TROY — “Fun” is the word being used to describe the 2018 Tri-City ValleyCats. That’s what the players and first-year manager Jason Bell are trying to do, have fun.
“I feel like sometimes we forget that this is a game. It’s important and there’s a lot of pressure, but if we take the fun out of it, we don’t perform our best,” Bell said during the team’s media day at Joe Bruno Stadium on Wednesday afternoon.
This year’s team is full of newcomers, as only five of the 28 players on Wednesday’s preliminary roster played in Troy last season. One of them is infielder Kyle Davis, who was drafted in 2017 and hit .177 in 52 games with the ValleyCats last season in his first year of professional baseball. He says that as one of the five returning players, joining a crew of pitchers Ian Hardman, Felipe Tejada and Carlos Hiraldo, as well as outfielder Andy Pineda, he can be one of the guys who helps out younger players, some of them in their first year of pro ball, while focusing on his own personal goals.
“Some guys I feel like are like, ‘wow, it’s pro ball’ and their eyes get really big, but I’m able to just focus on the baseball aspect and not worry about all the other stuff that comes with it, so that’s definitely something that will play to my advantage this year,” Davis said.
The team has four players selected by the Houston Astros in the 2018 MLB Draft on the roster as of Wednesday: catcher Alex Holderbach, infielder Michael Wielansky and outfielders Austin Dennis and Logan Mattix. Holderbach, who was the Astros’ 16th round pick out of Eastern Kentucky University, is the highest draft pick out of that group. In 60 games this spring, he hit .352 with 18 home runs and 79 RBI. If he can get even relatively close to those numbers this year, he will be a force to be reckoned with in his first season of professional baseball.
“I have a few buddies that play pro ball so I’ve been talking to them a bunch lately, and they just said to be ready, just know that it’s a grind, be ready for that and go from there. Just have fun with it. It’s the same game you’ve been playing,” Holderbach said of his expectations heading into his first professional season.
He said that he is excited to be drafted by the team that is the defending World Series champions, and an organization that is known to build with their minor league system rather than through free agent signings and trades.
“It means a lot. It means they want to work and develop with their players, so if I can be one of those people that they work and develop with and everyone else here to one day be up there (in the MLB), it’s great for the organization,” Holderbach said.
The headliner of the draft picks that the Astros made, first-round pick Seth Beer, is expected to be with the team at some point in the next couple of weeks, but it could have to wait a bit as he waits to get his contract approved by Major League Baseball. However, Bell is looking forward to coaching him, for whatever the length of time may be. Additionally, Bell is prepared to have roster turnover on a nearly daily basis constantly having new players join and leave the team.
“For me, it’s communication. I think that communication is the key, and my job is to communicate properly. If we get a new player, he has to be equipped to how we want to play the game,” Bell said. “I’ll kind of explain what we do and why we do it, so that way it’s not just me talking to him, it’s explaining to him why we do it.”
Bell, who is just 27 years old, is the second-youngest manager in all of minor league baseball and is in his first year managing at any level. He thinks being only a few years older than the players is a plus for his team.
“It can be easier because I’m closer to them in age and I grew up in a generation as far as the iPhones, iPads, computers, and I think that helps me teach them, especially being in a very analytical organization,” Bell said. “I think it’s a really good way for them to learn when it’s translated properly, so I think that going through that same type of childhood with all of those electronics has been really beneficial for me teaching them.”
Bell is excited for opening day, but he did admit that he has some jitters. “I think everybody has those, but I think if you don’t have them a little bit, I don’t know if you’re human,” he said.
The ValleyCats open up their 2018 campaign on Friday night at Joe Bruno Stadium against the Vermont Lake Monsters, the affiliate of the Oakland Athletics. First pitch is set for 7 p.m.