EVANSVILLE, Ind. (WFIE) -The Evansville Otters will be bringing back outfielder Hunter Cullen and pitchers Abraham Almonte, Trace Norkus, and Brandon Wilkes for the 2020 season.
Cullen has spent two seasons with Evansville. In 2019, he saw his batting average increase from his first season from .240 to .261. He also had increases in runs with 43, doubles with 12, home runs with eight, RBIs with 34, and stolen bases with 16.
“Hunter worked extremely hard last offseason and worked with some advanced hitting coaches,” Otters manager Andy McCauley said. “I think he got stronger and understood the game a little better.”
“I hope I continue to show power, but I’m really working this offseason on using the whole field at the plate,” Cullen said. “My goal is to not give up as many at-bats and really increase my on-base percentage.”
“With his speed, he needs to commit to a two-strike approach,” McCauley said. “If he can, he will become a top of the order player and very appealing to affiliated teams.”
Cullen’s outfield defense also highlighted his 2019 season, making diving catches and wall-climbing snags to rob home runs.
“Out in the field, I have the confidence and thinking that if anything comes my way, it’s going to be caught,” Cullen said. “I do a lot of self-talk in the outfield but try not to overthink because keeping it simple is better.”
Before Evansville, Cullen played collegiately for Cal State Fullerton from 2015-17 after beginning his collegiate career at Saddleback College in 2014. As a senior in 2017, Cullen hit .251 and finished with eight doubles, two triples and six home runs. He appeared in 127 games for the Titans in his career and stole 11 bases.
Almonte joined the Otters last season after spending two years in the Arizona Diamondbacks organization. In 2019 with the Otters, Almonte recorded 13 strikeouts and a 4.38 ERA in 12.1 innings pitched and 14 appearances, missing the middle part of the season due to injury.
“Last year I learned that everything happens for a reason and everything is in God’s hands,” Almonte said. “Now I am thankfully healthy and have taken a lot time preparing specifically for the Otters and this season.”
“I am hungry and thankful for this opportunity.”
“It was a frustrating and disappointing season for Abraham last year with the lingering injury, but we’ve received really great news about his offseason progress,” McCauley said.
Almonte is from Danbury, Conn. and was drafted by the Diamondbacks in the 26th round of the 2017 MLB June Draft. He pitched for the Missoula Osprey and the Kane County Cougars in his two seasons in the organization.
“We look forward to seeing a healthy, dominant Abraham for us at the back end of the bullpen,” McCauley said.
“My goal this season is to continue being the dominant pitcher I know I can be and who the people and coaches around me know I can be,” Almonte said.
Almonte played collegiately at Philadelphia University, and was the first Philadelphia University player drafted since Shaun Babula in 1999 by the Chicago White Sox in the 16th round. Almonte averaged 11 strikeouts per nine innings at Philadelphia University. On April 3, 2015 vs. Lincoln (PA), he threw the school’s first no-hitter since 1999.
Norkus signed with the Otters in August 2019 and recorded a 1.93 ERA with seven strikeouts in 4.2 innings pitched.
“During the stretch run of last season, I took away that winning is fun, and it makes the game better and more relaxed,” Norkus said.
“This season, my goal is to just be a go-to guy that the team can rely on and help win. I also want to strive to have a 3:1 strikeout-to-walk ratio or better.”
“In a small sample size, we liked what we saw from Trace last season to want to bring him back,” McCauley said. “His college numbers were dynamic, so we’re hoping to see some of that come spring.”
Norkus wrapped up his senior season at the University of North Florida last spring. During his senior campaign, he posted a series of career bests as a senior, turning in the best numbers of tenure in: ERA (2.86), appearances (23), games started (two), saves (six), innings pitched (34.2) and strikeouts (42).
“For my short time with the Otters last season, I learned that being around a great group of players and coaches in the clubhouse really impacted the way we played out on the field,” Norkus said.
“Having good chemistry is vital to any team sport and it shows. Hopefully, this 2020 season we’ll come out on top with a championship.”
Wilkes is from Holly Hill, Fla. and joined the Otters in June 2019. Wilkes saw limited action due to injury in 2019, picking up two strikeouts in his lone appearance, but says he learned a lot from last season by sitting back and observing all aspects of the game.
“I’m excited and feel very good heading into this season,” Wilkes said. “My arm is back to full health.”
“Brandon put in hard work and showed persistence throughout the summer, earning him a spot in Spring Training,” McCauley said. “He could’ve gone home at any point but stuck it out and grinded with his rehab.”
Wilkes played collegiately at Bethune-Cookman University. In his senior season, he had five saves and led the team with a 2.04 ERA, .202 opponents' average, and 11.72 strikeouts per-game. He registered 46 strikeouts to 11 walks in 16 appearances and 35 innings.
“We weren’t comfortable rushing him back to the mound last year,” McCauley said. “With a full offseason, we will hopefully see what Brandon can really do.”
“My goal for this season is to stay healthy all year,” Wilkes said. “If I stay healthy, I think the stats will take care of themselves.”
Evansville will host Opening Night from Bosse Field against the Gateway Grizzlies May 15 at 6:35 p.m. Preseason exhibitions will begin May 2 for the Otters. The annual Education Day games will be May 6 and May 13 at 10 a.m.
Courtesy: Evansville Otters