Several players from last season’s Reno Aces are off to hot starts in spring training, making bids to land on the Arizona Diamondbacks’ opening day roster.
First baseman Christian Walker leads the Dbacks with 10 RBIs and a 1.368 OPS in 15 at bats. Walker, 27, is out of minor league options, which helps his efforts to remain with the big league club.
During the offseason, Arizona traded six-time All-Star first baseman Paul Goldschmidt. Jake Lamb is making a smooth transition from third base to first. Walker’s right-handed pop at the plate and improved fielding would give Arizona a useful player off the bench and a solid starter against left-handed pitchers. Lamb bats left, throws right. Walker appeared in 37 games with the Dbacks last season.
Aces slugging first/third baseman Kevin Cron also is in the hunt for the 25-man roster, but he may be forced to wait it out in Triple-A Reno, where his father, Chris Cron, is the new manager.
Cron, 25, has six hits this spring, including a towering homer to deep left-center that was gone in an instant. The Dbacks will value Cron’s power from the right side in the future, but he may need to improve his plate discipline with another year in Reno. Cron had 100 strikeouts in 104 games with the Aces.
Chris Cron is the Aces’ fourth manager in the team’s 11-year history.
“I’m looking forward to how he does this season,” Chris Cron, 54, said in his introductory press conference Feb. 5. “He was added to the 40-man (roster) and has a lot of talent, but the decision on his future is not in my hands.”
Along with Walker and Cron, shortstop/second baseman Ildemaro Vargas has the opportunity to break into a crowded Arizona infield. Vargas, 27, is hitting .421 with eight hits, five RBIs and five runs in 19 plate appearances. Former second baseman Ketel Marte is making a change to the starting center field job for the Dbacks. Marte has some familiarity in the outfield, the Dominican Republic native has started seven games in center field with Reno in 2017.
Marte’s move from the infield can potentially move Vargas up to the 25-man roster. Shortstop Nick Ahmed and former New York Mets’ shortstop Wilmer Flores are projected to be the only players at second and short, but Vargas’ hot start at the plate and defensive versatility can force the Dbacks’ hand.
Nicknamed “El Tigre,” the rangy Vargas sported a .979 fielding percentage and made 322 assists at shortstop and second base with the Aces last season. He appeared in 14 games with the Dbacks in 2018. He had a franchise 35-game hitting streak last year with Reno.
On the mound, right-hander Taylor Clarke has appeared in two games in the rattlesnake-themed red and black uniforms to open spring training. Clarke, 25, has a 2.25 ERA and 0.75 WHIP with two strikeouts in four innings of work. With Arizona right-hander Taijuan Walker still recovering from Tommy John surgery, Clarke may fill in as a back-end starter in the Dbacks’ five-man rotation. Clarke led Reno in wins last year with 13.
Clarke and Cron were added to Arizona’s 40-man roster in early November to protect them from the Rule 5 Draft.
Relievers Jimmie Sherfy, who is the Aces’ all-time saves leader, and Matt Koch can add some much-needed depth to the Dbacks’ bullpen. Koch (5-5) appeared in 19 games in Arizona, 14 of which were starts. He transitioned to more of a long reliever in the middle of the season. Sherfy appeared in 15 games with Arizona and had an impressive 1.65 ERA.
The Arizona Diamondbacks have 21 spring training games remaining before their regular season debut March 28 against the Los Angeles Dodgers. The Aces open the season on the road, playing April 4-8 at Fresno. A seven-game homestand begins at Greater Nevada Field on April 9 with a game against the Albuquerque Isotopes.
— Isaiah Burrows