Reno Aces manager Phil Nevin’s excitement for the 2016 Triple-A baseball season focused on the improvements the team should show this year as it enters its eight season in the Pacific Coast League.
“It’s great, especially with the weather,” Nevin remarked Tuesday at media day on a perfect spring afternoon. “I’m excited any time of year with opening day around the corner.”
The Aces host the El Paso Chihuahuas tonight at 6:35 p.m. at Greater Nevada Field with gates opening at 5 p.m. A lineup of pregame events includes an appearance from MTV Reality Star Johnny Bananas and a helicopter entrance for the Aces’ mascot, Archie.
Now in his third year as Reno’s manager, Nevin said spring training was becoming a little old and stale but with each day nearing toward tonight’s opening day, Nevin knew it was time to play ball.
“We’re ready to go,” he said with a big smile.
The Aces had a tune-up Tuesday night by playing the University of Nevada in an exhibition game at Greater Nevada Field. Nevin, who played in the majors for seven teams from 1995-2005 and was selected for the Major League Baseball All-Star Game in 2001, said the game gives both teams an opportunity to interact with each other and for him to prepare his pitchers for the weekend series against El Paso, the Triple-A affiliate for San Diego.
A mix between returning and new players to Reno — plus the addition of two former Wolf Pack players from the coach Gary Powers’ era — may be the ticket for the Aces to return to the playoffs. Reno, advanced to the PCL championship in 2014, missed the playoffs last season, finishing third in the North Division at 70-74.
“The strength of the team takes us back two years ago,” Nevin said. “The club we had was very athletic.”
Nevertheless, Nevin said this year’s club shows more athleticism, and the players are going to be able to run the bases better and take the defensive game up a notch from the 2015 team. Nevin said Kyle Jensen, who played for the Dodgers’ Triple-A team at Oklahoma City last year, brings solid credentials with him as does returning outfielder Peter O’Brien, who was one of the top players in the PCL last year and represented Reno in the all-star game. The 27-year-old Jensen has hit 18 or more home runs in six consecutive seasons, while O’Brien ripped 26 homers and drove in a franchise single season 107 RBI in 2015.
O’Brien had a breakout spring with Arizona, playing multiple positions, hitting five home runs over 28 days including two against the Chicago White Sox in one game and batting .267. After being sent to Reno, O’Brien said the Diamondbacks coaches wanted him to get more at bats at Reno. Overall, O’Brien said he had a good spring and felt he swung the bat well.
“Much hasn’t happened,” O’Brien said with his swing. “I think I’ve been pretty consistent the last few years in pro ball, and I think the biggest thing is maturing and having a little more mature approach and being selective of what I’m hitting.”
Nevin has two other players tabbed for the outfield, Jason Bourgeois, and Stewart Ijames, another Arizona prospect who played at Visalia (Single-A) and Mobile (Double-A), both Diamondbacks’ minor league teams.
“The outfield will be a lot better,” Nevin predicted.
In addition to Jensen, who played several innings at first base against the Wolf Pack, Nevin said his infield of Mike Freeman, who went 3-for-3 against Nevada, Sean Jamieson and Jack Reinheimer appears to be solid. Jamieson played at Mobile last year, and Reinheimer played at both Jackson and Mobile.
“You’ll see a lot of Mike Freeman, and Reinheimer reminds people of Nick Ahmed’s style at shortstop.”
Nevin said the infield and outfield are loaded with experience players as is the catching corps. Former Wolf Pack player Brett Hayes, who signed with Arizona in November, returns home to Northern Nevada, and Tuffy Gosewisch played in 38 games for the Diamondbacks in 2015 where he batted .211 with 13 home runs. His season ended in May, though, with a torn ACL. He saw extensive action behind the plate at this year’s spring training. A third catcher, Mark Thomas, is on injured reserve.
Nevin said Reno’s pitchers are going to learn much from Hayes and Gosewisch and how they call a game because of their years in professional baseball. Nevin said, as a manger, he doesn’t have to worry about them.
