As the New Britain Bees get ready to begin their second season, the optimism level amongst the players and coaches is high heading into the season opener.
Whereas it was a matter of learning a new place and new teammates in 2016, that is not so much the case this year. There are plenty of familiar faces on the roster this season, 14 to be exact, and with that the potential talent of the new players joining the mix, the Bees are out to get over the hump and into the playoffs that eluded them three times last year.
The Bees will feature a mixture of power and speed in the lineup and a pitching staff once again with Major League experience and a good amount of success to build off.
“With the track record that we had last year, with the six players that got signed out, that attracts top talent,” New Britain manager Stan Cliburn said.
There are still some question marks, especially with the bullpen. But with the knowledge the lineup and pitching rotation will be tinkered with throughout the early part of the season, here is a look at how the Bees stack up going into their second season in New Britain:
The Bees did not have much flux with their infield a season ago and will have all five starters that saw substantial playing time back with the team this year.
Jovan Rosa will man third base. One of New Britain’s most important players, Rosa did not miss a game in 2016 and led the team with 13 home runs. Whether he plays all 140 games or not this season remains to be seen, but it will likely be close.
To his left on the diamond will be Steve Carrillo at shortstop. After being a utility man at the beginning of last season, the 29-year-old played his way into the everyday starting lineup before a short stint in Mexico in the middle of the year. He will be the unquestioned starter at the position in 2017.
Jake McGuiggan will join Carrillo in the middle of the infield at second base. The Harvard grad joined the Bees after Carrillo went to Mexico and shifted over to second when he returned. Despite not much experience playing second at the time, McGuiggan played well defensively. His offense took a bit to come around, but he finally appeared to hit his stride over the final month of the season.
Jon Griffin returns at first base, where he logged 124 games in 2016. Capable of providing power, Griffin led the team with 67 RBI in addition to hitting to 12 home runs with a .274 average.
Finally, is catcher James Skelton. Raved about by his pitching staff for his work behind the plate, Skelton caught a career-high 106 games, while also lining up at second base for eight. At the plate, he led the league in on-base percentage (.399) and worked 91 walks as the team’s leadoff hitter.
Unlike the infield, the outfield - at least throughout the early part of the season - will have some new faces in it. Centerfielder Michael Crouse will be the lone returner of the group after Greg Golson opted to play in Mexico this season and Anthony Hewitt was not re-signed. Instead, Jamar Walton and Paul Kronenfeld will man the corner outfield spots.
“I think it’s going to be a good clubhouse right off the bat this year, which is important in this league, especially with the new faces,” Crouse said.
Along with Crouse, these two new additions should bring some new power to this group, which at times was lacking last year and was not always required. Walton hit 13 home runs with the Southern Maryland Blue Crabs a year ago, which would have tied him for the Bees’ team lead. Kronenfeld hit 10 homers with the Schaumburg Boomers of the Frontier League in 2016.
Crouse, however, will be the key to the outfield. The 26-year-old hit .291 with 10 home runs, 60 RBI and stole 51 bases in 105 games for the Bees last year after being traded from the Lancaster Barnstormers. After spending the offseason with Team Canada in the World Baseball Classic, and now a full-time starter entering this season, Crouse could potentially put up better numbers for the Bees.
The team’s ultimate success this season will be determined by their performance on the mound.
The good news, like last year, is New Britain’s pitching staff is deep and filled with talent with a number of guys being able to start or come out of the bullpen.
Newcomers Joe Beimel (Pirates, Dodgers, Rockies, Nationals, Mariners), Jonathan Pettibone (Phillies) and Casey Coleman (Cubs, Royals) bring MLB experience. Beimel will come out of the pen, while Pettibone factors into the front-end of the starting rotation after working his way back from shoulder surgery and missing the better part of the last two seasons. Coleman has shown the ability to start or be a reliever. His role in the early going is less defined.
In addition, starters Brian Dupra and Kyle Simon, last season’s Atlantic League ERA leader, return and should be part of a rotation that last year ranked among the league’s best. Other familiar names returning include Berlin native Anthony Marzi, Eric Fornataro, Nate Roe and Brandon Fry. Newington native Mike Hepple also joins the staff.
One of the biggest question marks is the backend of the bullpen. Last year’s All-Star closer, Shawn Gilblair, was named pitching coach, serving concurrently in the same role with Montclair State. It could be closer by committee when Gilblair is not available.
The Bees are once again fielding an experienced team and have a number of veterans who have been through the ins and outs of the Atlantic League. With a good mixture power and speed throughout the lineup, the Bees have the potential to put up solid numbers. For the most part, you know what you are going to get for each player, but they will have to find the consistency they lacked for long stretches of last season. Defensively, New Britain appears to be versatile with players being able to play all over the diamond. Yet, as it is with most teams, pitching will be the key. The Bees look to have good parts in the starting rotation, it will just be what the bullpen is able to do once the starter is taken out. If the team can do that, it can be another competitive year for the Bees.