Last night the Great Falls Voyagers opened their Pioneer League campaign with a 9-4 win in Billings. The Voyagers pounded out 13 hits and three home runs and the pitchers recorded eight strikeouts against one walk. First-year manager Ryan Newman makes the minor jump from Bristol to Great Falls and hopes to guide the club to its fifth straight playoff appearance, a run that includes the 2008 league title. Let's take a look at what to expect and who to watch from the Montana club this year.
The full roster is here. I did not list the full pitching staff. The roster is currently at 31 with 18 pitchers. Five players return from the 2010 squad that lost in three games in the semifinals. There are 11 already on board from the 2011 draft class with a few more expected. They are joined by 9 from the 2010 class, four recently signed undrafted free agents, a 2009 pick, a foreigner making his US debut, two players who began their careers with other organizations and three other non-rookies.
Returnees: Pete Gehle (drafted 27th round in 2010) and Stephen McCray (16th round, 2010)
Both 23, McCray made just six starts last year and Gehle was used as a reliever last year, but both will figure in the rotation with many of the rookies on limited pitch and inning counts. Gehle picked up the win as the opening day starter.
2011 draft picks: Kyle McMillen (4th), Scott Snodgress (5th), Blair Walters (11th), Kevin Vance (19th), Blake Drake (22nd), Joe Dvorsky (35th)
If you didn't notice during the draft, the White Sox took a lot of relievers. All six of the Voyagers' pitching staff that come from the 2011 draft class were relievers this season in college. That should make the bullpen a strength for the team, but leaves openings in the rotation. Second rounder Erik Johnson's Cal team avoided elimination at the College World Series today to make the final six and extend their season by at least a couple days, but I imagine he would join the Voyagers after signing. For now, McMillen is the highest pick to sign.
Others of note: Jon Bachanov (Angels Supp. '07) and Salvador Sanchez (converted OF)
Bachanov, 22, was drafted out of high school and dominated the Arizona League in his pro debut (47 K, 4 BB in 28.2 IP as a reliever), but an arm injury derailed his career. The White Sox picked him up and he had a strong debut last night (2 IP, 4 K, H). He could be a sleeper if he's healthy. Sanchez couldn't make it past AA as a hitter, but always had a plus arm in the outfield. The Sox are hoping he can become another Sergio Santos.
Overall, the lack of starting pitchers stands out. All of the 2011 draft picks are relievers and only Gehle, McCray and Jarrett Casey (32nd, '10) have professional starts under their belt. With 18 pitchers already on the roster, expect the Voyagers to 'staff' a lot of games this year.
Martin Medina (20th, '11), Brent Tanner (32nd, '11), Jimmy Jacquot (Mariners UDFA '10)
Tanner is 23 so I don't expect him to be much of a prospect, but he had a strong season with South Alabama this spring. Him and Medina both bring good power to the table.
David Herbek (15th, '11), Joe De Pinto (21st, '11), Andrew Dougles (UDFA '11), Leighton Pangilinan (40th, '09), Jeffer Patino (Panama), Jerry Puentes (Venezuela)
Herbek had a great season for James Madison and De Pinto comes from a powerhouse program in USC. Both had strong debuts (Herbek with a HR and De Pinto with a pair of hits) and should be among the Voyagers' offensive leaders. Pangilinan, 20, is a returnee from last year that has shown flashes of ability the last two years and is second youngest on the team to Puentes, who will be making his US debut after hitting .330 in the Dominican Summer League last year. Patino, 22, is a good contact hitter (.316 with Bristol last season), but has shown little power or discipline.
Mark Haddow (24th, '11), Randall Thorpe (18th, '10) Michael Earley (29th, '10), Qualon Millender (UDFA '09)
Haddow posted a .983 OPS while playing in the Big West this year and hit the team's first home run last night so he could anchor the offense. Thorpe followed Haddow's blast with one of his own and brings good speed to the table. Thorpe and Earley were both in Great Falls last year. Millender led off yesterday and managed three hits. Baseball America has raved about his speed so it would be huge if the switch-hitter could get the bat going.
It looks like the offense has enough to be above average if the 2011 draft picks do as expected. Prospect wise, it's a bit more lacking unless one of the rookies really break out. Puentes could be intriguing, but he didn't play in the opener.
On the pitching side, there is a lot of depth, but not a lot of starters. The 2008 team had Daniel Hudson and Dexter Carter at the top of the rotation, which was a huge reason why the team won the league title. Unless the Voyagers can find pitching like that I doubt they will win the league. However the playoffs are a reasonable goal and expectation considering half of the eight-team league makes it.