NORMAL — The 2010 season was the Normal CornBelters’ first in the independent Frontier League.
And in many situations it showed as the Belters endured a myriad of ups and downs in a 44-52 inaugural season.
“We had a lot of young kids last year who made a lot of mistakes,” second-year Normal manager Hal Lanier said. “This year we’re a more experienced team and we expect big things out of them, more than we expected last year. We feel we’ve put together a championship team.”
The Belters open that quest today in a 7 p.m. game against defending league champion River City in O’Fallon, Mo. Normal’s home opener is May 27 against Southern Illinois.
“We made a lot of offseason acquisitions we needed. We filled a lot of gaps we had,” said first baseman Steve Alexander, among nine returning players on the 24-man roster. “My expectations are the playoffs and hopefully the championship.”
Ryan Sheldon and Tyler Lavigne anchor a starting rotation Lanier considers a strength.
Sheldon was 9-5 with a 2.21 ERA and tied for the Frontier League strikeout crown with 121. Lavigne (7-2, 1.38 ERA) earned an all-star berth before being signed by the Boston Red Sox. Lavigne was released after the season and is back in Normal.
“We’ve got a lot of good pitching. Everybody is throwing really well,” Sheldon said. “To know what we have at the beginning of the season is very valuable. I think we’ll give a lot of good performances.”
The No. 3 spot in the all right-handed rotation is manned by Bobby Pritchett, who was spectacular in eight late-season starts and finished at 2-2 with a 2.86 ERA. Brett Lester (7-7, 4.42) is the fourth starter with newcomer Jon Berger in the five spot.
“That’s a pretty good starting four, and Berger gives us a little bit more experience to fill the fifth slot,” Lanier said. “I’m pretty happy with it. But they can’t look back on last year’s numbers. They have to go out and get people out.”
A shaky bullpen contributed to 21 one-run losses last season. Hard-throwing Liam Ohlmann was acquired from Florence to serve as closer. The relief corps also features right-handers Josef Smith, Marshall Schuler, Michael Click and Jeremy Brewer and lefties Donald Furrow and Jacob Liedka.
Third baseman Daniel Cox (.323) and right fielder Asif Shah (.316) were second and fourth, respectively, last season in the Frontier League batting race. Alexander missed 20 games with a thumb injury last summer and still blasted 13 home runs.
The top of the order should be energized by speedy newcomers in center fielder Alvaro Ramirez and second baseman Frank Martinez. Ramirez was the short-season Northwest League batting champion in 2010 before being released by the Chicago Cubs.
“From what I’ve seen so far, I think they will be able to make some things happen on the bases,” said Lanier. “I think they will put up some big numbers.”
Tyler Keeble is the projected starting shortstop but is battling a sore arm. Brad Agustin will start today if Keeble cannot and also plays second base.
Colin Moro is the left fielder with Chris Brown at designated hitter. Outfielder Mike Mobbs can back up at first and third base.
“We’ve added more power,” Lanier said. “Moro has always hit in his career. He’ll be in the middle of the order somewhere. Brown probably had the best spring of anybody hitting wise.”
Jeff Dunbar is the starting catcher with former Illinois State player Gabe DeMarco in reserve.
“One through nine, I think we all can hit pretty well,” said Alexander. “And I think we will.”
CornBelters at River City
Season opener at O’Fallon, Mo.
Time: 7 p.m.
Broadcast: WJBC-FM (93.7)