By Jon Gremmels
Herald Sports Editor
CLINTON — Scott Steinmann made a bold prediction — one that everyone knows never could be fulfilled — when he talked about his Clinton LumberKings team that opens the Midwest League baseball season Thursday night at Burlington.
“I predict we’ll go 140 and nothing,” he said Tuesday afternoon in the batting tunnel next to the team’s clubhouse. After pausing for a moment, he corrected himself. “With seven postseason games, 147 and nothing.”
While an undefeated season is out of the question, Steinmann doesn’t plan to concede any games. And, after having the Seattle organization go through several years of fielding some of the younger teams in the Midwest League, the Steinmann said time just might be on the side of the LumberKings as he returns to manage in the Midwest League.
“With some of the experience, some of the older pitchers and some position players, I think it will be interesting,” said Steinmann, who guided Wisconsin to first-place finishes in the Midwest League’s West Division in both halves of the 2005 season. “I think we’ll be in it.”
Steinmann, who managed Seattle’s Class AA West Tenn team a year ago, still is learning about the hand he has been dealt this season. So is the Clinton front-office staff, which is in its first year of affiliation with the Seattle organization.
“We didn’t get everybody (in spring training camp) until the last four or five days; it was kind of piecemeal,” he said. “It’s been good to have the last few days of workouts.”
The LumberKings arrived in Clinton on Monday and went through a workout Tuesday at Alliant Energy Field. They travel to Burlington for games Thursday, Friday and Saturday, and then they open the home season with a 6:30 p.m. game Monday against Cedar Rapids.
Steinmann expects his team to play in the mode of prediction: aggressive.
“Aggressive is the common theme,” he said.
Clinton fans definitely should expect a team that is aggressive on the bases. Five players on the roster stole 14 or more bases last season, led by 31 by outfielder Dan Carroll. The outfield should be especially speedy with Carroll (38 steals last year), Maximo Mendez (25) and Denny Almonte (14).
Nate Tenbrink (24 steals) and Luis Nunez (16) bring added speed to the infield. The infield also includes Mario Martinez, Pulaski’s Player of the Year last season after hitting .319, and Scott Savastano, who batted .298 last year in the Arizona League.
The catching duo appears strong with Juan Fuentes, who batted .337 and was an Appalachian League all-star, and Travis Howell, who threw out 29 of 40 runners who attempted to steal against him at Everett.
Almonte and Mendez both return to the Midwest League after playing full seasons last year at Wisconsin, while one of Carroll’s three minor-league stops last year was with Wisconsin.
Almonte, a second-round draft pick in 2007, is looking for big things.
“Last year I hit 10 home runs and think I can do better,” the 20-year-old said. “I want to hit 20 this year, have 40 or more stolen bass, hit .350 or better and have fewer strikeouts (he had 149 in 100 games a year ago). I’m working on better pitch selection.”
Almonte is one of 10 LumberKings who saw time in Wisconsin a year ago. All but three of them are pitchers. But, Steinmann has no problem with a veteran pitching staff.
Only one pitcher on the roster is younger than 22, although two others celebrated their 22nd birthdays last month during spring training. The oldest pitcher on the staff is a player familiar with Clinton. Adam Harben played for the Minnesota organization in 2003 and 2004, going 9-7 with a 3.09 ERA in the latter season. He made it as high as Double-A before an arm injury set him back. He spent the past two years in the Cubs organization, then signed with Seattle in the offseason.
“This is my third organization, and so far, so good,” Harben said. “People are excited to get the season going.”
Anther pitcher who is excited about getting going is Ruben Flores, the second-oldest (behind Harben) pitcher on the roster. Flores, who pitched for Wisconsin in 2006, missed last season after having his second surgery on his pitching shoulder.
“They want to be a little gentle with me,” said Flores, a right-hander who was picked in the 12th round of the 2003 draft. “I don’t think they’ll throw me out there right away, but nothing is going to get me better than throwing.”
Flores agreed that age might be a plus on this squad.
“We’re an older club,” he said. “A lot of teams wind up jelling later (in the year). I don’t feel that way with this team. We feel more or less together.”
The pitching staff also could be intimidating to opposing hitters. Nine of them stand at least 6-feet-4 and the shortest among them is 6-0.
Steinmann has tabbed one of the shorter pitchers — 6-3 Steven Hensley — as his opening-day starter. Hensley, a right-hander selected in the fourth round of last year’s draft, was 2-1 with a 5.22 earned-run average last season for Everett of the Northwest League.