Today, Omar Lopez turns the page.
Minor-league pitchers and catchers report to the Houston Astros’ spring training camp in Kissimmee, Fla., today, followed on Friday by position players and signaling the start of a new season for the second-year manager of the Quad-Cities River Bandits.
“With what happened a year ago with all six of our U.S. teams reaching the playoffs, there is a real energy in the organization right now,’’ Lopez said. “Everybody is excited to get going."
In some respects, Lopez never stopped.
After Quad-Cities won its Midwest League pennant last September, Lopez left immediately for the Astros’ instructional league camp in Florida. From there, he spent the next four months working as a third-base coach for a team which reached the finals in the Venezuelan Winter League.
Lopez returned to the United States in late January and has been preparing for the upcoming season in Florida since, working with early arrivals at the Astros’ camp and preparing for the start of the minor-league camp.
“Between the River Bandits and Venezuela, it was a special year," Lopez said. “We had a great year in Davenport and to be able to manage a team with so many talented prospects, it was fun and like other players in our organization, they return to camp this spring wanting to build on what they accomplished."
Four players Lopez managed last season — shortstop Carlos Correa, pitchers Mark Appel and Lance McCullers and first baseman Jonathan Singleton — rank among the top-100 prospects in the game as rated by Baseball America.
They, along with other leaders from a Quad-Cities club which followed an 81-57 regular season by winning seven of eight postseason games en route to the River Bandits’ second Midwest League championship in three years, will likely take their skills to higher levels in the Astros’ organization this season.
“We had a great group last season, special kids who had a special season," Lopez said. “The hope is that we can do more good things this year."
The River Bandits roster that will take shape over the next month will likely be filled with players who will arrive in the Quad-Cities with championship experience as well.
The Astros’ short-season Class A affiliate, Tri-City, won the New York-Penn League title a year ago following a 44-32 regular season, while rookie-level Greeneville was the runner-up in the Appalachian League playoffs after finishing with a 38-30 record.
Pitching was a strength of Tri-City a year ago, where second-round draft picks Andrew Thurman and Adrian Houser joined Gonzalo Sanudo, Michael Feliz, Evan Grills, Tyler Brunnemann, Kyle Westwood and Chris Cotton paced a staff which led the New York-Penn League in fewest walks and hits allowed per inning and ranked second in strikeouts.
In the field, Tri-City infielders Chan Moon and Conrad Gregor joined Greeneville outfielders Brett Phillips and Tanner Mathis and infielders Juan Santana and Chase McDonald in leading their respective teams offensively last season.
Lopez welcomes the chance to work again this season with pitching coach Dave Borkowski, hitting coach Joel Chimelis and outfield and baserunning specialist Vince Coleman, all returning to the River Bandits staff as Lopez prepares for his second full-season assignment as a manager in the Astros organization.
“I didn’t have all the answers last year, and they helped me a lot during the season," Lopez said. “We worked together well as a team and I’m happy to be back with those guys. They do a good job of teaching and that is what we are here to do."
Lopez, who has worked in the Astros’ organization since 1999, learned along with his players about the challenges presented by a 140-game schedule.
“The travel, the commuter trips, they tested our guys, and I feel like I’m better prepared to deal with those tests," Lopez said. “Mostly, we’ll take the same approach with different players and see how things develop."