(Pictured: Beck Wheeler)
Record Number of Former Rafters Playing Professional Baseball
Wisconsin Rapids, Wis. – Early September marked the conclusion of the minor league seasons for a number of former Rafters’ players. Following the MLB First Year Player Draft in June, a record number of players with ties to Wisconsin Rapids spent time in the minor leagues.
Justin Jirschele (2010-11) saw his playing career in the minor leagues come to an end during the 2015 season. The first Rafter to make the Triple-A level with the Charlotte Knights (Chicago White Sox), Jirschele still got to spend his summer at the ballpark when he was named the hitting coach for the Great Falls Voyagers, the White Sox’ affiliate in the rookie level Pioneer League. Sean Godfrey (2012) spent his 2015 season split between two affiliates in the Atlanta Braves organization, beginning his season with the Carolina Mudcats (Class A-Advanced) before earning a promotion in June to the Braves’ Double-A affiliate Mississippi Braves. Godfrey did his most damage at the plate for the Mudcats, hitting .304 with five home runs and 12 doubles en route to driving in 22 runs in 62 games.
The Eastern League (Double-A) was home to two former Rafters players in Beck Wheeler (2011) and Ben Heller (2013). Wheeler had an outstanding season working out of the bullpen for the Binghamton Mets (New York Mets), finishing with a 5-1 record to go with 3.38 ERA and 56 strikeouts in 58.2 innings. Wheeler also appeared in the Mets’ playoff series before the team was knocked out. Heller began his season with the Lynchburg Hillcats (Cleveland Indians, Class A-Advanced) before earning a promotion to the Akron RubberDucks. In total, he finished with an 0-2 record and 4.02 ERA with 58 strikeouts on his way to converting 12 of 15 save opportunities.
The California League (Class A-Advanced) saw the first former Rafter to grace its fields when Ronnie Muck (2012) suited up for the Inland Empire 66ers (Los Angeles Angels). Though he started the season with the Burlington Bees (Class A), Muck finished the season strong after earning a promotion in June and tallied a 3-0 record with two saves for the 66ers. Also spending a majority of his season at the Class A-Advanced level was JP Feyereisen (2012-13) who had a strong season for the Lynchburg Hillcats (Cleveland) in the Carolina League. Carving out a place in the backend of the Hillcats’ bullpen, Feyereisen finished 1-1 with a 2.08 ERA and was 12 of 14 in save opportunities.
After finishing the 2014 season with the South Bend SilverHawks (Arizona Diamondbacks) of the Midwest League (Class A), Colin Bray (2013) spent his summer with the Kane County Cougars (new Class A affiliate for the Diamondbacks) this year. The outfielder hit .308 with three home runs, 25 doubles, 8 triples and 27 stolen bases and was named a Midwest League All-Star. Joining Bray in the Midwest League was Pat Kelly (2012). Kelly held down the second base position for the Cedar Rapids Kernels (Minnesota Twins).
In a great story, right-handed pitcher Joey Wagman (2013) returned to professional baseball signing with the Oakland A’s after being released by the Chicago White Sox organization. Wagman spent parts of the 2015 season with three different affiliates in the A’s system, but made the majority of his starts with the Beloit Snappers (Class A). Wagman showed his versatility in going 8-4 with a 3.91 ERA over 15 starts while also notching a save.
The lone former Rafters representative in the Class A South Atlantic League was outfielder Brandon Downes (2012). Coming off a great season in the Pioneer League (Rookie Level) Downes continued his power stroke hitting 14 home runs and 29 doubles for the Lexington Legends (Kansas City Royals).
Out east in the New York-Penn League (Class A-Short Season), the Rafters had three former pitchers representing three separate organizations. Nestor Bautista (2012) earned a promotion to the Batavia Muckdogs (Miami Marlins) and had a solid season. Making the jump from the Appalachian League (Rookie Level) was Greg Maisto (2013) who pitched for the Hudson Valley Renegades (Tampa Bay Rays). Tyler Willman (2013) worked primarily out of the bullpen for the Vermont Lake Monsters (Oakland Athletics).
The 2015 MLB First Year Player in June saw the most players with Rafters ties selected, including the highest draft pick ever with outfielder Donnie Dewees (2013) being taken in the second round by the Chicago Cubs. Dewees got off to a great start in professional baseball hitting .266 with five home runs, 14 doubles and 19 stolen bases for the Eugene Emeralds in the Northwest League (Class A-Short Season).
In the Pioneer League (Rookie Level) Campbell Wear (2014) had a memorable professional debut for the Grand Junction Rockies (Colorado Rockies) when he smacked a solo home run in his first professional at-bat. Kenny Towns (2012) had a nice first season with the Orem Owlz (Los Angeles Angels) in helping lead the team to the Pioneer League playoffs.
Domenic Mazza (2014) had a tremendous season for the San Francisco Giants affiliate in the Rookie Level Arizona League, finishing 3-0 with a 1.05 ERA and 28 strikeouts in 25.2 innings. Brian Bass (2015) also pitched very well out of the bullpen for the Los Angeles Dodgers team in the Arizona League, notching a minuscule 0.86 ERA with two saves over 21 innings. Jason Freeman (2014) continued the trend of former Rafters pitchers performing well in the Arizona League going 4-0 with a 0.44 ERA in 20.2 innings out of the bullpen for the Kansas City Royals affiliate.
In the equivalent Florida Gulf Coast League, Hector Lujan (2014) tallied 16 strikeouts in 18 innings for the GCL Twins (Minnesota Twins), while Tyler Servais (2014) made his professional debut for the GCL Tigers (Detroit Tigers). John Kravetz (2013-14) got off to a solid start for the GCL Blue Jays (Toronto Blue Jays) before earning a promotion to the Bluefield Blue Jays in the Appalachian League (Rookie Level)
Affiliated baseball in the minor leagues is not the only way for a player to continue chasing their baseball dreams. Independent Leagues around the country provide another opportunity to keep playing the game professionally with the hopes of signing a contract with a Major League organization. The Frontier League was home to two former Rafters this summer with Michael Jurgella (2012-14) signing with the Evansville Otters and Jackson Slaid (2013) playing for the River City Rascals. Slaid's team has advanced to the league championship series.
The Wisconsin Rapids Rafters are a member of the finest developmental league for elite college baseball players, the Northwoods League. Playing its 22nd season of summer collegiate baseball in 2015, the Northwoods League is the largest organized baseball league in the world with 18 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, more than 120 Northwoods League players have advanced to Major League Baseball, including Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer (WAS) and MLB All-Stars Chris Sale (CWS), Jordan Zimmermann (WAS), Curtis Granderson (NYM), Lucas Duda (NYM) and Ben Zobrist (KC). All league games are viewable live via the Northwoods League Website. For more information, visit www.raftersbaseball.com.