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Rogues Return

By any reasonable evaluation, the Medford Rogues had a successful inaugural baseball season last summer in the West Coast League.

On the field, the Rogues used a midseason surge to finish second in their division and earn one of the four WCL playoff berths before wrapping up at 30-26 overall.

Off the field, Medford provided a fun atmosphere that resulted in the Rogues ranking second in overall attendance after drawing an average of 1,359 per game at the newly renovated Harry & David Field.

So, what do you do as an encore?

The wheels have long been turning to provide an answer, and the first steps are being taken as the Rogues return for the summer. Medford plays a pair of preseason games in Marysville, California, beginning Thursday before returning home to open play at H&D on Saturday with typical fanfare that includes a doubleheader against the Seattle Cheney Studs and an ensuing fireworks show.

The regular season begins with a three-game road trip against the Cowlitz Black Bears beginning June 6, with the Rogues' home opener set June 9 against the Bend Elks.

"The reaction we received from last year has been really gratifying," said Rogues general manager Chuck Heeman on Tuesday. "We'll try to entertain even more this summer. The pressure's on us to make it better."

Easing that pressure will be the return of a coaching staff that's led by manager Josh Hogan and includes assistants Jeff Lyle and Jared Norris. The Rogues also will get a boost with the addition of assistant coach Max Gordon, who was a standout player for Ashland High before continuing his run at Oregon State.

"I like that he has the Oregon State background, he played there and knows the system," said Heeman. "He's got major college experience and knows the game. ... At Oregon State he wasn't the stud of the team but he's the guy who thinks and gets things done and directs people, and that's why we brought him on board. He'll be a massive help."

Gordon was a key contributor in center field during last year's run to the College World Series by the Beavers and immediately clicked with Hogan and company upon his return to southern Oregon. When Hogan said he might have a role for Gordon on his staff this summer, the 23-year-old didn't hesitate to accept.

"I'm young so I've got a long ways to go but I love the game and I definitely want to be around it," said Gordon, who also starred for the Medford Mustangs — with first-year assistant GM Griffin Boyd — when they placed second at the American Legion World Series in 2009. "Coaching is something I'd definitely like to be a part of in my future. It's a long ways to get to a high level but I've got nothing but time as of right now. I'll plan on trying to make some leaps and see how far I can go."

Gordon played a preseason game for the Rogues last summer but mostly followed the team from beyond the playing field. He said he's confident the upcoming season will surpass what the organization was able to provide in 2013.

"It's going to be a great time for the fans here," Gordon said after putting a handful of players through an afternoon workout. "I know the Rogues organization has come leaps and bounds and they've been doing a lot of work in the offseason getting everything ready for this year, but most of all it's going to be good baseball. We've got a lot of talent and a lot of high level guys that are coming in ready to go."

Medford fans will see a few familiar faces in notable returners like Spencer Smith, Jeff Hardy, John Forsythe, Ryan Teel and Ashland's Christian Morrison but, as is typical for summer seasons, the majority of the roster has been retooled.

Smith may have been one of the biggest surprises of the bunch after coming in without much fanfare as a redshirt outfielder from Lane Community College. In short order, he earned a starting role and wound up finishing second on the team with a .320 batting average to go with 21 runs and 22 RBIs in 41 games.

In 20 games, Teel hit .290 with 10 RBIs and seven runs, while Hardy was a key contributor out of the bullpen (one save in 11 appearances and a 0.62 ERA in 141/3 innings) and Forsythe sported a 4-1 record and 1.43 ERA in 311/3 innings of work.

While Heeman and company were tasked with starting the WCL's franchise in Klamath Falls a few years ago and then again in Medford last year, he said every season brings about its own nuances and the first season for the Rogues provided a new learning experience. Heeman and Hogan worked diligently to field a competitive roster from the outset but a lack of depth — especially early and among the pitching staff — forced the Rogues into an early hole they fortunately were able to climb out of by mid-July.

"You always get an early evaluation of your players and feel good about that but right before the season we lost our top eight pitchers for different reasons like injuries or grades or whatever and that hurt us," said Heeman. "This year we really overloaded on pitchers. Right now we have 23 or 24 on the roster and we figure at the end of the day 14 or 15 of those guys will make it."

"You can't have enough arms," he added, "and they don't all have to be superstars. Really in this league, it comes down to late-inning pitching. If you can get guys out in the late innings, you're going to be fine ... and I think we're doing that."

As for the overall roster, including 10-day contract players who will start the season for the expected regulars who will filter in by mid-June, Heeman said he's extremely pleased with how his team is shaping up.

"Where we had a nice little group of quality guys last year, I think you're going to see that group expanded," he said. "That comes really from the college coaches knowing who we are now, where a year ago they had never sent a player to Medford and didn't know what they were getting into. They've seen what we have going here and so we're getting a better level of player and that means our core group of guys that we're going on goes from eight to 10 to now 18 to 20. Top to bottom I think you're going to see a better roster."

"We've got a lot of guys who get out of school early and will be here and we're really counting on those guys because we want to start strong," added Heeman.

Notable players expected to join the Rogues when their college seasons are complete include Nebraska starting catcher Tanner Lubach, who is hitting .301 with 26 RBIs, Oregon State left-handed pitcher Trent Shelton (4.85 ERA in 15 appearances) and New Mexico third baseman Andre Vigil (.311, 26 runs, 30 RBIs).

Heeman said he's also excited about the promise of outfielder Ramon Laureano, who hit .413 with 40 runs, 53 RBIs and nine home runs this spring for Northeastern Oklahoma A&M College, and Gonzaga redshirt freshman first baseman Levi Pereira.

Then there's also the promise of a player to burst on the scene as Smith did last year, with Heeman noting that the cupboard is full of similar potential.

With the addition of the Yakima Valley Pippins this year, the WCL will feature three four-team divisions. The winner of each division will earn an automatic playoff berth, with a fourth wild-card team being the next team with the best record.

Medford's South Division includes the defending champion Corvallis Knights, Klamath Falls Gems and Bend Elks.

Single-game ticket prices for Rogues home games range from $6 to $11, with various multi-game ticket plans also available.

For more information, visit the Medford Rogues website at medfordrogues.com, email info@medfordrogues.com or call 541-973-2883.

Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, khenry@mailtribune.com, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry

Matt Cole, Rogue's shortstop, throws to first while practicing at Harry and David Field Tuesday. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch - Jamie Lusch