If the Bowie Baysox lineup that takes the field April 7 for the season opener looks familiar, there's a reason.
Twenty-one of the players on this year's team spent time last year with the Baysox. Considering last year's group performed well enough to bring the Eastern League title to Prince George's Stadium, that bodes well for 2016.
"We've got a good squad this year — a lot of guys came back and I think its going to be a fun year," said Joe Gunkel, who went 8-4 with a 2.59 ERA in 17 starts at Bowie last season and will start the opener. "It should be a pretty good team."
Also back — for his sixth season guiding the Baltimore Orioles' Class AA affiliate — is manager Gary Kendall. It will be his job to develop players and win games amid the usual minor-league backdrop of fireworks displays, discount prices and crazy promotions.
"As long as the organization is good with sending me here, I'm fine with it," said Kendall, who has never had a losing season in Bowie. "I like this level of baseball and I learn from it every day. As long as the organization is willing to have me here, I'm fortunate. I pinch myself everyday that I have a job in this wonderful game. I have no gripes coming (back) to Bowie — it's a great franchise."
Although almost everyone on the roster has played at Bowie before — some extensively — there are plenty of prospects on the roster. According to Baseball America, which is considered the authority on such things, four of the Oriole organization's top dozen prospects will start the season in Bowie.
Catcher Chance Sisco, who just turned 21 in February, is foremost among them. He's rated as the Orioles' No. 3 prospect overall and owns a .326 career average in 242 minor-league games. He batted .257 for the Baysox after a late-year promotion to Bowie. Prior, to that, he'd hit .308 at Class A Frederick.
Left-handed pitcher Chris Lee (the Orioles' No. 6 prospect) and right-hander Jason Garcia (No. 12) will help anchor the pitching staff. Lee went 4-2 in seven starts at Bowie last year with a 3.08 ERA. Garcia, whose fastball can reach 97 mph, spent two months on the disabled list last season with a sore shoulder. But he got a late-season call-up to the majors — a clear indication that he's in the Orioles' plans for the future.
Even though he's considered the Orioles' No. 8 prospect, first baseman Trey Mancini had the biggest breakout of all last season. Mancini, 24, won the Eastern League batting title with a .359 average. Between Class A Frederick and Bowie, he hit 21 homers, 43 doubles and drove in 89 runs. As a result, he was named the Orioles' minor league player of the year.
In most cases, a performance like that would merit a promotion. But because of a surplus of first basemen in the upper levels of the organization, Mancini will return to Bowie – at least to start the season.
"The situation dictates right now that I start the year in Bowie," he said. "I understand that and I'm really good with it. Wherever I am, I have to hit and field well and perform. Wherever I am, that's what I'm going to do."
Mancini is one of three players on the roster with strong local ties. His grandmother still lives in Bowie and Mancini – who grew up in Florida – spent a lot of his summers in Bowie as a youngster.
Meanwhile, outfielder Glynn Davis hails from nearby Pasadena and is trying to parlay his superior speed (125 steals in 169 attempts in five minor league seasons) into on-the-field success.
Veteran utility infielder Jeff Kemp knows Bowie as well as anyone. He grew up in what most people call "Old Bowie" and attended Glen Dale Elementary, Benjamin Tasker Middle School and Archbishop Spalding. He will fill in as needed at a variety of infield spots.
"I need to be ready to play any position," Kemp said. "I can play second, short or third base. Wherever they need me, I'm ready to go."
As usual, the Baysox will run weekly recurring promotions throughout the season. Monday nights will again be Mutt Mondays (excluding July 4), when fans can bring their dogs to the game. On Tailgate Tuesdays, fans can enter the ballpark early for batting practice and enjoy draft beer specials in the Bud Light Picnic Pavilion from 5 p.m. until the start of the game. On Tuesday, fans can also enjoy Dollar Dog Night when hot dogs are just $1 from the time the main gates open until the 7th inning stretch. Limit two hot dogs per person, per transaction.
Most Friday and Saturday home games will feature postgame fireworks. Games at Prince George's Stadium typically start at 6:35 p.m. Monday through Saturday, with Sunday games usually starting at 2:05 p.m.
For more information, visit www.Baysox.com.