LOVES PARK, IL — With a new roster for 2020, fans will still see some familiar faces in Rockford this summer as Jake Vander Wal, Kirk Leibert, Jeff Heinrich, Matt Higgins, Branden Comia and Cam McDonald will be returning to the Rivets.
Vander Wal returns to Rockford for his fifth season with the Rivets. Last summer, Vander Wal hit .291 over 67 games while leading the Rivets in hits (73), home runs (7), steals (21) and OPS (.854). That success carried over into this spring, where he started the campaign with a .319 average, five home runs and 20 RBI in 20 games with St. Leo before the season was cancelled.
“Jake Vander Wal is Mr. Rivet. He is ‘the guy’ in our clubhouse,” Rivets manager Josh Keim said. “He is the guy that every guy looks at. Jake has been there and he is very professional about how he goes about his business day in and day out, and he is a phenomenal teammate.”
Liebert will get the chance this summer in Rockford to play alongside future Kentucky teammates Drew Grace and Chase Estep this summer, as he transferred to the Wildcats after playing the last two years at Wabash Valley College. This spring Liebert was hitting .239 with a .520 on-base percentage over 19 games for the Warriors, recording 10 RBI and 19 walks to 14 strikeouts. Liebert returns to the Rivets after hitting .289 with one home run and five RBI in 12 games last summer.
“He came on with us last summer towards the end. We played him quite a bit over two weeks and he was one of our hardest workers last summer,” Keim said. “He really embodied what we’re trying to do in Rockford, so for me it was a no-brainer to bring Kirk back.”
Selected by the San Francisco Giants in the 40th round of the 2019 MLB Draft, Heinrich ultimately did not sign with the Giants and opted to play instead at University of South Carolina for his junior season where he hit .250 with 14 RBI and 10 runs scored over 16 games this spring. Last summer with the Rivets, Heinrich hit .270 with two home runs, 11 RBI, 14 runs and five steals in 19 games.
“The tools that he has and the abilities he has, he’s in his own category. I think the best way to put it is he is an electric player,” Keim said. “He can change the game in one swing, one play. He’s a huge asset to the team both offensively and defensively.”
Appearing in a team-high 70 games last summer, Higgins led the team with 18 doubles, 42 RBI and 41 walks while hitting .271 with a .779 OPS. After hitting 13 home runs with a .419 average in 2019 at Bellarmine, Higgins was hitting .378 with a .931 OPS through 13 games this spring and was tied for third on the team with 10 RBI.
“He is a workhorse to say the least. Matt is a very physical outfielder…he is a grinder. Very strong, and he has the ability to be a gap-to-gap guy with some juice. He’s a guy where he’s going to give you his all every single day,” Keim said. “If you told me a guy outworks Matt Higgins I probably wouldn’t believe it.”
Illinois teammates McDonald and Comia return to Rockford after appearing in 26 and 30 games respectively for the Rivets in 2019. McDonald finished with a .281 average with 12 runs and 19 RBI, while Comia ended the campaign with one home run, 14 RBI and four steals while turning 10 double plays in the field.
The Rockford Rivets are a member of the finest developmental league for elite college baseball players, the Northwoods League. The Northwoods League is the proven leader in the development of elite college baseball players. Having completed its’ 26th season, the Northwoods League is the largest organized baseball league in the world with 22 teams, drawing significantly more fans, in a friendly ballpark experience, than any league of its kind. A valuable training ground for coaches, umpires and front office staff, over 230 Northwoods League players have advanced to Major League Baseball, including three-time All-Star and 2016 Roberto Clemente Award winner Curtis Granderson, three-time Cy Young Award winner and World Series Champion Max Scherzer (WAS), two-time World Series Champions Ben Zobrist (CHC) and Brandon Crawford (SFG) and World Series Champion Chris Sale (BOS). As well as 2019 Rookie of the Year and Home Run Derby Champion Pete Alonso (NYM) and MLB All-Star Jordan Zimmermann (DET). All league games are viewable live via the Northwoods League website. All league games are viewable live via the Northwoods League portal. For more information, visit www.rockfordrivets.com or download the new Northwoods League Mobile App on the Apple App Store or on Google Play and set the Rivets as your favorite team.