Rockers reload for 2022

Apr. 14—HIGH POINT — A lot of familiar faces dotted the field as the Rockers went through one of their preseason workouts Wednesday at Truist Point.

Of the 37 players on the preseason roster, 33 are in camp as manager Jamie Keefe must cut down to 27 before the start of the season next week. Of those present, 19 are among those who

helped High Point post the second-best record in the Atlantic League.

Most of the returning core are starting position players and most of the batting lineup. Five of them — Quincy Latimore, Jared Mitchell, Giovanny Alfonzo, 2021 ALPB batting champ Michael Russell and Tyler Ladendorf — were part of the original squad in 2019. Others back for the start of the season are outfielders Johnny Field and Jay Gonzalez; infielders Jerry Downs, J.R. DiSarcina and Logan Morrison; and catchers Logan Moore and Mike Gulino.

Ladendorf left the club last season on opening day after getting a call from the Cubs organization. Morrison, who hit a homer over the scoreboard, played nine games before he was signed by the Reds organization.

Keefe added potential pop to the lineup by adding Ben Aklinski, who was one of the top hitters in the league last season with Lexington, and former Vanderbilt standout Zander Wiel, who reached AAA.

"We've built the ballclub from the clubhouse out to the field," Keefe said."If they get along in the clubhouse and it's a happy marriage in there, it will be a happy marriage out here. I've done it long enough to know if they're happy and they know what to expect out of each other and what I expect of them, you can have success."

The biggest changes are among the pitching staff, which was the Rockers' weaker spot as they failed to make the playoffs last season. Keefe and pitching coach Frank Viola brought back two regular starters — Cooper Casad and Bryce Hensley — and four relievers — former Major Leaguer Ryan Dull, Jonathan Crawford, Neil Uskali and Joe Johnson.

The additions are led by four former Major Leaguers — Justin Nicolino, Johnny Barbato, Chasen Bradford and Brady Lail.

Nicolino went 10-13 in three seasons with the Marlins (2015-17) and is working his way back from an injury. Bradford was 7-0 in 86 appearances with the Mets and Mariners over two seasons. Lail made a total of 11 appearances in the big leagues with three teams the past three seasons. Barbato went 1-3 in 44 games with the Yankees, the Pirates and Detroit from 2016-2017.

Nicolino, Lail and Bradford could be part of the starting rotation.

"We knew we needed to get better in the bullpen," Keefe said. "It started to get stronger at the end of the year, but we needed to get better. And we definitely needed a couple of starters. The way it fell into our laps these last three weeks, we are super happy. I was starting to get nervous but I knew there were some guys who played in the Majors last who didn't report to spring training — Brady Lail among them.

"Bradford and Barbato decided to come and they are buddies of Lail. It's funny how that train works. And they're buddies with guys who played for us and they've heard how we get guys signed (with Major League organizations).

Nicolino, who is working his way back from injury, is among the recent additions. Keefe watched his progress at a Florida training facility over the winter.

"He's taken Casad under his wing the last couple of years and they had a great relationship," Keefe said. "I had a conversation with him and it was a no-brainer. He knows he's going to be here awhile to prove himself. . .He's special. My thought now is he could get the pill opening night, him or Coop."

Keefe will get his first chance to grade his players against another team when the Rockers play host to Gastonia in an exhibition game today at 6:35 p.m. The game is open to season-ticket holders and corporate partners but not to the general public.