By AARON MANAGHAN
While Kitsap’s contingent of Seattle Mariners fans try to wrap their heads around the M’s most recent overpaid pitcher, signing Carlos Silva at a paltry $48 million, Kitsap’s own boys of summer also have been busy in the offseason.
With fall ball wrapped up at universities around the country, the Kitsap BlueJackets have all but finalized the team’s 2008 roster, with a number of familiar faces looking to return to Kitsap Fairgrounds Ballfields. And while most of the roster spots are filled, Acker said he expects some of the names to change before the season begins, just as about five or so do each year.
“Things are going good,” said Acker, who’s also the head coach at Green River Community College in Auburn. “We don’t usually find out about how fall went until January, So it’s kind of that wait-and-see time for us now. But we’re in a good position.”
For the portions of the team that are virtually locks to return, Acker said he’s excited. Right now, most of the team’s position players who were eligible to return have signed on, including fan favorites Doug Buser (junior, University of Oklahoma), Joey Lind (sophomore, University of Washington) and Ryan Voelkel (sophomore, Green River).
“We’ve got almost the whole lineup back,” Acker said. “We’ll have a lot of familiar faces on defense and a lot of new pitchers. I think that’s good.”
Last season, Kitsap finished 24-18 in West Coast Collegiate Baseball League play, second in the league’s West Division. As a result, the Jackets made their postseason debut against rivals Corvallis (Ore.), which knocked Kitsap out 2-1 in the best-of-three series.
So with the bulk of the offense back, Acker is encouraged at the potential the 2008 squad has, saying it’s easier to groom a new group of pitchers than it is hitters.
“I think there’s no question,” he said. “It is the easier transition when you’ve got a defense and offense in place.”
He said pitchers for the most part don’t have huge adjustments to make when they come in, especially since no one wants to overuse a pitcher.
“That’s not terribly hard to understand,” Acker said, saying the biggest adjustment most pitchers face in the league is switching to the bullpen or the rotation against what they’re used to. “Give them a week or two and they’ve got it. It’s not rocket science.”
But for hitters, it’s entirely different, Acker said.
“That’s the thing,” he said. “I’ve found that hitters take longer to adjust that pitchers do. So I’m really happy.”
For whatever reason, Acker said it usually takes WCCBL players a full season to get comfortable due to many circumstances. First, many players are in a new place with new teammates, facing new pitchers they likely haven’t before in many cases. Plus, the league is often the first time of regularly swinging a wood bat for many players.
“What I’ve seen is a dramatic batting average jump in the second year,” Acker said. “There’s no better example than (2007 WCCBL co-MVP Brandon) Kuykendall.”
Kuykendall, who hit .315 with 20 runs, 10 doubles, two homers and 18 RBI in 39 games, experienced much more production his sophomore year in the league. As a first-year player for Bellingham, Kuykendall hit just .222 with eight runs and three RBI in 30 games.
“When a hitter figures stuff out, they start to take some of the advantage the pitcher has away,” Acker said.
But that doesn’t mean replacing last year’s arms will be an easy task — just easier.
Kitsap’s rotation was a strength last season, finishing with the fourth-lowest team ERA in the league at 2.74 (opponents had a 3.18 ERA against the Jackets last year). Guys like Matt Rossman (3-0, 1.70, 35 strikeouts, two walks, 37 innings), Poulsbo’s Kyle Howe (5-2, 2.24, 39 strikeouts, 60 1/3 innings), Kyle Nunley (0-2, 2.21, 40 2/3 innings) and Aaron Bronson (3-3, 2.55) anchored the staff, while others like Joe Hagen (2-2, 1.14, 21 games, 9 saves), Barrett Kanyer (3-0, 1.96) and Travis McCracken (3-3, 2.66) helped anchor the pen.
But even with such a high pitching turnover anticipated, Acker said the staff is in place to help ease the transition.
