BY JAMES COOK
TRAVERSE CITY — When the Traverse City Beach Bums take the field for their home opener May 21, the lineup could look very familiar to fans.
Emphasis on "could."
The Beach Bums, who had the best record in the Frontier League, have re-signed their entire starting infield, along with two veteran outfielders.
Of course, there can be hiccups in those plans, but that is the way things are shaping up so far.
The infield of first baseman Chase Burch, second baseman Ryan Still, shortstop Kyle Eveland, third baseman Jose Vargas and catcher Marcus Nidiffer is expected to return intact.
Starting outfielder Sean Gusrang will also be backs, along with backup outfielder Matt Howard, who manager Gregg Langbehn is hoping will have a breakout season similar to what Gusrang enjoyed last campaign.
"I think we're pretty happy with the returning players," said Langbehn, who was tabbed as the league's top manager last season. "Each year is certainly new and a different challenge, but I think we have some pretty good pieces in place. It's going to be an exciting year for Matt Howard specifically. He's in the same boat Gusrang was in two years ago."
Back then, Gusrang had just six at-bats the whole season for the Bums. He exploded last season, hitting .266 with 15 home runs and 50 RBIs, adding a versatile threat to the team's lineup.
"This is (Matt's) year," Langbehn said. "He's going to have the opportunity to be an everyday contributor. He put his time in last year and didn't complain. He learned. We're looking for a big season out of Matt."
Howard played in 19 games as TC's fourth outfielder last year, getting just 45 at-bats. He hit one homer, drove in seven runs and swiped two bases.
The team will have its table-setter back in Still.
"Having Ryan Still back is nice," Langbehn said of his second baseman who was an All-Star after walking a league-record 110 times, hitting .301 and scoring a team-high 82 runs in 86 games. "We're looking for another top-of-the-order guy to compliment him. And we have a couple of the big guys in the middle of the lineup back, which is nice. It's hard to find guys like that, and we know what we're getting with Chase and Jose."
Vargas was the league's MVP after hitting 29 home runs and driving in 100 runs to tie the league's single-season mark. He established a new league mark for consecutive games played at 192 — which is all 192 games the Beach Bums have played in the last two seasons.
The Bums could have seven of their nine All-Stars returning, including relievers Nick Capito and Scott Mueller and starter Jacob Clem.
It appears catcher Travis Higgs and pitcher Brooks Belter will be playing elsewhere after both were drafted by a Japanese league in November after tryouts.
The Beach Bums did sign left-handed pitcher Andrew Marquardt, who was one of the few effective pitchers for the Road Warriors last year, posting a 4.32 ERA in 41.2 innings for a squad with a team ERA of 5.93. And Road Warriors right-handed closer Chris Kaminski (5.09 ERA) was also added after he saved half of the team's 14 victories.
The pair were third and fourth in ERA among Warriors players with 10 or more innings.
They join a pitching staff that could have a lot of returners as well, especially in the bullpen. Scott Dunn, Mike Devine, Matt Miller, Jason Mattila and Jake Sabol are also under contract.
"I saw enough out of them that I thought they could definitely come in and compete for a spot on the roster," Langbehn said of Marquardt and Kaminski. "They have the experience, and they're both still rookies, which is appealing. And that's a big factor. Every year, you have to have rookies, rookie-1s and rookie-2s who you can count on to contribute at a high level."
Right-hander Andrew Morris — a two-time junior college All-American — rounds out the pitching staff additions thus far.
The coaching staff also looks like it will return intact with hitting coach Shannon Hunt and infield/catching coach Matt Pulley.
"I know those guys and they know me," Langbehn said. "We work well together."
Nidiffer was a nice addition to the lineup, hitting nine home runs and driving in 38 runs, both of which were fourth among league backstops.
"He was hands down the best catcher we've had there since I took over," Langbehn said. "He takes a lot of pride in what's going on behind the plate and working with the pitchers. It's hard to find guys like that."
With the former London Rippers becoming the Frontier Greys traveling team this year, the Beach Bums will have 54 home games this season instead of 48.
"It helps," Langbehn said. "You get into that regular routine. You're not traveling as much. I think that's a positive, at least it has been for us."