The Lexington Legends gave their fans a championship last season.
What’s in store for 2019?
Ideally, a repeat of last year’s South Atlantic League title, only the second in the franchise’s 18-year history.
The 140 games between now and September — 70 at home, 70 on the road — beginning with Thursday night’s season and home opener against Delmarva, will determine whether another pennant is in the cards.
On the way there, fans will get to welcome back five players from last year’s championship roster, greet a former University of Kentucky standout, get to know a new manager, and check out some of the top prospects in the parent club Kansas City Royals’ organization.
“After last season’s South Atlantic League championship, we are thrilled to see returning players as well as some new faces,” Legends president and CEO Andy Shea after the team announced its 2019 roster this week. “It is also going to be special for Big Blue Nation to cheer on a former Wildcat on the mound at Whitaker Bank Ballpark.”
Zach Haake, who was drafted by the Royals out of the University of Kentucky in the sixth round last spring, is one of 13 pitchers on the Legends’ roster for opening night.
Haake began his professional career with the Arizona League Royals last summer before being promoted to rookie-level Idaho Falls. In his first pro season, he pitched 15 innings with a 1.76 ERA while striking out 14. He is the No. 23 prospect in the Royals system, according to Baseball America.
The 25-man Legends team will carry three catchers, five infielders and four outfielders.
The youngest player is 19-year-old outfielder Juan Carlos Negret from Cuba. The oldest is 24-year-old pitcher Austin Lambright of Anacortes, Wash.
The tallest Legend is 6-foot-6 pitcher Jonathan Bowlan of Arlington, Tenn. The smallest is 5-10 catcher Freddy Fermin of Venezuela.
Nineteen of the Legends were born in the United States. Six were foreign-born.
Returning from the 2018 South Atlantic League championship squad are pitchers Marcelo Martinez and Charlie Neuweiler, infielders Jeison Guzman and Matt Morales and outfielder Jackson Lueck. Also returning is outfielder Michael Gigliotti, who played in only six games for the Legends last season before tearing an ACL. A 2017 fourth-round draft pick, Gigliotti was one of the Royals’ fastest-rising prospects before the injury.
Another familiar face is catcher Chase Vallot. He spent 2015 and part of 2016 with the Legends before being promoted to High-A Wilmington in 2017. He totaled 26 home runs during his two seasons in Lexington.
Fourteen of this year’s Legends were selected in the 2018 Major League Baseball Draft.
The highest of those picks was Bowlan, the 58th overall selection (second round) out of the University of Memphis. Bowlan finished his junior year with 104 strikeouts. He also set a school and American Athletic Conference record by striking out 18 batters in one game, the most by any pitcher in NCAA Division I last season.
Left-handed pitcher Kris Bubic joins the Legends as the No. 10 overall prospect in the Royals system, according to Baseball America. Kansas City selected him out of Stanford in the first supplemental round of the 2018 MLB Draft. After posting an 8-1 record and 2.62 ERA at Stanford, he finished his first professional season with Idaho Falls, recording 53 strikeouts in 38 innings.
Another talented left-hander is Austin Cox, a fifth-round pick out of Mercer last year. Cox averaged almost 14 strikeouts per nine innings for Appalachian League Burlington last summer.
Pulling this crew together will be new manager Brooks Conrad. He steps in for Scott Thorman, who was promoted to the Wilmington (Del.) Blue Rocks, Kansas City’s Class A Advanced affiliate.
Conrad, a former major leaguer and Legends infielder managed the rookie-level Burlington (N.C.) Royals last year.
Conrad played in 38 games for the Legends in 2003 when the team was part of the Houston Astros organization. He was an eighth-round pick of the Astros in the 2001 draft out of Arizona State.
Conrad made his major league debut in 2008 and went on to spend six years in the majors with the Oakland Athletics (2008), Atlanta Braves (2009-2011), Toronto Blue Jays (2012), Milwaukee Brewers (2012), Tampa Bay Rays (2012) and most recently, the San Diego Padres in 2014.
“This will mark the first time we have had a former (Legends) player in the manager position,” Shea said. “We are ecstatic to see what is in store for our 2019 Legends squad.”
Bench coach Glenn Hubbard will return for his sixth straight season. The Legends also bring back pitching coach Mitch Stetter for his fourth season and hitting coach Jesus Azuaje for his third season.
The 2019 season opens with an 11-day, 11-game home stand. The Legends play four games against Delmarva and three versus the West Virginia Power then face the Columbia (S.C.) Fireflies for four more games.
The first 1,000 fans through the gate Thursday night will receive a 2018 South Atlantic League championship replica ring. The night also includes a fireworks show after the game.
Lexington Legends vs. Delmarva Shorebirds
What: Legends season and home opener
When: 7:05 p.m.
Where: Whitaker Bank Ballpark
Tickets: Call the Legends box office at (859) 422-7867 or visit LexingtonLegends.com.