SURPRISE, AZ - As the Northwest Arkansas Naturals prepare to depart Arizona beginning this afternoon, the Naturals announce a preliminary roster as camp breaks.
The roster includes eleven players who finished the 2008 season in Northwest Arkansas, including three members from the starting rotation: Dan Cortes, Blake Johnson, and Blake Wood. The three combined for 25 wins last season and will occupy the top three spots in the early season Naturals rotation. Cortes (#3) and Wood (#10) are amongst the Kansas City Royals' top ten prospects according to Baseball America, and will front what promises to be a solid rotation.
The bullpen, similar to the rotation, will be able to draw on experience, as four of the Naturals primary late-season relievers are returning. Submariner Chris Hayes' 12 saves led the team, and his 1.64 ERA was the lowest amongst all Texas League relievers. Kyle Crist led the team with 42 appearances out of the 'pen, and posted a 1.31 ERA in August and September of 2008. Chris Nicoll was solid all season last year, fanning 55 batters while walking only eight in 43 2/3 innings, and returns in a setup role. Southpaw Gilbert de la Vara also returns after spending spring training with the Houston Astros, who had selected him in December's Rule 5 Draft. Houston gave him a long look but returned him to the Royals on the last day of March.
Other returning players include infielder Mario Lisson, who's 18 RBI in the month of August constituted his best overall month in the league last season, and super-utilityman Ed Lucas, who hit .344 in July and .318 in August for Northwest Arkansas as the Naturals chased a playoff spot. Brian McFall, last season's primary right fielder, also returns and is expected to see significant time this season at both first base and designated hitter. McFall hit 18 round trippers in 2008, second only to Kila Ka'aihue's 26.
In the outfield, Jose Duarte returns after swiping 28 bases and posting a career high in the power department with ten home runs. He'll be joined by a trio of newcomers: Jordan Parraz, Joe Dickerson, and Cody Strait. All three possess similar characteristics in that they can run a bit. The three tallied 60 steals among them last season, and none had posted career highs in 2008. Parraz, who will primarily play in right field, came to the Royals in December from the Houston Astros via trade, plays solid defense and had six homers and 42 RBI in the Carolina League last season. Dickerson tallied 45 RBI's for Wilmington even though he missed almost all of July and all of August with injury, wile Strait managed to lead the Blue Rocks with 13 homers last season despite joining the team on July 1st. Strait, the only newcomer with Double-A experience, is two seasons removed from a 2006 season that saw him swipe 50 bases, hit 17 homers, and drive in 74 runs for Advanced-A Sarasota.
The Naturals catching corps is expected to take on a new look in 2009 with John Suomi and Jeff Howell doing the bulk of the catching early in the season. Suomi came to the Royals in the minor league Rule 5 draft from the Phillies' organization and is highly regarded defensively, having reached the Triple-A level, while Howell hit .259 for Wilmington last year. They will be joined in May by Springdale resident and Major League veteran Vance Wilson, who is rehabbing from two surgeries on his throwing arm.
Kurt Mertins, Chris McConnell, and Josh Johnson are newcomers to the infield, and will add to the Naturals 2009 complement of speed and defense after swiping the second-most bases in the Texas League in 2008. The incoming trio combined for 65 steals in 2008, and Johnson, who can play all the infield positions besides first base, led the Blue Rocks with a .399 on base percentage. McConnell, a natural shortstop who has been making the transition to second base, is regarded as one of the best defensive infielders in the Royals' system.
Joining the rotation are Matt Kniginyzky and Anthony Lerew. Kniginyzky (9-8, 3.57 with Wilmington in '08), was third on the Wilmington staff in innings pitched and allowed less than a hit per inning (133 hits in 141 IP). Lerew, a Dillsburg, PA resident, joined the Royals organization about three weeks ago after spending the first several years of his playing career with the Atlanta Braves organization. He is recovering from Tommy John surgery and missed most of 2007 and the majority of 2008. A former top prospect of the Braves, Lerew reached the major leagues in early 2007 after a dominating start with Triple-A Richmond. His has a career minor league record of 43-38 with a 3.41 ERA in 149 games.
Newcomers to the Northwest Arkansas' relief corps include left-hander Carlos Sencion, who, like Lerew, comes from the Braves' organization. Sencion served as a swingman for the Double-A Mississippi bullpen last year, going 6-4 with a 4.72 ERA in 76 1/3 innings. He'll be joined by righty Greg Holland (96 K in 84 1/3 IP), a highly regarded relief prospect in the organization who makes the move from Wilmington, and left-hander Dan Cevette, who signed with the Royals as a free agent from the Cleveland Indians organization. Victor Marte, a Dominican signee in 2000 who returns to the Royals' organization after pitching in Japan for three season, makes his United States debut in the Naturals bullpen.
Because the Royals have not completed their 25-man major league roster, this preliminary roster is subject to change, possibly more than once, before the Naturals depart late Tuesday for their first road trip to San Antonio, TX.
The Northwest Arkansas Naturals are the Double-A Texas League affiliate of the Kansas City Royals and play at state-of-the-art Arvest Ballpark, located in Springdale. The home opener is Thursday, April 16th against the San Antonio Missions. The Naturals have a toll-free ticket hotline (1-877-444-2637) for fans to purchase Naturals tickets. Our website, nwanaturals.com offers fans the opportunity to purchase tickets online and avoid lines at the ticket windows by printing their tickets at home or at the office.
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.