Despite finishing just one win shy of a Pioneer League Championship last year, Helena Brewers manager Tony Diggs would consider the 2013 season a success.
After all, the rookie level is about more than wins and losses — success is defined primarily by player development and improvement. The fact that the bulk of last year’s roster is now playing up a level in Class A Wisconsin is a testament to the team’s hard work in Helena.
“Last year was very special in the fact that we had a chance to do what we did,” said Diggs, the second-year skipper whose team lost in three games to Idaho Falls for the crown. “Guys played well all year.
We came up one game short of having a championship here. Do you look forward to doing things like that? Absolutely. But you have to keep in mind the important thing is to make these guys better, get them more consistent and get them prepared for at least the next level.
“That being said, there is an expectation of winning as well.”
The Brewers went 43-33 overall last year, winning the first half North Division title. Diggs is looking to build on that achievement with essentially an entirely new crew. Only four players on the 28-man roster spent any time in Helena last season — fans may remember Tyler Linehan, Dionis Hinojosa, Brandon Moore and Jack Cleary — and the coaching staff has a pair of new faces in hitting coach Jason Dubois and pitching coach Rolando Valles. Valles has been with the Brewers organization for a number of years, and Dubois — a former big league outfielder — has spent the past three seasons as hitting coach in the Arizona League. He worked with the AZL Brewers last year after two seasons with the AZL Cubs.
“I’m very excited for my first year out of the state of Arizona; it’s a nice change of scenery,” Dubois said. “It’s a great group of guys coming in here and I’m very excited for the opportunity to coach them. Plus, it’s nice to be out of the 120-degree heat.”
The bulk of the team arrived in Helena on Sunday evening, leaving limited time to prepare with Opening Day less than a week away. The Brewers kick off the season on Monday, June 16, with a five-game homestand, hosting Missoula for a three-game series before a two-game set against Billings.
“The time constraints this year are a lot different from last year,’ Diggs said, while newly drafted players and those up from extended spring training worked out behind him under sunny skies Tuesday. “We had 10 days last year to get prepared; this year it’s more like four.
“We’ll cover a lot in the next four days. It helps that a number of guys coming from extended already know a lot about the program.”
Twelve players on the roster were promoted from the Arizona League, while seven were just drafted last week. Fifth-round selection Dustin DeMuth — the highest pick from this year’s draft in Helena — seventh-rounder Mitch Meyer and 11th-rounder Brandon Woodruff were the only players who hadn’t arrived in the Capital City as of Tuesday.
For several others fresh out of college, it’s been a whirlwind experience. Catcher Greg McCall, for instance, was drafted by the Milwaukee Brewers on Friday, then flown out to Helena two days later. The Frisco, Texas, native, taken in the ninth round out of UT-Arlington, said it’s been a lifelong dream to play professional baseball.
“I was with my family and close friends and we were keeping track on the computer,” he said. “It was a really exciting time to get drafted, and I got a great organization in the Brewers. I’m really excited to get going.”
As a catcher, McCall said the biggest adjustments will be getting on the same page with the pitchers and becoming acclimated to the daily grind of a 76-game season. Playing every day, as opposed to four days a week at the most in college, will be an adjustment he said.
“I’m looking forward to the grind and I’m excited to get better,” McCall said.
Linehan is one of 14 pitchers on the roster. The southpaw, a reliever on Helena’s staff last season, began this year with the Timber Rattlers.
“I just struggled a bit up there,” Linehan said. “It was tough to find the zone and throw strikes, so I need to work on my consistency.”
Linehan, who said his curveball is his best pitch, was 1-1 with a 10.03 ERA through five games to start this season in Wisconsin. Last year in Helena he was 2-2 with a 2.45 ERA, part of a pitching staff that had the third-best ERA in the league (4.62). He hopes his experience can help the younger guys adapt to pro ball.
“One thing I can help with here with guys coming in and coming up is getting a set routine,” he said. “They’re here for a reason and everybody’s good, so just help them build their confidence and keep it going.”
The pitcher with perhaps the most pressure on him to perform is Devin Williams, Milwaukee’s highest-drafted player in 2013. He comes to Helena after a 1-3 campaign last year in the AZL.
“I’m really just focused on doing my game plan; I don’t really try to focus on expectations that others put on me because most of the time you don’t live up to those,” Williams said. “I’m just trying to pitch for myself, basically.
“My game plan is just to throw a lot of strikes, get ahead in the count and keep people off base.”
Williams said his breaking ball needs work but added that his fastball has topped out at 96 mph. The right-hander throws a fastball, changeup and slider.
Like many of the players on this year’s squad, he’s never been to Montana before now. The closest McCall has come was when he lived in Boise, Idaho, for a while.
“This is all just a humbling experience,” McCall said of his new career. “It’s finally starting to hit me.”
From what little Diggs has seen, he believes this team has the tools to be successful. He also thinks it might have more speed than last year’s Pioneer League runner-up.
“I’m hoping we have some guys who can swing the bat,” he said. “I’m thinking we have more team speed than we had last year, so hopefully we can steal some bases and create some havoc when we’re on base.”
Both Diggs and Dubois cited third baseman Tucker Neuhaus and outfielder Elvis Rubio as players to watch early on.
“Elvis Rubio made major adjustments last year,” Dubois said. “He’s done a lot with his swing. He advanced a lot and he deserved to get the promotion this year.”
The 18- and 19-year-old are young and bound to make mistakes, but they showed plenty of promise in Arizona a year ago. Rubio batted .314 while Neuhaus hit .231 with 24 RBIs.
“I’d like to see us improve defensively over the course of the year in techniques and consistency, and I think we can do it.
“I think we have some very solid athletes here that know how to play the game. It’s just a matter of them getting more repetitions.”
Monday’s game begins at 7:05 p.m., and magnet schedules will be given away at the gate.
Season tickets are still available and can be purchased by calling 495-0500 ext. 4, or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.