The man charged with the unenviable task of rebuilding the Santa Fe Fuego’s decimated pitching staff has a unique perspective on how things should be — not to mention how they were.
TJ Zarewicz was the opening day starter for the Fuego a year ago, a season in which their cartoonish 9.53 team ERA was the worst in the history of the Pecos League. He returns this spring as the manager of Santa Fe’s professional baseball team, meaning he was the sole recruiter for a team looking to rebound from a forgettable 19-47 campaign that was the worst in the 10-team league.
The Fuego open their season at home Wednesday night against White Sands, the first of 64 games on a schedule that features nearly two-thirds of the games at home. There are only 23 road games on the schedule, every single one of them on a Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday. Everything else between now and the end of July is at home.
“I’ve been looking for to it for months,” Zarewicz said. “I’ve spent a long time calling guys and finding players for this team, but really what I’m looking forward to is sitting down [Wednesday] morning and writing out that lineup card. I’m ready to see what this team can do.”
Pecos League Commissioner Andrew Dunn expects to see an improved Fuego team this summer. In many ways the team is still an important cog in a league that has expanded west with five teams in California this season.
“Everyone’s thinking that team’s going to be better and, really, it’s time Santa Fe returns to its rightful place as one of the better teams,” Dunn said.
He said the league’s division favorites are Trinidad and Tucson, the two clubs that reached the finals a year ago. With the addition of the California teams — Hollywood will be exclusively a travel squad this year while Monterey will play only 14 home games — the league is seeing an uptick in overall talent.
“That all started with what Tucson did,” Dunn said. “The further west we go the more we’re getting guys from California giving our league a look.”
With 12 teams in the mix, the Pecos League is on as stable financial footing as it ever has been, Dunn said. It helps to have Santa Fe remain competitive because the Fuego have historically been the league’s top draw at the turnstiles.
That’s a big reason why Zarewicz was brought back as a manager. Named the full-time skipper after taking over on an interim basis at the end of last season, he has spent considerable time finding trustworthy arms to fill out his retooled staff. Two starters return, including opening night starter Zach Carter.
Carter led the team with 59 strikeouts last summer and finished 3-5 with a 7.68 ERA. He is the ace of a five-man rotation that has plenty of promise with the addition of three new faces.
Returner Louis Ortega is joined by newcomers Ed Brandsema, Matt Elko and Dan Karasinski. Brandsema and Elko are Pecos League rookies while Karasinski was with a Trinidad club that lost in the championship series to Tucson.
A veteran of two years in a Japanese independent league, Brandsema has all the makings of a breakout performer.
“I’ve learned a lot, actually, from doing this for a couple years,” he said. “It’s not so much throwing the ball past anyone as much as it is hitting locations and keeping it down. Especially in a place like this.”
Ortega will be a player-coach and serve as Zarewicz’s assistant.
“It will be good to have someone else with a pitcher’s perspective in the dugout,” Zarewicz said. “He’ll be able to see things I necessarily won’t.”
Dillon Sunnafrank will be the closer. A league rookie, he was a two-way star at Wheeling Jesuit (W.Va.) University. His primary setup me will be Dylan Norris and Nick Hornbaker. Norris is out of New Mexico Highlands University.
In a ballpark that’s just 285 feet down the line to right, the Fuego will need a lineup able to keep up with the lofty numbers Fort Marcy generally produces. They scored 573 runs last season, averaging 8.7 per game — respectable until that is compared to the 11.7 they gave up.
Nick Gotta is slated as the leadoff man and starting shortstop while returning veteran Matt Telesco will start at third. The right side of the infield will have Dave Stone at first and Aaron Stubblefield at second.
As a group, the infield doesn’t have the power past Fuego clubs have had. At 6-foot-2, 225 pounds, Stone is the only legitimate home run threat.
“I wouldn’t say he’s a pure home run guy, although the home run will come for him playing in his park,” Zarewicz said.
The outfield is anchored by two players picked up from Trinidad in the offseason, Erick Magee and Caleb Baker. They’ll occupy the corner spots while Matt Haskins will get the start in center. Haskins led the Fuego in home runs last year with 22 while Magee and Baker can hit for both power and average.
Crowd favorite Eric Maria is back as the catcher, although his status for opening night is unclear since he was still in transit from his home in the Dominican Republic and still sitting in the Miami airport as of mid-day Tuesday. He led the team in hitting a year ago at .448, driving in 49 runs with 12 long balls.
The 22-man roster will have 11 pitchers, two of whom are scheduled to arrive Wednesday morning.
“The main difference between this year and last year is a general structure to operate around,” Zarewicz said. “People come to the park every day knowing their roles and understanding what they need to do. That’s something we didn’t have last year.”