The River City Rascals have continued their off-season moves at a rapid pace by pulling off eight more contract extensions in the last month, making it 16 players returning from the 2016 Frontier League Championship runner-up. Eighth year Manager Steve Brook has also added a pair of position players who will be getting their first taste of Frontier League baseball: outfielder Taylor Love and shortstop Ian Yetsko.
Three-time Frontier League All-Star and former Baylor Bear standout Josh Ludy headlines the set of returners as he begins his fourth go-around with the club and second as a player-coach. In his Rascals career, Ludy has held a .297 average while smacking 35 home runs and driving in 157 runs during 252 games. The catcher/designated hitter has had at least 45 RBI in each season and in 2016 he set a career high in hits with 98.
The lone player on the Rascals who has played more seasons with the club than Ludy is veteran right-handed pitcher Nick Kennedy. Kennedy has put on a Rascals uniform every summer since 2012 and is coming off a season where he has held an ERA under 3.00 for the third time in his career. The right-hander was used in a variety of roles out of the bullpen and finished with 40.1 innings in 46 appearances. Along with his numbers, Kennedy was also the recipient of the Fran Riordan Citizenship award which combines work on and off the field. When Kennedy is not playing with the Rascals, he works as a paraprofessional dealing with special education and autistic kids at Fort Zumwalt East High School.
Other pitchers that Brook has brought back for the 2017 season include starting right-hander Tim Koons, lefty Dan Ludwig and back end of the bullpen guys Skylar Hunter and Shane Street.
Tim Koons will begin his third year with the club and had his best start of his career in the game two of the Frontier League Championship Series against the Evansville Otters. Paving the way to even up the series at one win apiece, Koons tossed a one-hit complete-game shutout with ten strikeouts. The outing was his third start holding an opponent scoreless on the year, six innings against the Otters in August and then a seven inning gem against Schaumburg in June. Overall, Koons had a 4.67 ERA and in his Rascals career holds a 21-11 record through 50 starts.
Left-hander Dan Ludwig became the Rascals clinch man as he was the winning pitcher in the final game of the year to send the Rascals into the playoffs and game four of the Divisional Series placing his club in the Frontier League Championship Series for the third year in a row. Ludwig came to the Rascals via a trade for first baseman Willi Martin in early August and was inserted into the rotation right away starting five regular season games and two playoff games. In the seven starts, he beat the team he was traded from (Southern Illinois) twice, threw a one-run complete-game against the Gateway Grizzlies and finished with a 4-1 record and a 2.86 ERA.
Skylar Hunter was one of the later additions to Brook’s staff this past year joining the club on August 6th. In his shortened season, the 22-year-old held the lowest opponents’ batting average at a .167 and struck out 12 in 11 1/3 innings. Shane Street finished with similar numbers as Hunter holding the second lowest opponents’ batting average at a .182 and also had more strikeouts than innings pitched. Street joined the team in June and struck out 24 in 16 innings of action while finishing with a 4.50 ERA.
Catching these returning arms along with All-Star Josh Ludy will be the 2016 Frontier League Catcher of the Year Mike Jurgella. The rookie from St. Cloud State University ranked third on the club with a .304 batting average and finished top five in multiple other categories including runs (48), hits (79), doubles (16) and led the team in triples with four. The first year Rascal appeared in 79 games and started 74.
The final returning position player Brook has brought back over the past month is second baseman Jason Merjano. The experienced infielder played in 91 games and hit .291 with five home runs and 51 RBI. His 51 RBI is just one of the categories Merjano led the team in along with 354 at-bats, 22 doubles and 33 multi-hit games.
Manager Steve Brook has now brought back seven of his ten position players from last year and looking to add to the his clubs depth he signed outfielder Taylor Love from Louisiana Tech and infielder Ian Yetsko from Oakland University.
Over the course of four years, Love started 145 games as a Bulldog and his career took a jump in 2014 when he hit .318 to rank eighth in Conference-USA. As a junior, he once again led the team in batting average with a .288 while belting six home runs and 32 RBI. In 2016, Love’s final year of eligibility, he was a big part of putting his team in the postseason for the first time in 29 years. Louisiana Tech sported a 40-18 record and when the Conference-USA tournament rolled around, Love rose to the occasion going 6-13 with five RBI.
While this will be Love’s first taste of professional baseball, 2017 will mark the second professional year for former Oakland University shortstop Ian Yetsko. After a solid career at Oakland ranking in the top-ten in program history in at-bats, doubles and assists, plus being selected to the All-Horizon League First Team his senior year, Yetsko signed a contract with the Utica Unicorns of the United Shore Professional Baseball League. With the Unicorns, the shortstop hit .263 through 39 games.
Other transactions for the Rascals include outfielder Kyle Gaedele being traded to the Somerset Patriots of the Atlantic League for a player to be named later and manager Steve Brook exercising options on 12 players: LHP Shane Bay, RHP Derek Cape, LHP Michael Gunn, RHP Tommy Lawrence, INF Johnny Morales, RHP Will Schierholz, OF Jackson Slaid, INF Austen Smith, RHP Josh Wright, RHP Jake Negrete, RHP Joe Scanio, and RHP Clint Wright.