Goss: Slammers offer quality team in second year
May 16, 2012 9:12PM
Joliet Slammers manager Bart Zeller jokes around with players during media day for the team at Silver Cross Field on Wednesday. | Matt Marton~Sun-Times Media
Updated: June 29, 2012 8:22AM
When the defending champion Joliet Slammers open the independent Frontier League regular season Thursday night at Windy City, they will not necessarily be fielding the best 24 available players.
“It’s not about getting the best 24 on paper, it’s about getting 24 good players who understand their roles, accept them and play together in a team concept,” explained Slammers vice president of baseball operations Ron Biga, who is in charge of player procurement.
“At the same time, we do have talent. And when you bring in talent you run the risk of players signing affiliated contracts, which is exactly what we are in the business to do. We want our players to have the opportunity to move on.”
So in a sense, a double-edged sword is at work.
The Slammers were a new Frontier League franchise last year, when they replaced the Joliet JackHammers at Silver Cross Field. Biga, a Plainfield resident who doubles as the first-base coach, manager Bart Zeller and pitching coach Carmen Pignatiello orchestrated a strategy that created the best of all worlds for 2011 and hopefully beyond.
The Slammers won the Frontier League title with a 56-40 record, they had local talent in key roles, but all the while Biga operated with 2012 in mind.
“Last year we kind of figured out a two-year plan,” he said. “Only two players from our original roster from last year have changed classification. I hope that pays dividends this year. We’ve got five guys with extensive Triple-A experience, but more important, they are good people.”
The Frontier League allows a team 13 experienced players maximum. The rest must be rookie status. Also, anyone who turned 27 by Jan. 1 is ineligible.
For example, Billy Petrick (Morris), the right-handed pitcher who had a cup of coffee with the Cubs in 2007, played with the 2011 Slammers but was too old to return. He’s playing independent ball in Texas.
Among the others missing from 2011 are record-setting closer Ryan Quigley (Joliet Catholic), who is pitching at A-Advanced Lake Elsinore in the San Diego Padres organization, and outfielder and leadoff man Josh Flores (Lincoln-Way Central).
Still, the Slammers will open the season with an inordinate number of players returning from last year’s championship team, including their entire regular infield, and they have looked good in their exhibition games. Joliet fans have every reason to believe the baseball they see this summer will be high quality.
“We should be stronger than we were last year,” Zeller said. “But everyone in the league feels their team will be stronger.
“This year will be more difficult for us because expectations are high. Last year we were new, so the expectations weren’t there.”
Zeller said the intent always is to have local talent on the roster, “but not to the detriment of the team.”
He cited two players from the Chicago suburbs, first baseman Erik Lis and right-handed reliever and University of St. Francis pitching coach Brian Smith.
“Those two performed tremendously for us last season,” he said.
A newcomer of note is center fielder and leadoff man Trevor Willis (Lockport). As a University of Iowa senior in 2011, he was second in the nation with nine triples.
“Josh Flores was a big loss,” Zeller said. “So was (outfielder) Bobby Leeper. Josh was our leadoff man because he was forced into it, and he did a great job.
“Carmen, Ron and I feel as a staff that we have done a good job of filling holes. Trevor Willis is one of those who fills a hole.”
What it amounts to is that Joliet, a community in which baseball has been a source of pride from the time the game was invented, can get excited all over again.
“Joliet has an excellent fan base,” Zeller said. “The people who were nice enough to talk with me after games last year know baseball. They ask intelligent questions. What I would like to see happen is us get twice as many of them here for every game this year.
“Our job is to put a professional product on the field that fans can identify with. Major League Baseball is expensive for a family to see, and we feel we offer a good alternative. We play the game well.”
When the 2012 edition of the Slammers opens its home schedule Tuesday night against Traverse City, we will begin to see how well the community responds.