A year ago, former JackHammers manager Jeff Isom returned to Joliet to manage the Slammers.
He was hoping the team he put together would be a contender in the Frontier League. But the Slammers got off to a bad start and never recovered, although they were playing better at the end of the season. They finished 40-56 and 21 games out of first place.
“I’m more confident now than I was at this time last year,” Isom said Monday. “I know we can contend.”
The Slammers, who have been practicing for about a week, will begin their exhibition games Tuesday afternoon at Schaumburg. Home games are scheduled for 10:05 a.m. Wednesday against Normal at Silver Cross Field and 7:05 p.m. Friday against Windy City. In addition, they will meet Rockford at 7 p.m. Monday at Benedictine in Lisle.
The regular season begins May 14 at Florence. The home season will begin May 19.
“I’m encouraged by what I’ve seen,” Isom said. “And a big thing in our favor is the schedule. We have a ton of home games early. We have to do some damage early. We didn’t do that last year.”
The Slammers have 35 players in camp, and Isom must cut to 24 by the season opener.
“If I had to make the cuts now, I don’t think I could do it,” he said. “There are lots of tough decisions to be made. I’m looking forward to our exhibition schedule. Those games will help make the decisions.”
There are familiar names in camp, led by first baseman/designated hitter Russell Moldenhauer, who will be wearing another hat. Moldenhauer hit .298 with nine home runs and 62 RBIs a year ago, and now he also will impart his knowledge to teammates in an official capacity.
“Matt Kennedy, who had been our hitting coach, got an opportunity to be the associate head coach at St. Joseph’s College (Indiana),” Isom said, “I told him to go for it. I’m giving Moldenhauer the hitting coach title, in addition to him playing.”
Adam Giacalone likely will be a two-way player as a pitcher and a designated hitter/first baseman. He hit .265 with 10 homers and 56 RBIs in 2014. He also pitched three innings at the end of the season, allowed two hits and struck out four.
Shortstop Max Casper returns. The competition Isom brought in at shortstop may bump him to second base, but that is yet to be seen. Adrian English, who hit .313 last season, is another second base candidate.
One huge piece missing from last year’s offense is third baseman Grant DeBruin, who hit .355, second in the Frontier League, with 12 homers and 67 RBIs. He is with the Hagerstown Suns, the Washington Nationals’ Class A affiliate in the South Atlantic League, and his hitting above .300.
“It’s hard to replace the second-leading hitter in the league,” Isom said. “But considering defense and everything, a guy we brought in who had three years in the Brewers’ organization, Mike Garza, might be an overall upgrade.”
The biggest boosts to the offense could come from outfielder Nate Roberts and first baseman Chris Serritella.
“When he was a freshman at Northwestern, their coach, Paul Stevens, said Nate was the best freshman hitter he had ever seen,” Isom said. “He then went to Parkland and to High Point University. The Twins drafted him in the fifth round.
“He’s been battling injuries in his career. But he led the Arizona Fall League in hitting one year and had the second-highest average ever in that league when he left it.”
Serritella, who played his high school ball at Loyola, was a fourth-round pick of the Phillies in 2012 and played as high as the Double-A level.
Of course, offense can carry a team only so far. Whatever the level, you have to pitch to win.
A candidate for the Slammers’ rotation is former Minooka and University of St. Francis ace Jacob Butler. He was drafted last year by the Tigers and was released this spring.
“I watched Butler throw in the bullpen, and he looked good,” Isom said. “He was locating his fastball. He could be a big pickup.”
David Kubiak, who was 3-1 with a 1.51 ERA in 292⁄3 innings in 2014, and Jordan Guth, late of the Phillies’ organization, pencil in at the top of the rotation. Butler and former late-inning reliever Jordan Wellander, who was 4-1 with a 3.31 ERA last season, are starting candidates.
“I’m trying to make Wellander more marketable to the big leagues by giving him a chance to start,” Isom said.
Other pitchers Isom mentioned whom we may hear from are Andrew Stenge and John Maloney, who were with the Slammers for a while last summer, along with Brent Moss from Tinley Park.
Isom called last season “disheartening.” Hopefully, that is the last time he uses that word in 2015.
• Dick Goss can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.