Boise’s minor-league baseball club starts the 2016 season — its second as a Colorado Rockies affiliate — Friday with a three-game series in Eugene before the home opener Monday against Salem-Keizer. Here are five on- and off-the-field storylines to follow this 76-game season:
WILL THE HAWKS BE ANY BETTER?
It’d be hard to be any worse: Boise stumbled to a 30-46 (.395) record last season, its worst since 2003 (27-49, .355).
But after the Rockies loaded up on high school players in the 2015 draft — players who mostly spent last summer with rookie-level Grand Junction — Colorado turned toward college players in the 2016 draft. That benefits Boise, which plays in the more advanced short-season A Northwest League.
Colorado has sent three of its top four picks to the Hawks — Georgia pitcher Robert Tyler (38th overall pick), Vanderbilt pitcher Ben Bowden (second round) and Long Beach State shortstop Garrett Hampson (third round).
“We do have a pretty good team,” Hawks manager Andy Gonzalez said. “Hopefully, we have a pretty good season.”
WILL THE PITCHING IMPROVE?
Boise’s staff ranked last in the Northwest League in 2015 in ERA (4.58), hits (714), runs (424), hit batters (63) and strikeouts (503). The addition of Bowden and Hampson to a veteran rotation should lead to better results.
Mike Zimmerman, an 11th-round pick in 2015, is the Opening Day starter. The rest of the rotation includes Javier Medina (2015 third-round pick) and three pitchers — Erick Julio, Breiling Eusebio and Antonio Santos — who have excelled in the Dominican Summer League.
Add in a 102-mph throwing reliever, Julian Fernandez, and Boise should find itself out of the NWL pitching cellar.
“We’ve got a lot of guys who can throw strikes, be aggressive,” Gonzalez said. “A couple hard throwers, too, so hopefully this is going to be a good year on the pitching side.”
WHO’S THE NEW MANAGER?
Boise has a new manager for the second straight year with Gonzalez, last season’s hitting coach.
The 34-year-old Gonzalez, who played one season each in the majors with the White Sox, Indians and Marlins, led Boise to a .261 batting average last year, tied for the league best. But like last year’s manager, Frank Gonzales, this is his first managerial job.
“I’d be lying if I told you I was this kind of manager or tell you what kind of manager I am because I’ve never done it before,” Gonzalez said. “I’m just going right in with the guys, going with the flow of the guys. One thing I can guarantee is we’re going to play hard. That’s our model as Rockies, playing hard, playing a hard nine innings, hustle all the time.”
WHAT ABOUT A NEW STADIUM?
The new ownership group, Agon Sports and Entertainment, came in last year and pushed a downtown mixed-use development. Translation: a baseball field surrounded by a mix of hotels, conference centers, offices, retail space, restaurants or residential housing.
The ownership group built a similar $120 million project in Fort Wayne, Ind., and is building a $231 million private-public project in North Augusta, S.C., that includes a craft brewery just beyond right field.
Jeff Eiseman, president of Agon, said last year he hoped to open a new Boise stadium in 2018. But court delays in Augusta forced that project to miss its planned opening in April 2017, possibly delaying a Boise stadium.
WHATEVER HAPPENED TO THAT BLIMP?
The Hawks’ plan to create shade in the first-base stands with a blimp drew national attention last summer. But the 30-foot blimp proved too small to create much relief, or even shade that remained in the same spot for more than 10 minutes.
“It did provide shade,” Hawks General Manager Bob Flannery said. “But there’s no way it could provide shade for everybody.’’
It also sprung a leak during a windstorm, but Flannery said the blimp is fixed and will fly again. The Hawks won’t use it for shade, instead flying it from the left-field corner along Glenwood Street to advertise home games.