KITCHENER – The Kitchener Panthers are hoping once again that former Cincinnati Reds prospect Mitch Clarke can regain his old form this summer after a long recovery from shoulder problems.
Clarke, 24, is one of 20 players who have signed contracts to play for the Intercounty Baseball League club this year – including returning all-stars Tanner Nivins, Sean Reilly, David Whiteside and Scott David.
Nivins, Reilly, Whiteside and David were among the league’s top offensive producers last year, combining for 203 hits and 136 RBI over 36 regular season games.
Those four will anchor a lineup that includes plenty of veterans, with infielders Mike Andrulis, Mike Glinka and Trevor Nyp all coming back. Darnell Duckett returns to right field, while Ricky Murray and Jeremy Schwartzentruber will back up David at catcher.
“We expect Duckett, Glinka and Andrulis to bounce back and have better offensive seasons than they did last year and if all falls into place, with a little luck, we think our offense stacks up with any team in the league,” said Panthers general manager Scott Ballantyne, in an email.
One of the most intriguing players may be Clarke, a big, power lefty drafted by Cincinnati in the 19th round of the 2009 MLB amateur draft out of Forest Heights Collegiate Institute in Kitchener.
If he’s healthy – he’s been working out with the team all winter – a reinvigorated Clarke could be a key part of the Panthers’ rotation. In four seasons in the Reds minor league system, Clarke cobbled together a miserly 2.85 ERA in 117 innings, for an 8-5 record.
“We are not entirely sure at this point what we will get from Mitch, but he is working hard at getting himself back into shape and so far his progress has been strong,” Ballantyne said.
“He feels good and is taking it week by week with his preparation. Ideally he is able to build up his stamina enough to be a starter for us as we feel he can be an impact pitcher.”
The big questions around Clarke have to do with a nagging shoulder injury that’s severely limited his output in the past two years.
He pitched just two innings for the Panthers in 2013, and none last season – but he was on the mound when the Laurier Golden Hawks won the Ontario University Athletics championship in 2013.
With Jeff Pietraszko gone from left field, Ballantyne signed "two guys that we feel can make an immediate impact" in Thomas Richards, a power left-handed bat out of the University of Buffalo, and speedster Jonathan Brouse, the former Laurier Golden Hawks all-star.
Ballantyne described his pitching staff as a “work in progress,” and said he’d like to use the Panthers’ final two import spots to target more arms. Returning to the team are starters Mike Schnurr, Mike McGillivary and Matt McGovern, and relievers Matt Vickers and Mike Gatchene.
“If Mitch Clarke is healthy, that is a real shot in the arm for us and we feel that we’ll be in good shape with our pitching staff,” he said.
Fans can also expect to see more of Joey Paulin, a former batboy who pitched in five innings for the Panthers last season. He was a big part of the Panthers’ junior squad a few years ago, before undergoing Tommy John surgery.
“He is building up his velocity and if he can continue to build on his velocity he will be a guy that gets more opportunity this year,” Ballantyne said.
Dylan Calver, who got into one game for the senior club in the playoffs last August, had a strong season at the junior level and is expected to help the bullpen.
“Dylan was our top pitcher in Junior and we are excited to have him make the jump to senior this year. He is a local player who played his minor baseball in Kitchener and has a big arm with good velocity,” Ballantyne said.