“We’ve got a guy (in pitching coach Scott Colby) that not only has experience and is good, but is organized and direct,” Acker said of the Liberty High School coach. “Scott’s not just a teacher, he’s a head coach. He can take a new staff and mold them much quicker. That’s one cool thing that we’ve got all these head coaches on the coaching staff.”
While most the hitters return, the Jackets do lose players like Kuykendall, Jamie Nilsen and Port Orchard’s Josh Meeker, each of whom is no longer eligible for the league.
But with a returning core including Brandon Decker, Tyler Owens, Lawson Hipps, Buser, Lind, Aaron Johnson, Voelkel and Keegan McCamment, Acker is encouraged.
“We were one of the best-hitting teams,” he said of last season’s squad.
Last year, Kitsap hit .261 as a team, good for third in the WCCBL. The team was third in RBI with 154 and tied for second with 184 runs.
Decker, a junior infielder out of San Diego State, hit .234 in his first season for the Jackets, scoring 18 times in 41 games (141 at-bats). McCamment, a junior at Austin Peay State (Clarksville, Tenn.) also in his first WCCBL season, started 26 of his 31 games, hitting .200 with 12 RBI in 95 ABs. Hipps, a junior out of Arkansas State, was a spark plug for Kitsap many times in 2007, finishing third on the team with a .286 average, driving in 15 runs while scoring 15 in 41 games. Hipps’ .392 on-base percentage co-led the team.
Buser, a fan favorite in the outfield, hit .245 last season with 22 runs and 12 RBI to go with a team-best 18 steals in 42 games. Lind led the team in average at .325, clubbing a league-leading 26 RBI while scoring 21 in 42 games. Voelkel co-lead the team with two homers while driving in 18 and scoring 18 with a .275 clip.
Locally, Owens and Johnson are both 2005 graduates of Central Kitsap High School. Owens, at third base for Green River, just signed on to play the 2008-09 season with New Mexico State. He hit .204 in his debut last season, driving in 14 runs in 35 games, 26 starts. Johnson, at the Citadel, hit .289 as a nice bench option, playing 29 games with 12 starts, scoring 10 runs.
“I think it’s great,” Acker said of returning Kitsap-born players. “They were both excited about coming back. It’s just neat wen they’re excited to come back. They want to be here.”
Two names coming in Acker is already quite familiar with: brothers Jordan and Jake Shadle. Jordan, a sophomore at Green River, is slated as an option to replace Nilsen at shortstop.
“Jordan, he’s got some similarities to Jamie because they’re both pretty quiet,” Acker said. “But Jordan has got more flash. It’s not like he’s a showboater. They’re both great players, just different players.”
While Jordan has had some injury troubles, he was selected in the 48th round of the 2006 Major League Baseball draft by the Cincinnati Reds.
“He was injured the last couple years,” Acker said of the North Dakota State-bound shortstop. “I’d have had him on the BlueJackets a long time ago but he got hurt.”
North Dakota State was an easy choice, as Kitsap assistant David Pearson also coaches there.
The Shadles are a familiar name for Acker, as the eldest brother, Zach, was supposed to play for the 2005 Jackets in the WCCBL’s inaugural season. However, a broken hand on the first official day of practice kept Zach from ever suiting up.
As a result, Acker wasted no time also signing Graham-Kapowsin High School’s Jake Shadle, one of the highest-regarded pitchers in the state’s high school ranks.
“We decided not to wait, so we signed Jake too,” Acker said. “I figured, what better way to do it than take him now.”
All but three teams have new coaches coming into the new season. Only Acker, Wenatchee’s Ed Knaggs and Spokane’s Barry Matthews and co-head coach Steve Hertz are back.
That means new skippers for Bellingham, Bend (Ore.), Kelwona (British Columbia), Corvallis and Moses Lake. But even with a new coach, Acker expects the team’s long-standing rivalry with the Knights to continue.
“They’re always gonna be in everyone’s sights,” Acker said. “They have to be.”
Kitsap hosts one of the two games to kick off the 2008 WCCBL season when they host Corvallis on June 12. For more information on BlueJackets tickets, visit www.kitsapbluejackets.com or call (360) 479-0123.