HILLARY SMITH: RailCats ready to introduce new look

2014-04-13T21:00:00Z 2014-04-13T23:58:04Z HILLARY SMITH: RailCats ready to introduce new lookHillary Smith Times Columnist nwitimes.com
April 13, 2014 9:00 pm  • 

Don't be surprised if the RailCats spring training roster looks a little unfamiliar.

OK, massively unfamiliar.

After winning the 2013 American Association Championship, the retirements came quickly. 

The players that have been fan favorites and clubhouse leaders hung up the cleats: Adam Klein, Cristian Guerrero, Brian Kolb. Mike Massaro and Alain Quijano are trying their hands in the Atlantic League, which starts its season next week. 

Most of the names that fans recognize were rookies last season or have only been on their lineup cards for a year: Drew Martinez, Zac Mitchell, Danny Pulfer.

Then there are the catchers.

"The thing we've learned since 2005 is that we always somehow had that core group of players," manager Greg Tagert said. "First it was (Jay) Pecci, (Steve) Haake, (Tanner) Townsend and (Willie) Glen. Then it was Massaro, Klein and Guerrero. This'll be the first time I'll go into the RailCats clubhouse without that same semblance of continuity. Craig Maddox will be the senior member of this club this year. That's one of the reasons that I said we have to have Craig Maddox."

Maddox and platoonmate Ryan Babineaux were key to the offseason signings this winter for the RailCats, and they signed within a week of each other.

Maddox, who has been with the team since the 2011 season, was contemplating retirement. Babineaux, who was still technically a rookie last year — his second with the team — has played a 50/50 catching schedule with Maddox since joining the franchise.

Having the solidity of veteran plus youth at the single position, and the tradition factored in, gave the coaching staff the confidence to change how the roster would look this season.

"I think one of the things that worked out so well last year that has really led the direction we've taken this offseason — and I'm hearing it a lot, 'oh you guys signed another rookie, you signed another young player' — but we had such good success with Mitchell and Pulfer last year and Babineau the year before that we're finding young players," Tagert said. "If we had that good success, we want to try it again. We'll know quickly if it can work or not."

With RailCats spring training a short two weeks away, Tagert and Company know that almost every position is up for grabs. Heck, even Babineau and Maddox can play the infield, and if they're to get the at-bats that give the RailCats the most spring in their lineup, the team will need to use them at any and every available spot.

Yet, they aren't just resting on youth. Wally Backman Jr., an independent league journeyman since 2008, was signed last week as an infielder. A veteran of both the infield and outfield, he called the RailCats and came with recommendations from Klein and Quijano.

"He's had something to prove," Tagert said. "Coming off of a knee injury, last year was really a lost year for him, so he's motivated for his career."

Securing a left-handed pitcher for the bullpen is next on the list, even if it comes with some longevity, Tagert said.

And Tagert's not opposed, if the next Mike Massaro or Adam Klein is out there looking for a job and would like call, he'll pick up the phone.

These next two weeks are quick, and opening day in St. Paul is 31 days away.

This column solely represents the writer's opinion. Reach her at hillary.smith@nwi.com.

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