One couldn’t have asked for a better spring evening to kick up dust on the diamond.
The sun was shining and the sky glistening Monday night as Cranbrook Bandits head coach Paul Mrazek pounded baseball after baseball into the dirt, sending his young hopefuls from left to right, forehand to backhand, fielding ground balls at shortstop.
It was the first drill of the night and while simple, it represented so much as the Bandits rounded out their second and final night of tryouts at Confederation Park in Cranbrook.
With the American Legion Baseball season lingering ever so near, Mrazek tested the fielding abilities of 14 youngsters, intent on finding the best fits to fill out a squad that is expected to have 11 returning players from the group that made a second consecutive trip to the Montana State B championship last season.
“I’m always excited for the start of the season to get back out there on the field,” Mrazek said. “I’m excited about taking the team another step, to another level. I think we’re ready for it now. We’ve been building slowly and now we’ve got a really good foundation.
“I like what I saw [during tryouts]. There was a wide age range, some of them are just a little on the younger side and still need to grow and get stronger to be able to play.”
While a few key pieces have graduated and moved on from Mrazek’s program, the expectation remains to find a way back to the state championship once again in 2016. The Bandits returned to the state title match in 2015, falling just short of a repeat performance after having won it all in 2014.
American Legion Baseball clubs are permitted to carry 18 players on the active roster, but Mrazek has emphasized his wish to carry 16 players on the Bandits’ active roster, with an additional two to four players on the team’s practice squad.
With 14 energetic youngsters — aged 13 to 17 — on the fly Monday night, there’s difficult decision-making in Mrazek’s future as he works to iron out which players will be best fit to take up full-time residency in the Bandits dugout at Confederation Park.
Mrazek and his coaching staff were set to review evaluations Tuesday evening, with offers to be extended to players Wednesday. The hope is to have the active roster ironed out by Thursday.
“Some of these players are going to have to decide whether or not they want to fill the role that is available right now as a full-time player,” Mrazek said. “We’ve got 11 returning players, with only one in his second year. The rest have three or more years [experience]. It’s a pretty solid lineup.
“As they progress, all the positions are up for grabs. A new player, if they progress and they’re playing well, they’re going to get more and more time.”
In particular, Mrazek has five returning outfielders that he is more than confident in. An area of need he hopes to address via fresh faces is his pitching rotation. Whether it’s a mature, strong kid who can handle the rigour of entering the starting rotation, or someone better fit for a middle reliever-type role, depth on the mound can’t be taken for granted.
While it’s a big part of the evaluation, raw ability isn’t all Mrazek weighs when it comes to hand-picking his crew.
“Physically, can they play at this level? The arm strength has to be there,” Mrazek said. “The mechanics have to be at a certain level — hitting the ball, fielding the ball, throwing the ball. Attitude is another [key] and where can that player fit in right now.
“We’re taking a look at where they would get their playing time… They have to get innings in for them to develop throughout the year.”
With 11 returners and 14 hopefuls, Mrazek has a relative bounty of ball players to choose from when compared with years past, and it’s a good problem to have as far as he is concerned.
In fact, the Bandits program has grown to such a degree, Mrazek is in the process of gauging interest and putting designs on a Junior Bandits program with eyes on next season.
“In 2008 we played 40 games with 10 players and I just had 14 guys tryout and I’ve got 11 returning [this year],” Mrazek said. “Baseball is getting better in Cranbrook. It’s growing. The Bandits program is better and with this much interest from younger players, we will be looking at a junior team next year.”
With only enough room to carry five more active roster players, there will be a significant handful left disappointed this season, though Mrazek does intend to keep another two to four players on the practice roster.
The Bandits open the 2016 American Legion Baseball season May 14 and 15 when they head south of the border for action in Libby, Mont.
From there, the team returns to Cranbrook for its home opener Saturday, May 21 (1 p.m.), hosting Trail for a doubleheader at Confederation Park.
Keep your eyes on The Townsman for more on the Bandits throughout the American Legion Baseball season.