Covering Their Bases
The Drillers came close to winning a Texas League Championship last year but fell just short. This year, the squad hopes to build on that experience and take the final step to championship glory.
Beginning their fourth season as the Class AA minor league affiliate of the Los Angeles Dodgers, the Drillers have brought back successful manager Scott Hennessey and should have a number of familiar players back as well.
Hennessey was a scout for the Dodgers when former Drillers manager Ryan Garko resigned in July to take over a college program at Pacific University. Hennessey came in and completely energized a squad that was 50-50 at the time. Under Hennessey, Tulsa went 27-13 over the final 40 regular season games, including a club record 15-game home winning streak at ONEOK Field. They surged past the Springfield Cardinals to claim the North Division second-half pennant.
Then, despite falling behind 2-1 to the Northwest Arkansas Naturals in the North Division playoff series in the first three games, Tulsa rallied to win two straight at home to advance to the championship series for just the second time since 2002. Every other Texas League team, as well as two others that are no longer in the league, has won the title since Tulsa last did in 1998.
The Drillers won the first two games of the championship series on the road in Midland, Texas, but lost each of the next three at home.
It was no sure thing that Hennessey would be back this year, but he’s happy to transition to being a full-time manager now.
“I was excited last year, and then once the Dodgers wanted me to be the manager [again], I’m looking forward to it,” he says. “[I’m] looking forward to the players we think are going to be here, the challenge, the grind, and getting after it for a full season.”
And while Hennessey acknowledges that the minor league affiliate’s primary purpose is to develop and improve the players enough for them to move up to Class AAA and ultimately, the Major League roster in Los Angeles, he also wants to win.
“We’re all competitors, and the object is to get them out of here and to Triple-A, then to the big leagues. But once you get in the playoffs, the competitive nature takes over and you want to win,” Hennessey says. “Let’s hope we can get them better, we can keep them healthy, and win one more game.”
As far as the initial Drillers roster is concerned, Hennessey is excited about the quality of catchers he expects to start off with.
“I think the strength of our team is going to be probably behind the plate,” he says. “It looks like we’re going to get Keibert Ruiz and Will Smith here to start the year. Both are highly-touted prospects. Both can do a lot of things offensively. Defensively, both can throw, can handle the pitching staff, and call a good game. It’s going to be a challenge to get those guys playing time on a consistent basis.”
Last year, Ruiz batted .316 with 51 RBI split between Class A Great Lakes (63 games) and Class A-Advanced Rancho Cucamonga (38 games), while Smith hit .232 with 11 home runs and 43 RBI in 72 games at Rancho Cucamonga.
Driller infielders expected to return include Errol Robinson, who batted .273 in 57 games in Tulsa, and Drew Jackson, who hit .234 but scored 22 runs in 29 games with the Drillers.
Among outfielders Hennessey believes should be in Tulsa are Yusniel Diaz, who spent most of last year at Rancho Cucamonga but batted .333 in 31 games in Tulsa, Johan Mieses (16 home runs, 36 RBI in 90 Drillers games), Blake Gailen (35 RBI in 49 games with Tulsa), and Kyle Garlick (17 home runs, 42 RBI in 74 games with the Drillers).
Among pitchers, Hennessey projects the Drillers will get Mitchell White (1-1, 2.57 ERA in seven starts), Yadier Alvarez (2-2, 3.55 ERA in seven starts), Dennis Santana (3-1, 5.51 ERA in seven starts), Andrew Sopko (5-7, 4.13 ERA in 23 starts) and Josh Sborz (8-8, 3.86 ERA in 24 starts), among others.
“We’ve got a good nucleus with young guys with experience who have had success at this level already,” Hennessey says. “And now coming back, they know the league, they know the travel, they know the surroundings. It helps.
“On paper, it looks good. If we can stay healthy, we should have a good club.”
One offseason transaction that could affect the Drillers significantly this year is the change in the Dodgers’ organization that saw Brandon Gomes hired as the club’s new director of player development. Gabe Kapler, who left the position to become manager of the Philadelphia Phillies, favored lots of player movement between the minor league affiliates, a policy that resulted in the Drillers utilizing more different players than ever before. Last year, Tulsa used a team record 70 different players, including 36 different pitchers.
Whether Gomes continues Kapler’s habit for shuffling players around frequently is yet to be determined.
“That remains to be seen,” Hennessey says. “I think it should be a smooth transition. I know Brandon Gomes, got to spend some time with him in the winter meetings. He’s going to work hard. How he handles it from how Gabe did it, I don’t know yet. I don’t think anybody knows that. But I will say this, Brandon Gomes is a Dodger, he knows the organization, knows the players, and we hired the right guy in that spot.”
The Drillers open the 2018 season on the road at Frisco, Texas April 5, with their home opener at ONEOK Field April 12 against the Frisco RoughRiders.
ONEOK Field | Tulsa
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