Kannapolis Intimidators open season at home tonight

Published 8:20 pm Wednesday, April 6, 2016

By Marny Hendrick


KANNAPOLIS – Minor league baseball returns to Kannapolis and Rowan County tonight and the key word for the Intimidators for the 2016 season is “new.”

The Chicago White Sox affiliate Kannapolis Intimidators start the season with a new manager, new coaching staff, a lot of fresh, new faces and even a new ownership group. First pitch for the opener is 7:05 tonight against South Atlantic League rival Hickory, kicking off a seven-game homestand to start the season.

The new leadership team on the field is headed by manager Cole Armstrong who comes to the Intimidators from managing the White Sox’ Pioneer (Rookie) League team in Great Falls Montana last season. He is joined by pitching coach Brian Drahman and hitting coach Justin Jirschele, who played for the Intimidators in 2013.

Armstrong, a native of Canada, is in his third year as White Sox manager, after a successful 10-year career as a player in the minor leagues for Atlanta, the White Sox, Angels and Marlins. He views his job as manager at the low A level as coach, teacher and motivator.

“For these guys at the lower levels, it is not an easy lifestyle at times,” he says. “But if I am not teaching and coaching them, then I am not doing my job. The way I look at it, we are here to develop these kids as players and get them to Chicago.”

The 2016 Intimidators features a 25-man roster ranging in age from 18 to 24, nine which played for the team last season at some point and another 16 talented players moving up with Armstrong from Advanced Rookie level in Great Falls. A number of the players were also members of the Arizona League White Sox which won the championship last summer.

“We really have a strong group this year,” Armstrong said, stressing that building a winning mentality with his group is as important as individual development. “A lot of times, people get the idea that winning is not important in the minor leagues but when we step on the field each and every day, there is one goal — to win the ball game.”

Part of the optimism is a talented pitching staff including three members of the Intimidators’ starting rotation much of last season. Right-hander Luis Martinez (6-6, 190) is the opening day starter and a top 30 prospect in the White Sox organization. He is joined by returnees Yelmison Peralta and 6-7 righty Zach Thompson. Three left-handed relievers — Ryan Riga, Tanner Banks, and Jonathan Frebis — also spent some time in Kannapolis last season.

The bulk of the team, however, is comprised of the 16 players who are moving up from Advanced Rookie level. Leading the group is big slugger Corey Zangari (6-4, 240), who is just 18 but put up a .323 batting average last season. He is the organization’s 10th ranked overall prospect after being drafted in the sixth round last summer. He is joined by 14 members of the White Sox 2015 draft class.

Two of the new Intimidators should also be familiar names and faces as former players for the University of North Carolina. Outfielder Landon Lassiter, from Thomasville and North Davidson High School, was drafted out of UNC in the 21st round last summer. He batted .312 with three homers at Great Falls. The other Tar Heel alum is big righty reliever Taylore Cherry (6-3,230), who was 1-1 with a tiny 0.42 ERA last summer.

One veteran returnee is 2014 draft pick Zach Fish (6-0, 215), who spent last season as a catcher at both Kannapolis and Great Falls. He is coming back to the Intimidators to play first base, some outfield and maybe some catching in relief. He is looking forward to the challenge of his new position, which he worked on extensively in spring training this year.

“For me, the main focus is to just come in here, be consistent and play hard every game,” says Fish, 23, who was the Big 12 Player of the year in 2014 at Oklahoma State, before being drafted in the 11th round that summer. “Being able to go to first base and outfield will actually clear my mind a bit because when you are behind the plate, you are thinking about so many things and situations. This will allow me to work more on my approach at the plate and do what I can to help the ball club win.”

The Intimidators are under new ownership this season, as the Smith Family from Iredell County sold the club in the off-season to a group of investors in Nashville, Tenn., headed by Resse L. Smith III (no relation).

Resse Smith and his group are known for rejuvenating minor league franchises and are in discussions with stadium owners, the City of Kannapolis, about future plans that possibly include a new sports and entertainment complex downtown. Veteran general manager Randy Long is back for his 20th season with the franchise.

This is the 22nd season for minor league baseball in Kannapolis and Rowan County, including the last 16 seasons as a White Sox affiliate. The new season begins with four games against Hickory at Intimidators Stadium, including the first of 16 fireworks shows on Saturday night. Delmarva then comes in for three games before the team hits the road for seven games in Hickory and West Virginia.

Armstrong hopes local fans will come out and support the team. “Our job is to make sure that every night at 7:05, when the lights come on, we are ready too,” he says. “The nine guys on the field are out there to play hard and win.”