WALLA WALLA — A new season means plenty of fresh faces for the Walla Walla Sweets.
After finishing last season with a record of 31-22 and its first West Coast League North Division title, the Sweets are eager to replicate their success — albeit with an almost entirely new roster.
“We have expectations that are a lot different — every program is unique,” Sweets manager J.C. Biagi said. “We have expectations that are probably a little different than a lot of guys are used to. We take this thing seriously and we hope the guys coming in take it seriously.”
Luckily for Biagi, the Sweets will welcome back four members of last year’s squad and two more players who played for the Sweets in years past.
And having those guys around makes the transition for new players that much easier.
“We try to get a few guys back every year,” Biagi said. “Some guys that provide a little bit of leadership and the type of characters you want on your squad.”
One of those returners, outfielder Mike Paulson, understands his role in aiding the newcomers.
“I came in last year and it was a big shock,” Paulson said. “The attendance here is really good. I think that I can help some of the new guys get rid of some of those jitters. They wouldn’t be here if they couldn’t play. Everybody on our team is a solid player.”
The newcomers, however, are still arriving in Walla Walla. By Tuesday, Biagi said only about 60 percent of the roster was present. He anticipates the roster to be nearly set by mid-June — after the college baseball season wraps up.
Two incoming players — UC Irvine catcher Renae Martinez and infielder Michael Duarte — will be busy with the 64-team NCAA baseball playoffs. The Anteaters enter the tournament fresh off a 4-2 win over No. 1 seed Oregon State in the decisive game of the Corvallis Regional.
But without the luxury of a full squad, Biagi was hesitant to speculate on the upcoming season.
“It’s a little bit tough to tell,” he said. “I think we’ve got some guys that are going to show some patience at the plate. We’ve got a few guys that you start seeing balls leave the yard where they don’t usually leave the yard. That would speak to a little bit of power.”
Offensively last season, the Sweets ranked second in walks and tied for third in home runs in the WCL. The team welcomes back John Srbec and Jarod Gonzales, who ranked first and second on the team, respectively, in home runs.
But for the Sweets to succeed, getting on base will be key, Biagi said.
“You’ve got to be able to get on base,” Biagi said. “Anything you can add to that as far as power is a real plus. We’re going to look to do that offensively. That’s what we did last year — we did it at an adequate pace that allowed us to put runs on the board.”
Paulson, who led the Sweets with 28 walks and added two home runs last year, is looking to build on a strong college campaign where he batted .317 with 40 RBI for New Mexico State University.
“I think it’s just focusing on what we really focused on last year — getting guys on base,” Paulson said. “That’s the most important thing is getting guys on base and then getting solid pitching performances. It will take care of itself from there.”
Outfielder Andrew Mendenhall will also make his return to Walla Walla after missing the last two seasons due to injury.
Mendenhall, who suffered a labrum tear in his shoulder, played for the 2011 team, which finished runner-up to eventual champion Corvallis.
But Mendenhall — and the Sweets — look a lot different from 2011.
“When he was here in 2001, he was 6-foot-2, 185 pounds,” Biagi said. “He’s that same 6-foot-2, he’s 220 (pounds) today. He’s a much stronger guy and some of those balls that used to hit the fence in the gap — they’re leaving the yard. He was a big time contributor for us on that 2011 team that rolled into the West Coast League Championship.”
“It’s night and day from when I first came in here to this year,” Mendenhall said. “I feel way more comfortable. It’s a lot easier to come into practice and you know the coaches and you’re comfortable right away.”
The Sweets’ returning experience does not extend to the pitching staff however.
And after ranking in the top half of nearly every pitching statistic last year, Biagi is making sure his 14 new hurlers get the basics down first.
“On the mound, we’re really going to have to locate,” Biagi said. “We don’t have anybody that we’ve seen thus far that’s going to overpower anyone, but we’ve seen good breaking balls, we’ve seen guys that can spot it up a little bit. That’ll remain to be seen. We’ve got a good mix.”
Luckily the Sweets’ new pitchers can count on a speedy outfield, Biagi said.
Along with Mendenhall and Paulson, Biagi said he expects Kyle Nixon to compete for a starting spot. Nixon, who just finished his freshman year at Bakersfield College, batted .371 with 31 runs scored, 21 RBI and a .445 on base percentage.
“I think in the outfield we’ll be dynamite,” Biagi said. “We’ve got some guys that can go get it and some guys that can throw and guys who can run. We’re going to play half our games here at Borleske. It’s a big, spacious outfield.”
Around the infield, Biagi and the Sweets will wait for the arrival of two heralded UCLA recruits. Shortstop Josh Morgan and infielder Sean Bouchard both signed with the Sweets over the summer, but Biagi is unsure of when — or if — they will arrive in Walla Walla.
Morgan, who is rated the No. 51 high school prospect on Perfect Game USA’s 2014 list, could be selected in the top few rounds of the MLB Draft this year. If he chooses to attend UCLA, however, he will likely spend the summer in Walla Walla.
Bouchard, the No. 58 prospect on the same list, is also projected to be drafted this year, but Biagi said there’s a good chance Bouchard makes it to Walla Walla regardless.
“He’s got some real power on the offensive end and he’s pretty slick defensively — great arm,” Biagi said of Bouchard.
The Sweets open the 2014 campaign with the alumni game at 7:05 p.m. tonight, before hosting Bellingham for a three-game series on Friday.