A Preview of the Upcoming 2016 Season for the New Orleans Zephyrs
Photos by Parker Waters. Cover Image of Kendry Flores, Pitcher.
Hope is rarely found in such quantities as on the baseball diamond at the beginning of a season. The New Orleans Zephyrs haven’t given fans much to cheer about the last few years, but new leadership and the promise of dominant pitching bring hope and optimism to the 2016 season.
The Miami Marlins’ Triple-A team is back for another campaign in their big ballpark on Airline Drive. The Zephyrs will play 144 games in a season that runs from April 7 through September 5.
New Orleans finished tied for last in the Pacific Coast League in 2015 with just 58 wins. They have not had a winning record since 2012, but new manager Arnie Beyeler believes the Zephyrs have the right skills to end that streak.
“It all comes down to pitching and defense, usually,” Beyeler said. “The hitting goes up and down. You gotta pitch, and you gotta play defense. If you have good pitchers, you’re gonna have a chance every night. And if you play good defense on top of that and hit a little bit, you should win a few games.”
New Orleans did have the second-best pitching staff in the league last year. But it was last in the league in runs scored, home runs, and several other offensive categories. Part of that is because of the players on the roster, but cavernous Zephyr Field was another important factor.
Justin Nicolino, Pitcher
“The bottom line with all that is, it’s good to have good pitching and good defense in a big ballpark. If you do have a good defense, and guys that can go catch the ball, and I think we’ve got that,” a team can contend, Beyeler said.
Miami has one of the lower-rated farm systems in baseball, and most of its best prospects are just beginning their professional careers, making them unlikely to play in New Orleans this season. But there are a handful of players who could wear the Zephyrs’ uniform this year who are on scouts’ radar.
“I think we’re going to have a pretty solid team, pretty athletic team, and some pretty good pitching, from that standpoint,” Beyeler said. “Especially bullpen-wise, and we’ve got some good starters, too.”
Pitcher Justin Nicolino was part of the Marlins’ blockbuster trade in 2012 that sent Jose Reyes and Mark Buehrle to Toronto. He started 12 games for the big club in 2015, and would probably return to the majors if any of the Marlins’ starters get injured.
Nick Wittgren was the Zephyrs’ primary closer last season, saving 19 games. He showed impressive control, striking out 64 hitters while walking only eight. He gave up less than one hit per inning last season, and his deceptive delivery could earn him a spot in the Marlins’ bullpen this summer.
Kendry Flores, Jose Ureña, Kyle Barraclough, and Brian Ellington all got the call from New Orleans to the big club during 2015, and while they return to New Orleans to begin this season, they are all candidates to rejoin the Marlins’ pitching staff this year.
Jarlin Garcia is ranked as the third-best prospect in the Marlins’ system by MLB Pipeline, but Zephyrs’ fans will have to wait to see him. He earned a promotion to Double-A in 2015 and will begin 2016 there, as well, but could arrive in New Orleans later this summer. He struck out nearly a batter per inning in Jacksonville, and represented Miami in the 2015 MLB Futures Game.
Jake Esch got a taste of New Orleans at the end of 2015, and could come back soon. His mid-90’s fastball has him among the Marlins’ top ten prospects, even though he has only been a full-time pitcher for a couple years.
Catcher Tomas Telis could be the centerpiece of the lineup in 2016. He was acquired in a trade during the middle of 2015, and hit .333 after he joined New Orleans. Tells is a good defensive catcher, and he could bounce between New Orleans and Miami this year.
Austin Nola, Shortstop
Austin Nola is the most popular player on the team, and not just because the name on the front of his jersey is the same as the name on the back. Nola was a star for LSU, and his high-level defense at shortstop has helped him steadily rise through the minor leagues. He got called up to New Orleans halfway through the 2015 season and put up the best offensive numbers of his career after he arrived.
Beyeler was picked this spring to lead the 2016 Zephyrs, part of a larger overhaul of the team’s management.
He spent the last three seasons at the Major League level, as the first base coach and outfield instructor for the Boston Red Sox. He helped Boston win the World Series in 2013, but was a victim of the team’s failure to make the playoffs the last two years. Aside from the championship ring, Beyeler said confidence was the most important thing he got during his time in Boston.
“I think the whole big league experience makes you a better manager,” Beyeler explained. “Because when you go back… you know, I spent 20-some years in the minor leagues, and when you finally get a chance to go to the big leagues and then you go back, I can say, ‘hey, this is what it takes to do that in the big leagues,’ instead of referring to somebody else or not knowing.”
Beyeler has 12 years of minor league managing experience, most recently with Pawtucket, Boston’s Triple-A affiliate. He has a career .515 winning percentage, and won the International League championship in his final season running the PawSox.
Pawtucket’s owner at the time was Lou Schwechheimer, who purchased a controlling stake in the Zephyrs during the offseason. He brought along Augusto “Cookie” Rojas to be the Zephyrs’ new general manager.
“It’s a great group of guys to be with, cause they know how to do it. They’ve been successful at doing it where they’ve been at, so I know they’ve got a good opportunity [here],” Beyeler said.
Schwechheimer and Rojas will oversee everything that does not involve the roster, including promotions like Thirsty Thursday and fireworks shows after every Friday night home game.
But good baseball is just as important as a good promotion, like an Austin Nola bobblehead giveaway (May 28) or “Star Wars” Night (June 17). And that comes back to Beyeler.
“While you’re still in Triple-A, there’s a lot of development that goes on. There’s still a focus on winning, because it is important. That’s part of development. But the biggest focus is on the player and getting the player developed to hopefully move to the next level, to be a productive, championship player,” he stated.
Beyeler may be new to the organization, but he says he will adjust to his players, rather than the other way around.
“From my history of things, I like to let players play. If you’ve got good players, you’re a good manager. If you don’t have good players, you’re usually not a very good manager.”
If Beyeler can develop a productive offense, the Zephyrs will fill their spacious home field with happy fans.