CLINTON, Iowa - The Midwest League's oldest franchise has a new look this season.
Seattle is the new parent club of the Clinton LumberKings and the Mariners have assigned their new affiliate a different-looking team from the one they sent to the league a year ago.
Last season with seven 19-year-old players frequently in the lineup, Seattle-affiliated Wisconsin endured a dismal 56-80 season and one of 10 Clinton players who played on that club believes this team is better equipped to compete in the Midwest League.
"This is a more veteran team," said outfielder Denny Almonte, a second-round pick of the Mariners in 2007. "We have more college-age guys, more guys who have played in this league before. That has to help."
Manager Scott Steinmann, who managed the Mariners' Double-A West Tennessee affiliate to a 70-68 record last season, suspects that will be the case, too.
"Especially early, I think some of the experience we have, especially on the pitching staff, can be a real advantage for our club if we make it an advantage," said Steinmann, who managed Wisconsin to first-place finishes in both halves and a 76-63 record in 2005.
There isn't a pitcher younger than 21 years old on the Clinton staff, which includes a pair of seasoned Midwest League veterans.
Adam Harben combined for a 14-13 record on the mound for Quad-Cities in 2003 and 2004. He spent last season with the Cubs' high-A team at Daytona and spent most of this spring training working with the Mariners' Double-A and Triple-A clubs after signing as a free agent.
"I got caught in a numbers situation where they didn't have a slot for me," Harben said.
That changed when projected LumberKings starter Nolan Gallagher went down with an injury late in spring training.
"I found out I was coming out here two days ago, and I would rather pitch in games than wait at extended spring for something to open," said Harben, a 25-year-old right-hander. "Competing will help me. I know this league, and I will do what I can to help our team win games."
Ruben Flores knows the Midwest League as well. The 24-year-old right-hander pitched for Wisconsin in 2006 and spent 2007 in the high-A California League, but returns to the mound in Clinton after missing 2008 because of surgery to repair a torn labrum in his right shoulder.
"Having been through this league before, I know pitchers can have success, especially early when the weather is colder," Flores said. "They put this team together in the last few days of camp, but I do think we're an older squad with guys who know how to compete. We seem to fit pretty well together."
Clinton opens the season Thursday at Burlington, where Steven Hensley is scheduled to start on the mound for the LumberKings. Harben, who will likely move into the rotation next week, is expected to work as a reliever in the opener.
"We've had a good, solid camp and I think this team is anxious to compete," Steinmann said. "I know I am. I've been ready to go since November."
Year in league: 56th
2008 record: 78-59 overall,
41-26 first half (first place); 37-33 second half (third place); lost to Cedar Rapids 2-0 in best-of-three Western Division semifinals
General manager: Ted Tornow
Stadium: Alliant Energy Field (4,500), Sixth Ave. North and First Street, Clinton, Iowa; (LF-CF-RF) 335-401-325
Telephone: (563) 242-0727
Ticket prices: Box seats, $7; Adult general admission, $6; senior/child general admission, $5
Field staff: Scott Steinmann, manager; Lance Painter, pitching coach; Jesus Azuaje, hitting coach; Eduardo Tamez, trainer