The Gateway Grizzlies have announced returning players from their 2023 West Division Championship team as they look to defend their division title and capture the Frontier League title.
Outfielder Jairus Richards comes back to Sauget after a record 2023 campaign that saw the Gig Harbor, Washington native set a new Frontier League record with 75 stolen bases, while also placing inside the league’s top-five in batting average (.340), on-base percentage (.472), walks (68), and runs scored (82). In addition, Richards hit 16 home runs and 10 doubles while driving in 56 runs, and was one of the league’s very best arms at his position defensively, finishing with 10 outfield assists. He earned both Midseason and Postseason All-Star accolades for his tremendous year.
Joining Richards at the top of the order will be Gabe Holt, who was on pace to set numerous records in 2023 as well before a hand injury just after the all-star break sidelined the second baseman for the remainder of the season. At the time of his injury, the Warner Robins, Georgia native was leading the entire Frontier League in batting average (.435), on-base percentage (.513) and total hits (83), along with 12 doubles, four homers, 31 RBIs, 49 runs scored, and 17 stolen bases. He also displayed some of the very best contact ability and plate discipline in the circuit, striking out just 10 times in 48 games played, and was voted a Midseason All-Star.
In the middle of the order, Peter Zimmermann brings his formidable bat back to the Grizzlies’ lineup in 2024 for his third season with the team. The St. Louis native crushed the competition all year long, tying for first in the Frontier League with a .481 on-base percentage, and placing second in the league with a .361 batting average and .674 slugging percentage. Despite being limited to only 71 games played, Zimmermann also finished inside the league’s top-5 with 83 RBIs, and added 21 home runs, 18 doubles, and 93 total hits. In addition, he was voted a Midseason All-Star in July, and finished second in the Home Run Derby competition.
Another all-star and St. Louis native on the infield returns to the “hot corner” in 2024 in D.J. Stewart. The third baseman turned in an outstanding, well-rounded season in 2023 by batting .306 with 13 home runs, 22 doubles, 25 stolen bases, and 105 hits across 89 games played. Stewart also drove in 77 runs, good for seventh-most in the Frontier League, and was voted a Midseason All-Star.
A staple on the Grizzlies infield for the past three years, Abdiel Diaz will also return in 2024 for his fourth season with the club. The switch-hitter batted .270 with 11 doubles, four homers, 37 RBIs, and 20 stolen bases in 67 games in 2023. He was also outstanding with his glove at shortstop, as he did not make a single error at the demanding position until the second half, and was also voted a Midseason All-Star.
Yet another St. Louisan in Mark Vierling comes back for another go-around with his hometown club after providing the Grizzlies with a valuable presence in a utility role in 2023. In his professional debut season in 2023, he batted .282 with six homers, 11 doubles, and 39 RBIs in 74 games while seeing time at five different positions defensively, including as the club’s everyday shortstop down the stretch and into the postseason.
Behind the plate, Willie Estrada has also re-signed with the Grizzlies for next season. Starting most of his 59 games behind the dish, the Kissimmee, Florida native hit .259 with 10 doubles, six homers, and 29 RBIs for the West Division champs as part of a strong catching core.
A pair of late-season additions to the active roster this past year will also make Sauget their baseball home in 2024. Outfielder Cole Brannen signed with the Grizzlies after being released by the Florence Y’alls, and proceeded to make the Gateway outfield among the very best in the league on defense with his speed and glove work. At the plate, the Macon, Georgia native and former 2nd-round MLB Draft pick hit .230 with 10 RBIs as well as 19 stolen bases in only 36 games.
Finally, one of the best stories of 2023 was the emergence of hitting coach Kyle Gaedele. After not seeing action as a pro player since 2018, the shorthanded Grizzlies activated the Arlington Heights, Illinois native in July, and he responded by hitting .286 with 11 homers and 32 RBIs in only 37 games, providing the team with much-needed power and production down the stretch. He comes back in 2024 as a full-time player-coach, mentoring the Grizzlies’ hitters in addition to returning as a veteran player.
Headlining the returning pitchers is Collin Sullivan, who came to the club in 2023 out of the Arizona Diamondbacks organization, and set a Grizzlies club record with a Frontier League-leading 135 strikeouts against just 35 walks in 110 1/3 innings over 19 games (18 starts). The right-hander also posted a 10-5 record and a 2.69 ERA that placed him inside the league’s top-five in both categories. He was voted a Midseason All-Star as well, striking out seven or more batters in 13 of his 18 starts to anchor the rotation all summer long.
Joining Sullivan in that Grizzlies’ rotation in 2024 will be Lukas Veinbergs, who returns for his third season as a Grizzlie. The right-hander also had a strong campaign with a 9-3 record in 19 starts, a 4.54 ERA, 90 strikeouts, and 31 walks in 103 innings pitched. Just like in 2022 as a rookie, he was at his very best late in the season, going 4-0 with a 1.60 ERA from July 31st onward, including a nine-inning shutout on August 29th against the Evansville Otters in his last regular season outing. The Pinckney, Michigan native also tossed a “quality start” with two runs allowed in six innings in Game 1 of the Frontier League Division Series at Evansville.
A St. Louis-area native also returns for a third season with his hometown club in 2024 in Alec Whaley. The side-armer from O’Fallon, Missouri set a Grizzlies single-season record with 55 appearances, and owned a 2.91 ERA along with an outstanding 51:11 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 52 2/3 innings in 2023, serving as one of the most-dependable relievers in the Frontier League. Included in his numbers was a stretch of 20 2/3 consecutive scoreless innings from July 16 to August 22 as Gateway sewed up their berth in the playoffs as well as the West Division title.
At the back end of the bullpen, Brian Eichhorn makes his return to Sauget this coming season. After joining the roster mid-year, the Richmond Hill, Georgia native put up a 1.74 ERA in 22 appearances, along with 36 strikeouts and 11 walks in 20 2/3 innings, serving primarily as a set-up man for the Grizzlies’ closers Colton Easterwood and Josh Lucas.
Another trusted bullpen arm in Nate Garkow will also come back to the club in 2024. Making 40 appearances in relief, the Glendora, California native led the Grizzlies with seven relief wins, posted a 3.80 ERA, struck out 60, and walked just 18 in 47 1/3 innings after coming over in an offseason trade from the Sioux Falls Canaries in the American Association.
In addition, two Grizzlies rookie arms that joined the roster in the middle of 2023 will return next season. Nathanial Tate comes back to Sauget after a promising first pro season that saw him appear in 14 games while starting twice, striking out 28 and walking 13 in 32 innings with a 5.06 ERA out of East Tennessee State University. He, too, finished the season strong, allowing only two runs in his final nine innings pitched with 14 strikeouts and no walks.
Parker Johnson will also return after showing off terrific “strikeout stuff” in 2023 over seven starts with the Grizzlies. The Anchorage, Alaska native struck out 37 batters in just 34 innings while walking only nine in making his professional debut out of Western Oregon University.
The Grizzlies start off 2024 on the road May 10th, and return for their home opener on May 17th vs the Windy City Thunderbolts at Grizzlies Ballpark in Sauget, IL.