The Guelph Royals are hoping they've nailed down the heart of their rotation with the signing of a trio of 30-something pitchers from the Dominican Republic, one with Major League and Olympic baseball experience and the other two with Intercounty Baseball League experience.
The first signings announced by the Royals in a couple of years are hurlers Dario Alvarez, Emilis Guerrero and Santos Arias.
“I want guys that come in here and throw strikes,” said Royals field manager Dino Roumel. “This is why we're going so heavy with pitching first before we sign position players because you win with pitching and defence in this league ultimately and that's what we want to do. We want to load up our pitching staff first with imports and our local guys and then work on our position players.”
The 33-year-old Alvarez played four seasons, 2014 through 2017, in the Major Leagues with stints with the Texas Rangers, New York Mets and Atlanta Braves. He appeared in 56 games, all in relief, and posted a 6-1 record with a 5.06 earned-run average. He recorded 61 strikeouts and 22 walks in 48 innings. He also made three relief appearances in last year’s Tokyo Olympics with the bronze medalist Dominicans.
“I've seen him throw and I saw him in the Olympics,” Roumel said. “He's pitching against guys like Albert Pujols in the Dominican (Winter League) right now, so I think coming up to the Intercounty would be an easy transition for him.”
Guerrero, who turned 36 on Boxing Day, was dominant in a four-year stint (2016 to 2019) in the IBL with the Barrie Baycats. He had an overall 38-7 record in the regular season with a 2.69 ERA, struck out 371 in 368 2/3 innings and walked 44.
Arias, who’ll turn 35 next month, had a 5-2 record in 2019 with Barrie with 59 strikeouts and 18 walks in 66 innings.
“They're two guys who know how to win and two guys who are great in the locker room,” Roumel said. “If you can get guys like that who know how to win and throw strikes, that's my thing.”
With an expanded IBL regular season with each team scheduled to play 42 games, the Royals identified pitching as the place to focus on with their import signings. They are allowed one more import which could end up being another pitcher or an experienced Dominican catcher who can communicate better with the Dominican pitchers.
“A lot of these things are pending on visas now with COVID and how quickly we can get guys up here and what direction we're going to go,” Roumel said. “For the time being, these are the three guys that we've decided to start the top of our staff with and then continue to build from there.”
The Royals are slated to start the regular season with a hectic schedule beginning May 21 with an afternoon game against the Toronto Maple Leafs at Hastings Stadium. Assuming no postponements for any reason, that game is to be the first of seven in an 11-day period.
“You don't want to overdo it early on in the season so you've got to be really creative about how you use these guys,” Roumel said. “With a guy like Dario, Dario can start on a Saturday and come in and face three lefties on a Tuesday.”
The expanded schedule – the prior norm was 36 – also means the regular season goes into the third week of August rather than wrapping up at the end of July. That means players who are freshmen, sophomores or juniors with U.S. college teams aren’t likely to be on the Royals’ radar, with the exception of local players.
“This league has kind of veered away from Canadian college players who are in the States because we're going into September now (with the playoffs) and a lot of these guys are gone in the middle of August,” Roumel said. “You have to be very conscious of how you approach it in building your team.
“We're looking at college seniors who don't have to go back, but we are waiting to find out if these guys are liable to get drafted or if these guys are going to pursue a career after school. We're waiting to find out exactly how these guys are going to blend in.”
The Royals are scheduled to finish their first regular season since 2019 on Aug. 21 against the Kitchener Panthers at Kitchener’s Jack Couch Park. The Guelph squad was the only IBL team to sit out last year.
“It was a decision that we made, first of all, for the safety of our fans and the safety of our players,” Roumel said of taking 2021 season off. “When we made that decision, there were a lot of factors involved. At that point we were only allowed 60 fans.
“There was no way this team was going to survive financially if you're only allowed 60 fans in the stands. But the main factor was that we weren't sure about the safety aspect for our fans and the players, so we just decided as an organization that it wasn't the right thing for us. I give a lot of credit to (IBL commissioner) John Kastner and the rest of the teams in the league that went ahead and (played).”
Missing the season will make some fans anxious for this year’s season to begin, but it could also lead others to stay away because they feel let down that there was no IBL in Guelph last summer.
“I'm happy with the decision we made,” Roumel said. “I think it was the right decision for us, easily. For people who were disappointed and were angered by the fact that we didn't come back, nobody missed it more than me. I'm a baseball fanatic. It's my passion and it killed me not to be on the field because we put a lot of work in getting our guys together and getting our roster together in case we played.
“Nobody was more upset about it than myself and, of course, (Royals owner and general manager) Shawn Fuller and our players. We were all upset about it, but I think ultimately it was the right decision.”
While roster sizes have been upped to 28 (from 24) due to the expanded schedule, the Royals will work closely with the junior Guelph Silvercreeks and the Guelph Gryphons of the fall Ontario university league with players from both those teams called upon to fill in during the season.
When the Royals take to the field for their season opener, it’ll be their first league play since 2019 when they tied for sixth with Toronto with a 16-20 record. The 2020 season was cancelled due to the pandemic, although the Royals did hold a home run contest and did play a single game against the now-champion London Majors so the Majors could keep their streak of years played at London’s Labatt Memorial Park alive.
“We're going to put an exciting product on the field,” Roumel said. “I think it's going to be a great place to be as long as we're allowed to bring fans into the stands.”