09 May Training Camp Wrapping Up
Things are changing at Skylands Stadium this year. There’s a new general manager running things in the front office and a new field manager running things in the dugout. There are new pitch clocks to speed the pace of games, and there’s a revamped roster after a 54-41 season in 2022 that ended just short of a third-place spot in the playoffs in the final weekend of the year.
But, there’s still some business to take care of before the Miners open the 2023 Frontier League season on the road Friday night in a Chicago suburb facing the Joliet Slammers. The team’s new manager, Chris Widger, has three more days of preseason training camp to trim his opening-day roster down to the league-mandated maximum of 24 players on the active list.
“We’re mostly there,” Widger said. “Every position was open when we started. Now, we’ve got a pretty good idea of how things are working out.”
The 51-year-old skipper, who played 10 years in the big leagues, has been favorably impressed by a number of his new students, especially 26-year-old outfielder Jawuan Harris, back for his second season in Sussex County. Drafted out of Rutgers University by the San Diego Padres in the seventh round in 2018, Harris made a big splash at Skylands Stadium last year, batting .250 in 77 games, with 12 home runs, 51 RBI and 34 stolen bases – third best in the league.
“He showed up in camp in great shape and ready to play,” Widger said. “He’s a kind of player who quickly gets your attention. His speed is really something to see. He covers all kinds of ground in the outfield, and the speed plus his intelligence make him an exciting threat on the basepaths.”
Widger has also been impressed by newly acquired catcher Jason Agresti, and that’s saying a lot for a manager who was a catcher, himself, and who played on a World Series-winning team with the Chicago White Sox and with Joe Torre’s New York Yankees, where he caught Mariano Rivera, among others.
“I liked Agresti on video and I like him even more in person,” Widger said. “He plays the game the right way. He’s physical, but he also uses his head, and, even though he’s new here, it’s obvious that he’s a leader in the clubhouse, and that only comes when you earn people’s respect.”
Widger will be counting on some core players returning from last year’s club, including Justin Washington, Willie Escala, Oraj Anu and Will Zimmerman, but he could not have been happy to see recently-acquired first baseman/outfielder Dalton Combs placed on the inactive list over the past weekend. Last year, Combs batted a whopping .354 – third best in the league – appearing in every game on the schedule for New Jersey Jackals, with 14 home runs and 77 RBI.
As for pitching, that was the major strength of last year’s Miners, when the team was fourth best in the league, but many of the key hurlers from that squad are now gone. John Baker and Dwayne Marshall were a combined 23-5 in 33 starts last year. Both gone. Robert Klinchock was the top reliever with a 2.85 ERA in 34 appearances. Also gone. Conner Dand was 6-4 with a 3.56 ERA in 15 starts and five relief appearances. Like Combs, he was also placed on the inactive list a few days ago.
“We’re going to need some guys from last year to show improvement,” Widger said.
“We’ve got guys with talent. Sometimes, it just takes an extra year or two to make them more productive. I’ve liked what I’ve seen out of them. Not walking people, that will be the key for some of them.”
Widger named 27-year old righty Tyler Thornton as looking good in camp and with a possibility for a breakthrough year coming up, after the South Carolina native started seven games and relieved in 21 more last year with a 3-8 record and a 5.78 ERA. Jimmy Boyce, a 25-year-old from Australia, could also come up big this year, Widger said, after posting a 3.73 ERA with a 2-1 record in 24 relief gigs last summer. And, Widger was glad to have the team sign righty Robbie Hitt on April 6, after Hitt had played the past two years in Double-A ball with the Milwaukee Brewers.
WATCH THE VOWEL: Longtime Miners play-by-play announcer Bret Leuthner will love this one: Who’s coming into the game for Sussex? Is it Still or is it Stull? Matt Still is a 6-foot-3, 190-pound, righthanded reliever. Eston Stull is a 6-foot-2, 185-pound righthanded reliever. If all goes right, Still and Stull will form a cornerstone of the Miners’ bullpen, especially since last year’s top fireman, Robert Klinchock, was traded away during the offseason.
Matt Still, a 22-year-old from Marlton, NJ, was drafted as an 18-year-old by the Kansas City Royals and played for that organization from 2019 to 2022. Eston Stull, a 24-year-old from Pendleton, IN, played his final collegiate season at Southeaster University, in Lakeland, FL, last year, then headed north to join the Miners, going 1-0 in 15 relief appearances, striking out 23 batters in 16 innings of work and holding opposing hitters to a .207 batting average. His negatives were 16 walks in those 16 innings, leading to his final 5.06 ERA.
By Carl Barbati, former sports editor of the New Jersey Herald, Daily Record and The Daily Trentonian.
photo by Phil hoops