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MiLB opening day
Thursday, April 5 games
› Birmingham at Chattanooga, 6:15 p.m.
› Jacksonville at Jackson, 6:05 p.m.
› Biloxi at Montgomery, 6:35 p.m.
› Pensacola at Mobile, 6:35 p.m.
› Tennessee at Mississppi, 7 p.m.
The Chattanooga Lookouts won just one Southern League championship from 1976 to 2014, when the storied Class AA baseball franchise had affiliation stints with the Oakland Athletics, Cleveland Indians, Seattle Mariners, Cincinnati Reds and Los Angeles Dodgers.
Then the Minnesota Twins came along.
At a developmental level of a sport where rosters are continually tweaked, the Lookouts have been consistent and stout in their three seasons with Minnesota as their parent club. Chattanooga won its first Southern League title since 1988 during its inaugural year with the Twins in 2015, and last season’s Lookouts posted a scorching 91-49 record and shared the league championship with Pensacola due to the best-of-five title series getting canceled by the threat of Hurricane Irma.
Last year’s Lookouts set a franchise record for victories during their time in the Southern League, and as many as 18 returning players could be on Chattanooga’s roster when the 2018 Southern League season starts Thursday against Birmingham at AT&T Field. The Lookouts will host Chattanooga State for the 13th time in an exhibition game Tuesday night at 6:15.
“First and foremost, it speaks to the depth of our system,” said Jeremy Zoll, who is in his first year as Minnesota’s director of minor league operations. “We’re not only excited to kick off 2018 in Chattanooga but at all our other levels as well, because we feel like we’re pretty deep up and down throughout. I think that allows you to move guys up to Rochester (N.Y.) and to the big-league club knowing we’ve got good guys right behind them.
“At times, development and winning gets put at two different ends of the spectrum, but it should really be a balance of both to try and accomplish the best of both worlds.”
Chattanooga’s dominance last summer was reflected in the fact the Lookouts led the Southern League with 659 runs scored and with a team ERA of 3.09.
Felix Jorge and Zack Littell are scheduled to return to Chattanooga’s rotation after banner 2017 seasons. Jorge went 10-3 with a 3.54 ERA in 22 starts with the Lookouts last year, when he made two big-league starts with the Twins, including one that resulted in a victory. Littell went 5-0 with a 2.81 ERA in seven starts with Chattanooga and was a staggering 19-1 in combined Single-A and Double-A results.
“I think the pitching is going to be really deep for sure,” Zoll said. “We had some tough decisions to make and still have some tough decisions to make as far as how we’re going to balance out Triple-A and who gets pushed down to Double-A as a result.
“That will be good news for the Lookouts, because that means there are a lot of guys who are really qualified to be on a Double-A pitching staff.”
Other players scheduled to return to Chattanooga are LaMonte Wade, Nick Gordon and T.J. White, who drove in 67, 66 and 65 runs, respectively, in 2017. Wade hit .292 in 117 games with the Lookouts, while Gordon hit .270 in 122, and Zoll said those two have the opportunity to advance to Rochester sooner than later. White hit .276 with 14 home runs in 96 games last season in Chattanooga.
The newcomer to watch could be left fielder Brent Rooker, who was playing for Mississippi State this time last year and hit .387 for the Bulldogs. He was the second-round selection of the Twins last June and wound up playing 40 games for the Fort Myers Miracle of the high Single-A Florida State League.
Rooker hit .280 for the Miracle with 11 homers and 35 RBIs.
“I’m looking forward to Brent taking down a spot in the middle of the order for the Lookouts,” said Zoll, who was a recent guest of “Press Row” on Chattanooga’s ESPN 105.1 FM. “He’s someone who can make a lot of noise in Chattanooga and someone fans will be excited to have.
“On offense, it will be a pretty nice mix of profiles, and there should be a good amount of power to go around. There are a lot of names that we’re excited about.”
Gordon is the No. 4 organizational prospect, according to MLB.com, while Rooker is No. 8.
Contact David Paschall at firstname.lastname@example.org at 423-757-6524.
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