Early-season view of Lake County Captains from David S. Glasier
That's why I'm wading in now with some ridiculously early impressions of the 2014 Captains.
As I write this, the Captains (3-1) are in Iowa, playing the Clinton LumberKings, in their fifth game of the season and first road game.
They've just scored three runs in the top of the first inning to chase Clinton starter Tony Burns. I don't remember last year's Captains doing that, so that's a good sign of the way this team is playing under first-year manager Mark Budzinski.
Let me repeat that it's absurdly early, but here goes my first read on the Captains.
- Starting catcher Eric Haase is playing like a man possessed. Haase was on Lake County all last season and clubbed 14 home runs. He thought he was going to advanced Single-A Carolina out of spring training, but that didn't happen. If he was peeved with the decision by his bosses in the Tribe's player development office, it hasn't showed in his off-field demeanor or on-field performance. Haase is tearing the cover off the ball at the plate and doing a much better job behind the plate defensively. If he keeps playing like this, a promotion to Carolina will come sooner rather than later.
- First baseman Nelson "Nellie'' Rodriguez was in over his head last season when, at 19, he opened the season with the Captains. He was sent to Mahoning Valley in June and regrouped nicely, slamming a team-high nine home runs for the Scrappers. This season, Rodriguez is playing with much more confidence. He's banging the ball at the plate and smoothing it at first base. This is a big guy (6-foot-2, 225 pounds) with big-time power potential.
- Second baseman Claudio Batista is another "repeater" who looks like a different guy this season at the plate and in the field. Bautista was OK with the glove last season, if memory serves, but he was over-matched at the plate. Just checked the box score from the Clinton game, and he's tripled and driven in a run to raise his average to .294 and team-high RBI total to five.
- Third baseman Grant Fink looks to be the sort of solid, dependable player who grows on you over the course of a long season. Makes all the plays at third defensively and puts bat on ball.
- Starting outfielders Cody Ferrell (center), Jorge Martinez (right) and Clevelander Brian Ruiz (left) all are getting the job done.
Martinez hit .191 in a full season at Lake County last year, but the 21-year-old native of the Dominican Republic is batting .308 and playing with so much more confidence.
Ferrell, soon to turn 24, is a guy worth watching closely. He's a tough kid from Oklahoma who has a chip on his shoulder after going undrafted out of Oklahoma City University. Conventional wisdom has it he'll lose playing time when uber-prospect Clint Frazier is ready to go after battling through a hamstring injury, but Ferrell is playing too well to be marginalized. Budzinski will find at-bats for him somewhere, somehow. Take that to the bank.
Ruiz is a feel-good story waiting to happen. The former Lincoln West standout has good size (6-3, 180) and good baseball instincts. He hasn't hit much in two pro seasons before this one, though.
The guys who've jumped out so far are starter Jordan Milbrath and relievers Kenny Mathews, Wander Beras, Ben Heller and Trevor Frank. Milbrath went the route in the nightcap of a doubleheader of seven-inning games, blanking the Lansing Lugnuts on two hits.
As for the other starters and relievers, I need to see more of them before venturing opinions. What I have seen, happily, is that this staff goes after hitters and steers clear of nibbling. That's a good thing.
Budzinski is an interesting case. Gets back into the game this season after eight years as a "civilian.'' Seems to be a confident, well-spoken guy who isn't afraid to say he's getting his baseball feet back under him day by day.