by Steven Sanchez
The wait is over! The Fresno Grizzlies 2023 season has arrived. The season will mark the team?s 21st year in Downtown Fresno and 25th baseball season since their inception in 1998. Last year they had 83 wins and 49 losses in the league’s North Division. They led the league with 911 runs, including 162 home runs. The team clinched a playoff berth for the second straight season, winning both the first and second halves. It was the first time in the team’s history that they made the playoffs in back-to-back seasons. They are the affiliate of the Major League Baseball team the Colorado Rockies.
There are many things upon which they can build from their strengths of the past season. Their offense produced tremendously. They finished first in all Minor League Baseball with a +208-run differential (Charleston +174). The 127 hit-by-pitches they had were the most in Grizzlies franchise history for a single season, which was back in 2005. As much as their offense set the tone it was the defense that made the most impact. The Grizzlies finished with a 4.61 ERA, that was second in the California League. The Grizzlies’ pitchers completed four shutouts and had a league-high 34 saves. The defense ended 2022 with a .968 fielding percentage, tied for second in the league.
With that, 17 pitchers and 12 position players have been added to the roster, with eight veterans returning from previous seasons. This squad is projected to have one of the best prospect-laden teams at Single-A, and they have three players listed in the Rockies’ Top 30 prospects listed by www.MLB.com. Those players are: pitchers #13 prospect Jordy Vargas and #29 Connor Staine, and #20 shortstop Dyan Jorge, who will lead a strong offense. There’s a good array of talent to look out for: pitcher Gabriel Barbosa, short stop Ryan Ritter, and catcher/first baseman Bryant Betancourt. This lineup is going to be strong and confident.The players are more than eager to take on what 2023 has in store. “I’m really happy to be here in Fresno, and I want to make sure I get less walks this year than the year before,” says pitcher Gabriel Barbosa. The Brazilian-born arm slinger is one of many talents in the bullpen to keep an eye out for.
“In regard to expectations, I want a championship. I don’t think anyone here wants anything less than that. We preach it. During spring training, we talked about winning a championship with a home-grown team and finishing. We made it far last year, but we didn’t finish it off so this year and for us new guys, we want to make a statement and bring a championship to Fresno,” pitcher Connor Staine declares. “The strongest part of my game is my good stamina. I can hold my own during the games. I’ve been working on my mental game. The coaches preach it to me. It’ll be something to work on and it’ll show during the games,” says Connor.
There’s been some good additions to a stacked pitchers’ group, but Caleb Franzen has a trick up his sleeve to fool the opposing hitters and make himself stand out when he’s on the mound. “Watch out for the changeup. That’s my go-to, it’s my bread and butter. I was doing that in high school. Fastball and changeup are all you need. Being able to change speeds on people is so important and if you can throw it with really good arm speed you’re going trick any hitter into thinking it’s a fastball.”
One of the most exciting players on the field and most hyped individuals coming into the season is Fresno State alum and outfielder EJ Andrews Jr. A veteran of the team, all eyes are on him as the players are looking toward him for leadership. And it doesn’t faze him at all.“This is a mature EJ Andrews. I knew at the beginning of spring training that I’d be back here and a better opportunity to get more playing time. The organization wants me to be the leader of this team and I got to know the guys and we got ourselves a good group of players,” EJ says proudly. “I was introduced into this role early. Coming to this season it’s exciting that they view me in that way, and I don’t feel any pressure with it. I’ll hold them accountable as they should with me, and in the end all that matters is that we have the same common goal, which is winning a championship.”
This season they have a new Manager in Steve Soliz. He has been called up from his previous role as a Bench Coach last year and development supervisor in 2021 to become the 13th Field Manager in Fresno Grizzlies’ history on January 13th. Soliz takes the reins from Robinson Cancel, who led Fresno to back-to-back California League Championship appearances. Needless to say, he’s got huge shoes to fill and he’s up for the job. “We’re here to win games and hopefully bring a championship to Fresno. And in doing so we’re going to be playing an exciting brand of baseball. We’re going to work hard, play hard, and practice hard. I don’t care who we play, where we play, all I care about is how we play,” Steve says.
There’s a saying in sports that defense wins championships, and Steve believes that wholeheartedly.
When it comes to coaching, there are those who bring their own philosophy and the team has to adapt to that way no matter what. Or a coach might have to adjust the gameplan based on the talent he has. This can be a challenging adjustment for some, because it goes against what they want and what they’re used to. The thing with this defensive mindset is: is this what Steve wants or is this a by-product of the talent he’s been given? “This is my type of team. Pitching and defense all the way. Doing different things in the batter’s box. This way of playing can travel far. We can do much more with it. The team is built in my style of baseball and I’m looking forward to seeing it,” Steve claims.He’s got the pedigree, so he knows what he’s talking about. In 2019 Soliz managed the Short-Season club in Boise, ID. Prior to joining the Rockies, Soliz spent 15 seasons with the Angels’ organization. He has most recently coached with the Major League team, serving as the catching and information coach. Before taking that role, he was the Halos bullpen catcher for eight seasons from 2003 to 2010. Soliz was originally selected by the Cleveland Indians in the 13th round of the 1993 First-Year Player Draft. He enjoyed eight professional seasons as a catcher with Cleveland (1993-99) and San Diego (2000-01). He knows talent when he sees it and he definitely does see it with this season’s squad. “Once the seasons evolves we’ll see how talent translates to the field, for some players it’s their first time playing upper level, but with what I’ve seen so far in their work ethic and their athleticism, they compare well to previous players I’ve coached,” he claims.
He’s got a tough job already in trying to get the new guys acclimated and for this roster to share a common goal. When done right there’s no issues. “It can be difficult if you don’t have a winning culture within the organization. It’s about improving and working hard daily. We don’t have many rules here but we do have standards, and when you live by them and play them the culture builds itself. So, when the players come into the clubhouse they automatically adapt to it,” remarks Steve.
Not only has the team improved, so has Chukchansi Park. During the offseason, the Grizzlies and the City of Fresno made multiple improvements to the ballpark. This year’s upgrades include a brand-new playing field and a new paint job on most of the ballpark’s exterior surfaces. These changes come after the Grizzlies and City of Fresno invested over $2 million of capital improvements in 2022, including a 2,000-square-foot video board with over 2.1 million LED Lamps, over 125 new speakers, and LED field lights.
The regular season goes from April through September, and the Grizzlies organization takes pride in having their theme nights draw in a crowd. There’s going to be a huge variety to choose from. Everything from Star Wars night, Marvel Night, and the always popular Fourth of July with a fireworks show. Then of course, there is Fresno Tacos night with taco hats and gear. They’re even going to have a Famous Sitcom Night featuring the actor Leslie David Baker who played Stanley on the show The Office, and more fireworks. That’s just naming a few.
This is shaping up to be a good year that no one should miss. To buy tickets or to find out more about the theme nights call (559) 320-TIXS (8497), or go to their website, FRESNOGRIZZLIES.COM. It’s going to be a great year of baseball and good times. Go Grizzlies!
All photos taken by Steven Sanchez.