The River City Rascals boasted the Frontier League’s top offense in 2016 paving the way to their third consecutive championship appearance and are slated to return five of their top six weapons come opening day on May 13th against the Normal CornBelters.
All five of the sluggers are in the Rascals infield and in total, seventh year manager Steve Brook has ten players on the roster that can play a position around the diamond headlined by three-year Frontier League All-Star Josh Ludy and last year’s Rascals batting champion Josh Silver. In addition, the Frontier League catcher of the year, Mike Jurgella, returns and the entire starting infield from the playoff roster: fifth year shortstop Johnny Morales, second baseman and team leader in RBI Jason Merjano, and both first basemans: lefty bat Clint Freeman and right-hander Braxton Martinez.
Being welcomed to the infield crew are a trio of first year Frontier League players in Dylan Sprague (Fairleigh Dickinson Univ.), Connor Teykl (Rice) and Ian Yetsko (Oakland).
Starting with the catchers, Ludy and Jurgella split time evenly behind the plate last year with Ludy catching 49 games and Jurgella the other 47. When one wasn’t catching, they filled the Designated Hitter role or occasionally Jurgella was needed in right field.
The two both placed top five on the Rascals in batting average and garnered awards throughout the season. Ludy, who returns to the Rascals for his fourth year, compiled a .289 batting average (103-354) with four home runs and 45 runs batted in over 92 games with the club last year. This past year marked his fourth straight year with 45 or more RBI and he also set a new career high in hits with 98 which was good for second on the team.
Ludy’s other half, Jurgella, finished third on the team hitting at a .304 mark and was the lone offensive player to earn a Frontier League Yearly positional award. In his first year out of St. Cloud State University, the now Rookie-2 appeared in 79 games and spread around 79 hits, with 25 of them being for extra bases to finish with a .454 slugging percentage.
Showcasing the left side of the infield is Josh Silver who was the everyday third baseman for the Rascals last year while in uniform. Silver played two parts of the season with the Rascals and in between he played a stint with the Chicago Cubs minor league affiliate, South Bend (Single-A). With the Rascals, he hit a team high .352 in 62 games and was able to record enough at-bats to qualify for league leaders and finished third for the batting title.
Johnny Morales will be next to Silver once again this year as he looks to make the opening day lineup for the fourth consecutive season. The Southern California native and former Virginia Tech Hokie has played 298 games in a Rascals uniform and has a .272 career average with 65 extra-base hits. Morales was only able to appear in 65 games last year due to an injury and when he went down, Silver moved to shortstop and Brook inserted a variety of guys into the third base role but it was Braxton Martinez who saw the majority of the starts at the hot corner (26).
Jason Merjano returns for his second season with the club and was the starting second baseman for 87 of the 90 games he started. The CSU Monterey Bay product hit .291 and led the Rascals in multiple offensive catagories including 354 at-bats, 51 RBI, 22 doubles and 33 multi-hit games. Merjano was also a key piece in the Rascals postseason launching a pair of two-run home runs in the divisional series win against the rival Southern Illinois Miners.
Merjano was the lone infielder who was the everyday starter at his position and it was the complete opposite over at first base with Willi Martin, Braxton Martinez and Clint Freeman each seeing starts. Freeman finished the year leading the position with 46 starts and was a solid power bat from the left side smashing nine homeruns and driving in 39 runs.
As for the newcomers, Brook has brought in three guys who have proven they can play a variety of positions around the diamond.
Ian Yetsko comes from Oakland University where he had solid career ranking in the top-ten in program history in at-bats, doubles and assists, plus being selected to the All-Horizon League First Team his senior year. While in school, the utility man was primarily a second baseman but did play a handful of games behind the plate and a select few at the hot corner.
Brook’s other two additions are Connor Tekyl and and Dylan Sprague. Tekyl can play the corner positions and came to the Rascals via a trade from the American Association in exchange for Zeb Sneed. After playing his college ball at Rice, he signed with the Lincoln Saltdogs and collected ten hits in nine games played.
For Sprauge, he comes to O’Fallon looking to show he can play second base at the professional level. The New York native was an everyday guy at Fairleigh Dickinson and complied a pair of awards during his four year career. As a freshman, Sprauge was named to the New Jersey Collegiate Baseball Association All-Rookie Team and Second Team All-NEC his final three years as a Knight.
In total, the Rascals have 36 players on the Spring Training roster and will look to narrow it down to 24 by the season opener on May 13th. Stay tuned every week for a new positional preview and for tickets visit http://rivercityrascals.com/tickets/individual/#.
© Rick Ulreich