By STEVE RUMAN
The boys of summer are back!
The Mahoning Valley Scrappers were formally introduced to the area Tuesday during the team’s Media Day festivities at Eastwood Field.
The Scrappers open their season Friday when they play the first of a two-game series at West Virginia. The Scrappers will return home on Sunday to begin a two-game set with Batavia.
The Scrappers will be guided by Dennis Malave, who will make his managerial debut. Still, Malave is no stranger to the area. As a player, Malave spent seven years in the Indians organization. He was an outfielder with the Scrappers for three years beginning in 1999. Malave also served as the Scrappers hitting coach in 2010.
“It’s pretty special to be starting my (managerial) career here, because in many ways this was my second baseball home,” Malave said. “I can still remember my first-ever game here as a player. I remember the fans, the players and the coaches. There was so much excitement. It was a special time.”
“Now I’m coming back in a different capacity, with a lot more responsibility. I can’t wait. I look forward to the challenge.”
Malave becomes the 12th manager to guide the Scrappers.
The Scrappers are beginning their 21st season as a Short Season Class-A affiliate of the Cleveland Indians. The team played its first-ever game at Eastwood Field (then Cafaro Field) on June 25, 1999.
The current Scrappers roster consists of 26 players, including six from the Dominican Republic. Venezuela (two), Puerto Rico (two), Canada and Cuba are also represented on the roster.
Players also come from 10 different states, including a trio from Texas.
Pitcher Francis Cespedes, who will turn 25 in September, is the elder statesman of the Scrappers. Cespedes signed with the Indians in August after being released by the Los Angeles Dodgers organization.
Brayan Rocchio is the young pup of the crew. The infielder turned 18 in January. Rocchio was signed as a non-drafted free agent in 2018, and spent last summer in the Arizona League.
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Right-handed pitcher Jordan Scheftz is one of five players returning to Mahoning Valley after playing with the Scrappers in 2018. Scheftz, who was drafted in 2017, appeared in 18 games last summer.
“Obviously the goal is to always progress, to move up through the ranks, but there are advantages to returning here in some ways,” Scheftz said. “I know the field, the dimensions, the mound. I know exactly what to expect in terms of travel, in terms of the grind of everyday baseball.”
“That first year of pro ball is a huge adjustment. Learning the routine, it can take its toll both mentally and physically. I hope to use last year’s experience as a building block this summer.”
Until a year ago, Bryan Lavastida had never considered turning in his infielders glove for a catchers mitt. The Florida native was finishing his second year at Hillsborough Community College when a scout for the Florida Marlins suggested that a spot behind home plate might be in his future.
Weeks later, the Indians drafted Lavastida as a catcher. He spent last summer in Arizona learning the tricks of the trade.
“There are so many nuances to being a catcher, so many things I never thought about until I actually played the position,” Lavastida said. “It’s not just a matter catching a fastball. It’s presenting the ball to the umpire. It’s paying attention to your fielders and to the base runners. Some of these guys have so much movement on their pitches, you have to be able to adjust at all times.”
Lavastida said the position change also presents physical challenges.
“The constant crouching, all of the up and down movement really takes its toll. There were times late last summer where I thought I could steal a base, but then you find yourself thinking twice because you realize you might have lost a bit of that speed.”
Lavastida does possess a unique skill which will come in handy this summer. He grew up bilingual, speaking fluent Spanish and English. Nearly half of the Scrappers’ pitching staff come from Latin American countries.
“Obviously the communication between pitcher and catcher is a huge part of the game, so it helps that I can work with our guys without missing a beat,” Lavastida said.
ABOVE THE CROWD
The Scrappers pitching staff features plenty of height. The 12 pitchers have an average height of 6-foot-4, with Liam Jenkins leading the pack at 6-foot-8. Luis Sanchez and Brian Eichhorn (6-foot-1) are the shortest members of the group.
“It’s pretty unique to see all this size on the same staff,” said Ethan Hankins (6-foot-6), a 2018 first-round pick. “We were coming through the Cleveland airport (Monday), we all had on our Cleveland Indians lanyards around our necks, and a lot of people thought we were a basketball team.”
Jenkins, drafted in the 17th round in 2018, said he played basketball in high school “until my velocity jumped up to about 97 mile-per-hour, then I knew baseball was my future.”
Jenkins said he tries to use his height to his advantage.
“Growing up, it posed some problems from a mechanical aspect, but as I have matured I think it has become a benefit,” Jenkins said. “If nothing else, it doesn’t hurt to be an imposing figure on the mound.”
With a roster which includes 11 Latin American players, it would be easy to assume that a major communication barrier exists within the Scrappers clubhouse.
Not so, says Hankins.
“In the Arizona League, we all got along great,” Hankins said. “Learning about the different cultures and all, it was something I never thought about heading into the pros, but it was an awesome experience.
“The thing is, we’re all facing the same issues. The Spanish-speaking players don’t understand English. We don’t understand Spanish. We’re all facing the same barrier only from a different perspective.”
On the field, Hankins said the players communicate without words.
“Once we’re playing the game, we all trust each other in terms of where we should be, what’s our next move and so on,” Hankins said. “When we do need to communicate, there’s usually a player who can translate.”