ValleyCats enter 2019 season on top
TROY — Last September was one to remember for the Tri-City ValleyCats. They defeated the Hudson Valley Renegades two games to zero to claim the franchise’s third New York-Penn League title.
Now, it’s almost an entirely new team, with new players and a new manager.
This year’s squad will be led by Ozney Guillen, the son of former Major League manager Ozzie Guillen. This is his first year coaching at any level. However, he has become familiar with a good amount of the players, as he was able to work with a lot of them throughout the spring in extended spring training in Florida. Wednesday morning’s exhibition game against the Albany Dutchmen resulted in a 10-4 loss, but it was part of getting the team’s feet wet for the summer that’s to come.
“Very important, especially with us because we have a lot of little tricks and shifts and stuff. Obviously when you change fields it changes the perception of the game but it’s important for us. I think our guys realize that this is still baseball and just because it’s not extended doesn’t mean anything,” Guillen said at the team’s media day on Wednesday afternoon.
Guillen replaces Jason Bell, who in 2018 led the team to a league championship in his lone season as the skipper. Over the winter, Bell was re-assigned within the Houston Astros organization to a fundamentals coordinator, working with all of the teams in the organization, particularly with defense and baserunning, all the way down from the team’s academies in the Dominican Republic all the way up to the Major League team in Houston. Bell is currently with the ValleyCats as part of that job and will be there for the ceremonies for the championship team at the home opener on Sunday night.
“Just how to communicate with players and coaches from all different levels that are in different places. Like the Triple-A guys who are right around the corner from the big leagues, some of the guys are already ready, then in the Dominican Summer League some of the guys just have stepped into the Houston Astros organization, so just learning how to communicate with the players and staff throughout that process to make sure that we can provide a speedy development system,” Bell said Wednesday when asked about what he has learned in this new position.
Of course, he is excited to be back to see the final results of what last year’s team did. He actually got to coach a lot of this year’s team during extended spring training and worked with the new Tri-City coaching staff as well.
“It’s just exciting for our new staff, we have a bunch of really intelligent coaches on the ValleyCats’ staff this year,” he said.
One of those coaches is Sean Godfrey, who will be the team’s hitting coach. He attended Ball State, was drafted in 2014 by the Atlanta Braves and played in their minor league system for three years and spent the last two years playing independent baseball with the Schaumberg Boomers of the Frontier League in Illinois. Like Guillen, this is his first in-season coaching job, as he previously worked with NAIA Indiana University Southeast.
“Probably the biggest thing is a lot of our guys right now are pretty raw. What I mean by that is they have the tools, they have power, they can run fast but they’re still learning how to be a hitter, like how to be a good hitter and compete in games and this for them is almost very similar to the development process they go through if they were at a four-year or two-year college,” Godfrey said.
One player that was mentioned by Godfrey as being much-improved is catcher Nate Perry. Perry was drafted in the fifth round in 2017 and played 18 games with the ValleyCats last year towards the end of the season. He struggled in those games, hitting just .172, but flashed potential as he had five extra-base hits, two of them home runs. He is still only 19 and looks to develop at the beginning of the season to move to a higher level while trying to help the new players.
“I think a big thing with them is just take a step back and breathe. Just take a deep breath and try not to let all the fans and everything overwhelm you. Just play the same game we’ve played all our lives and everything will work out,” Perry said.
Another returner is Juan Pineda. He was with the team for most of the summer last year, appearing in 30 games and hitting .198. He is someone who will also be looking to move up in the organization that he has been with since 2014.
“I hope everyone on the team will keep the same steps as last year, and I think we’re going to be successful,” Pineda said.
A player who is new to Troy but has some experience is Joe Perez. He was a second-round pick in 2017 but has dealt with some injury setbacks, but he is now fully healthy and looking to jump-start his professional career a little bit later than expected.
“Footwork is the most important, getting a little quicker,” Perez said on areas where the organization wants him to improve.
Also, the team will have first-round pick Korey Lee, a catcher from the University of California, joining them for at least the start of the season, having been signed and assigned to Tri-City late Wednesday afternoon, according to the Houston Chronicle. Other draft picks have not been assigned yet but that is expected to call come out in the next 24 hours. Last year’s first-round pick, Seth Beer, played 11 games in Tri-City before being moved up. He is advancing fast in the organization, now with the Double-A Corpus Christi Hooks. The Astros’ third-round pick from this year, outfielder Jordan Brewer, is still with his college team, Michigan, at the College World Series in Omaha. With all of that, roster change is expected to happen within the next couple of weeks as the season gets going.
The ValleyCats will open the 2019 campaign on the road on Friday, facing the Vermont Lake Monsters. The home opener is scheduled for Sunday, a 6 p.m. start against the Staten Island Yankees.