass said of the pitching staff. "Probably the best I've ever seen and hopefully we can just go out there and produce."
It would be very surprising if the staff did anything other than produce given the track record of each player.
Last season, San Jose — the Giants' Single A affiliate — finished the season 83-57 while being led by a pitching staff boasting the California League's best ERA, saves and strikeout marks. Pitcher's Ty Blach, Adalberto Mejia, Clayton Blackburn and Crick each played integral parts to the team's success and are expected to continue their ascent in Richmond.
In fact, while the players are excited about the opportunity of playing winning baseball, first-year manager Russ Morman is more concerned with continuing the development of a pitching staff which has nine pitchers at age 25 or younger.
"Expectations wise is the continued growth of everyone," Morman said during media day. "How that happens and what that does to the team goals, I don't know. It's all about the growth of the players and the success is sure to come with it."
But few players will have the type of spotlight brighter than the one shining on Crick. The 49th selection in the 2011 MLB Draft dealt with an oblique injury last year which cut two months off of his season, but the fireballer still led the San Jose staff with a 1.57 ERA while striking out 95 hitters in 68.2 innings pitched.
The 21-year-old's electric stuff on the hill has brought along comparisons to current Giants' ace Matt Cain in addition to being ranked the No. 33 overall prospect in all of baseball. Crick owns a mid 90s fastball, but also a late-breaking curveball and a developing change-up.
All of which brings along the heightened expectations and pressures of leading a staff while also continuing to develop to make an impact at the Major League level. Yet, for his part, Crick does not seem bothered by the added attention.
"I don't really feel like there's pressure. I think we have a lot of good pitchers here," Crick said. "We have Blackburn, Mejia, Blach, Kelvin Marte and Snodgrass. Everyone's really good and we all push other throughout the year ... I wouldn't say I feel pressure just cause the group of guys here I've been with over the last few years. These are my friends."
And it's the friendship portion of the team which may be the most important piece to a winning puzzle.
The friendly back-and-fourth banter between pitchers along with the drive to outdo each other with their pitching performances on the hill will create a competition which can lead to extended winning streaks.
"That stuff is contagious. It makes you pitch better than sometimes you actually are," Snodgrass said. "It's not that you are trying to outdo anyone, it's just that we are winning, so let's keep winning."
However, while the focus is on Richmond's pitching staff, the continued development of Jarrett Parker is crucial. The Stafford, VA native set a Richmond single-season record last season with 18 home runs, but also frustrated the coaching staff by striking out 161 times which was second-most in the Eastern League.
The second-round selection in the 2010 MLB Draft is expected to move back to his original position in centerfield where his offensive prowess — he led the Flying Squirrels in triples and became the first Richmond player to hit two home runs in the same inning — will shine brighter than in a corner spot.
Yet, even Parker is among those who think this team can achieve great success based on the pitching staff leading the way.
"We can be great," Parker said. "We got a heck of a pitching staff with some unbelievably talented arms. Our bullpen, I know is also unbelievable. If we get some offense going, I know our staff isn't going to give up many runs."
And that will be the key for Richmond this season. While pitching may win championships, you can't win if you can't score.