“It’s fortunate to have quality catchers with big-league experience, and their priority is to work with the pitchers,” Nevin added.
Hayes, who swung a bat for the Wolf Pack almost 10 years ago before playing major league baseball for seven seasons with previous three clubs, said coming to Reno was a best-case scenario for him because of a support system of friends and family. Overall, he said spring training proved to be productive.
“I felt spring was successful,” he said. “I got to know the pitchers well, and the main focus of a catcher is to learn pitchers well. It’s about being ready for the first game, learning how to win. I think we did that this spring.”
The Diamondbacks had one of the best records at spring training at 24-8.
Gosewisch said both he and Hayes have the expertise to deal with the pitchers, and as veteran catchers, each has 10 years of experience to help the other.
“We’re a good resource for each other,” Gosewisch added.
As the season progresses, Nevin said he will work out a rotation for Hayes and Gosewisch, one of the last players sent to Reno near the end of spring training. Although he was disappointed he didn’t stay on the Diamondbacks’ roster for his fourth year, he’s said the decision to send him down was tough.
A stronger pitching corps is enough to make anyone like Reno’s chances this year, especially Nevin.
“On the mound should be our strength,” he said, announcing Archie Bradley will start tonight for Reno.
Bradley, a right-hander, pitched part of the 2015 season at Reno after starting for the Diamondbacks where he went 2-3 in eight starts and had an 5.80 ERA. A line drive to the face in late April and shoulder tendinitis derailed his season. In spring training before he was sent to Reno, Bradley surrendered 10 earned runs in 10 innings.
Another right-hander who came to Reno along with Bradley was Tyler Wagner, who pitched in the Milwaukee Brewers system last year. Nevin said Wagner came close to making Arizona’s roster as did Bradley.
“Both of those guys were outstanding this spring,” Nevin said.
Matt Buschmann, who pitched four innings against the Wolf Pack in their exhibition game, will also bring a wealth of Triple-A experience to the mound.
“He was very successful in the league and won a heck of a lot of games,” Nevin said of the St. Louis native who played last year for Durham, Louisville and Norfolk.
Former Nevada pitcher Braden Shipley, who was drafted in the first round by Arizona in 2013, played at Mobile last year.
“Obviously, this is someone we feel very highly about,” Nevin said of the right-hander. “We’re starting the season with three big time prospects for us.”
In Nevin’s three years, the Reno manager said he’s excited to have a good group of starting pitchers and relievers.
Shipley said he’s working on the command of his fastball and other pitches, and if he receives a call to report to the Diamondbacks, he said his bags are packed, and he’s ready. During spring training in Scottsdale, Shipley said he threw well but had “a few things that didn’t go his way.”
“Having that experience will be good going into the season … and to make sure everything is down in the zone,” he said.
Returning to Reno and setting foot on the ballfield brought back memories for Shipley, who was the co-Mountain West Pitcher of the Year in 2013.
“It’s pretty exciting for me,” he said. “Nothing has changed for me that I can see.”
Nevin is happy to see Shipley on the team although he didn’t see him pitch often in spring training because he, Shipley, was hurling for the Diamondbacks.
“He’s earned his right to be here,” said Nevin, adding there was some talk about having Shipley return to Mobile because of the warmer weather and its positive effect on the throwing arm.
The bullpen should be stronger than last year. Nevin said one of the Aces’ top relievers is Evan Marshall, who played for both Arizona and Reno last year.
“It’s been a very successful spring,” Marshall said, one of the last pitchers sent to Reno at the end of spring training, “It came down to the last-second … It was devastating (the decision) to come down that late.”
Marshall was competing for one of the top two remaining reliever spots when he was notified on Saturday to report to Reno. The former Kansas State University pitcher said he’s focused to stay on his path to return to Arizona and is working on his sinker, cutter and off-speed pitches.
With all the pieces in place for a full season ahead of him, his coaches and team, Nevin said he would like to bring another championship to Reno.
“I like what I do. This is a second home,” he said. “I love the city, I love it there.”