Fresno Grizzlies

Fresno Grizzlies: Opening night, new affiliation bring hope of PCL title-contending season

Tired of seeing the Fresno Grizzlies lose?

This just might be the season that Fresno’s Triple-A club transforms into a Pacific Coast League title contender.

Spearheading the charge is manager Tony DeFrancesco, who has won three PCL championships.

And with an offseason affiliation change from the San Francisco Giants to the Houston Astros, the Grizzlies no longer will march out the same old names that delivered just three winning seasons in the past 15 years.

Fresno instead begins its season Thursday with a lineup boasting multiple young power hitters and a rotation of capable pitchers with high strikeout potential as the Grizzlies chase what would be their first playoff appearance since the franchise’s inaugural campaign in 1998.

The Grizzlies host New York Mets affiliate Las Vegas at 7:05 p.m. for the first of a four-game series at Chukchansi Park. Four more against Salt Lake close out the opening homestand.

“We’re trying to bring a winning team to Fresno,” DeFrancesco said simply, “… get us to the playoffs and win a championship.”

The projected lineup has six players with 20-homer run potential in catcher Max Stassi, first baseman Jon Singleton, third baseman Matt Dominguez, outfielders Domingo Santana and Preston Tucker, and infielder Matt Duffy.

In particular, the Grizzlies appear to be armed with more corner-infield power and major league experience than any of the 16 PCL clubs. Singleton hit .168 but with 13 home runs and 44 RBIs for the Astros last season after hitting 14 homers in 195 at-bats for the Astros’ former Triple-A team in Oklahoma City. Dominguez hit .215 with 16 home runs for Houston last year after slugging 21 homers in 2013.

Singleton believes the time he and others spent in the majors should benefit the Grizzlies both in performance and preparation, while also helping them mentor younger players on how to conduct themselves and reach baseball’s highest level.

“I know once I got to the major leagues, I kind of handled things differently, went about my business differently,” Singleton said. “And I think that’s going to rub off here. We’re all just here trying to have fun and play ball. We have a very good roster.”

To complement the power hitting, the Grizzlies have three capable table-setters. Second baseman Ronald Torreyes, shortstop Nolan Fontana and center fielder Andrew Aplin all have topped the .440 level in on-base percentage at some point in their minor league careers.

The Astros put a major emphasis on on-base percentage and slugging percentage as part of their incorporation of “Moneyball” tactics.

Fresno’s pitching staff, at least for a couple of turns, will be led by major leaguer Brad Peacock. Peacock, 27, gets the opening night start while on a rehabilitation assignment after offseason hip surgery. The right-hander, who has 40 career big league starts, went 4-9 with a 4.72 ERA in 1312/3 innings with the Astros last season.

Dan Straily, who two years ago was 10-8 with a 3.96 ERA in 27 starts for the Oakland A’s, is scheduled to start Friday. The 26-year-old is expected to anchor the staff for most of the season.

The remainder of the rotation features young arms who found success at Double-A a year ago.

“I like strike throwers, not hard throwers,” Grizzlies pitching coach Ace Adams said. “What’s nice about this group is we’ve got strike throwers and that’s a luxury.”

Regardless of affiliation, there is the challenge of getting disgruntled players to produce while spending at least part of another season in the minors. Most of the Grizzlies’ top talent admitted during Tuesday’s media day and public workout that they were surprised, if not disappointed, to be starting the year in Triple-A.

The Grizzlies’ roster also will continue to turn over throughout the season, only with the Astros, rather than the Giants, making the call for help.

Then again, DeFrancesco, 51, typically has excelled at dealing with such factors. He has recorded 15 winning seasons in his 20-year career and won PCL crowns in 2003, 2004 and 2007 with Oakland’s Triple-A team in Sacramento. The River Cats, perennial contenders and Grizzlies nemesis in the PCL’s Pacific Northern Division, are now affiliated with the Giants. The A’s club is in Nashville.

“There are some guys who are disappointed in that locker room right now that they didn’t make the major league team,” DeFrancesco said. “It’s a challenge for me to get those guys motivated to play.

“Once we get them on the same page, I think we’re going to have a very successful season. I think I can accomplish both development and winning at the same time.”

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