KITCHENER - With a core of returning veterans, two all-star American imports and the addition of a pair of eager young outfielders, the Kitchener Panthers may have the "toughest lineup in the league," says general manager Scott Ballantyne.
While there are still lots of questions around its pitching corps, the team appears to have its position players sorted out for their 2015 season, which begins May 10 in Toronto.
"We're really happy with the lineup we're able to pencil in," Ballantyne said.
Outfielder/first baseman Thomas Richards of Whitby, who also has versatility as a pitcher, has joined the club for the upcoming season. The graduate of University of Buffalo is a "big, strong left-handed hitter who will be set up to have a lot of success in our park," the general manager said.
Richards, who struggled with some injuries in his last season at Buffalo, has a power bat, hitting .243 over his college career, including 74 RBIs in 506 at-bats.
A second new outfielder, Port Perry's Jonathan Brouse, will be familiar to fans of the Laurier Golden Hawks men's baseball team. The speedy, defensive whiz is a three-time Ontario University Athletics all-star and was named male athlete of the year in 2013-14 at Laurier.
Ballantyne, who coaches the Laurier squad, has seen first-hand what Brouse can do at the college level and thinks he'll adapt quickly to the Interconty Baseball League.
"He's had a lot of success everywhere he's played. When we got him at Laurier, we knew he was good, but he quickly emerged as one of the best players in the league," he said. "He's small, but strong, hits for power, and immediately becomes our fastest player."
Richards and Brouse will be asked to help fill big shoes in the outfield this season, namely the hole in left field created by the retirement of Jeff Pietraszko, a 18-year veteran of the Panthers.
Brouse, who was released by the Burlington Bandits in exchange for Kitchener's lefty specialist Shaun Slemko and infielder Nolan Pettipiece, batted .328 in 2014 with 12 RBI and 12 stolen bases for Laurier, fourth most in the conference.
Returning players who have formally signed with the team include veteran infielders Mike Andrulis and Mike Glinka, utilityman Trevor Nyp, catcher Jeremy Schwartzentruber and relief pitcher Matt Vickers. Catcher/designated hitter Ricky Murray and infielder Bryon Bell are also interested in returning, according to the team.
The club hopes to be able to officially announce the return of all-star centre fielder Tanner Nivins, slugger Sean Reilly and right fielder Darnell Duckett in the coming week.
The Panthers also have "verbal commitments" from American imports David Whiteside, who played third base and pitched last year, and catcher Scott David. Both all-stars would be sorely missed if they took their talents elsewhere.
"We're 95 per cent sure we have David, and Whiteside is in the same boat," the GM said.
Things are less clear on the pitching side. The Panthers know Mike Schnurr, the rookie who had a breakout season last year, will be back. After that, they don't have any firm commitments from their hurlers.
That includes Mitch Clarke, the former Cincinatti Reds prospect, Panthers veteran Mike McGillivary, and last year's import starter Brian Oliver.
"Pitching is exclusively area of my focus right now," Ballantyne said.