The Albuquerque Isotopes are almost ready to play ball and kick off the 2019 season against the Salt Lake Bees on Thursday, April 4 at 6:35 p.m.
The team returns familiar faces such as 2018 Pacific Coast League MVP Josh Fuentes as well as top prospects Brendan Rodgers and Peter Lambert. A trio of the longest tenured 'Topes, Jordan Patterson (368 games), Mike Tauchman (351) and Tom Murphy (215) will not return after moving on to new organizations during the offseason.
10 players on the opening day roster will make their Triple-A debuts, a group that is headlined by Sam Hilliard, an outfielder who is listed as the No. 10 prospect in the Rockies Organization according to MLB Pipeline.
Manager Glenallen Hill, who is entering his fifth season leading the Isotopes and seventh in charge of the Rockies Triple-A affiliate, thinks this has the potential to be one of the best groups he has ever managed, especially the pitching staff.
"I would not use the word decent," Hill said of his pitchers. "We have a strong pitching staff, we have guys that have a lot of weaponry, guys that are power guys, guys that are really good with offspeed pitches so that combination is a good thing to have. Guys are excited... It's an exciting environment, this is one of the best teams in all of minor league baseball."
Hill described Triple-A as a fluid situation with a lot of moving parts, which is something that is definitely proving true so far. The team has yet to play a game and already two players who were expected to be on the opening day roster in infielder Pat Valaika and reliever Carlos Estevez having been called up to Colorado as injury replacements.
That pitching staff is lead by Lambert — who got the start against the Rockies in last week's exhibition game — as well a familiar face in Jeff Hoffman. Hoffman is likely the first man up for the Rockies should they suffer injuries due to the big league rotation.
Lambert said that he thinks that the team will benefit from having half the bullpen with major league experience, including Carlos Estevez who had a brief stint as the Rockies closer in 2016.
"We've got a really good staff as a whole, starters, bullpen it's going to be a lot of fun."
He's also glad that he had the opportunity to play the second half of last season with the Isotopes to allow him to get his feet at the Triple-A level.
"I was talking to one of the other guys and I think that's huge, just having that experience and knowing what to expect, I think that's going to be huge for me," Lambert said.
In 11 starts in Albuquerque last year, he went 2-5 with a 5.04 ERA in 55.1 innings. Opposing batters hit .320 against him and he recorded a 1.57 walks plus hits per inning pitched (WHIP).
As for Fuentes, who broke his hamate bone at the beginning of his first major league spring training, an injury that often requires the bone to be removed entirely and frequently cuts short seasons. It can take players up to two months to recover fully from the injury, but Fuentes is a full participant after a month.
He originally was notable for being the cousin of Rockies star third baseman Nolan Arenado, but made a name for himself with his MVP award last season. The two grew up together and play the same position. They also play some intense games of wiffle ball during the offseason, just like they did when they were kids. Now, he finds himself blocked at third base by his cousin, who signed an eight year extension with the Rockies this offseason. Last year, the Rockies had him playing some first base as well, a position that is considerably weaker within the organization.
An undrafted signee by the Rockies back in 2014, Fuentes hit .324/.357/.517 with 95 runs batted in and 14 home runs. He said that one of his goals for this season is to try and hit for more power.
"I obviously came off a good year last year, the expectations are try to get MVP again, but I'm coming out here just to play, to play hard," Fuentes said. "My main focus with these guys is to win ballgames, because when you win ball games, baseball is more fun. For me it's trying to keep doing what I've been doing and not put too much pressure on myself and whatever happens happens."
Isotopes games throughout the season can be seen on MiLB.tv with a yearly subscription costing $50, or heard on 95.9 FM or 610 AM The Sports Animal. The first homestand of the season runs from Thursday, April 4 through April 8.
Cameron Goeldner is a senior reporter and photographer for the Daily Lobo. He primarily covers men’s soccer, women’s basketball, softball and the Albuquerque Isotopes, but also contributes content for all other sports. He can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @Goeldfinger.