Billings Mustangs practice

Mustangs infielder Jesus Azuaje throws during preseason workouts on Tuesday. Azuaje had a short stint in Triple-A in the Rockies system in 2019.

BILLINGS — When the Billings Mustangs step on the diamond Saturday at Melaleuca Field in Idaho Falls, it will mark the franchise’s first baseball game in 20 months.

The Mustangs, and all franchises in the Pioneer League, are facing new circumstances in 2021. The PL is now an independent partner league of Major League Baseball, the result of MLB’s contraction of the short-season minor leagues.

For Billings that meant the end of an affiliation with the Cincinnati Reds that dated back to 1974.

That came on the heels of the 2020 season being canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but questions about the Pioneer League’s future lingered for months prior to that. Now, at least, there's clarity.

Mustangs manager Joe Kruzel, like fans and players alike, is happy that the wheels are in motion for the season ahead, which for Billings begins at 7:15 p.m. against Idaho Falls. Kruzel is confident that the level of play for the Pioneer League’s now-independent teams will remain largely the same.

“These partner leagues are still trying to give these kids the chance to play,” said Kruzel, who also managed the Mustangs in 2007 before being let go toward the end of that season. “I’m not sure we know the answer to what these leagues are going to look like at this moment, but I think they have ideas in mind to see how these could really be beneficial for a lot of these kids.

“I think a lot of stuff that’s going to be happening on the field will be very similar. I have a feeling they could end up being very, very competitive and very, very good.”

The Mustangs released their opening day roster on Thursday. It consists of 23 players — three catchers, four infielders, four outfielders and 12 pitchers.

Notable are two players with local connections: Billings native Jalen Garcia, previously a standout in the local American Legion program with the Scarlets and later Montana State Billings, and fellow MSUB product Daniel Cipriano, an infielder who set the Yellowjackets’ career home run record.

Three players on the roster are former MLB draft picks. Pitcher Peyton Culbertson was an eighth-round selection of the Marlins in 2018, and played in Clinton (Iowa) in the Single-A Midwest League in 2018. Pitcher Alex Smith was a 24th-round pick of the Royals in 2018 and spent time the following season with Burlington (North Carolina) in the Rookie Advanced Appalachian League.

Meanwhile, infielder Jesus Azuaje was a 25th-round pick of the Phillies in 2017 and climbed as high at Triple-A for a brief stint with Albuquerque of the Pacific Coast League in the Rockies’ system in 2019.

Additionally, pitcher Tyshaun Chapman played a stretch in the Rookie-level Arizona League with the Royals in 2019.

Several other players have previous experience in college and/or independent leagues. Mustangs general manager Gary Roller said the roster has been approved by the Pioneer League office.

For Kruzel, this season will reunite him not only with Roller but also with club owner Dave Heller, who is also an owner of Single-A Quad Cities (Iowa) in the Midwest League. Kruzel spent five seasons as the hitting coach there, from 2008-12.

Kruzel was most recently the manager at Springfield (Missouri), a Cardinals affiliate in the Double-A Texas League.

“It’s nice to put the uniform back on, it really is,” Kruzel said. “I’m very appreciative of Dave and Gary giving me this opportunity to come back to Billings. It’s been 14, 15 years. I always said at the time I was here back in ’07, if the Reds had given me the chance to manage here for the rest of my career, I would have told them yes.

“I’ve always enjoyed it out here. It’s a great atmosphere they create for the players here. This go-round is going to be a little bit different because it’s a different situation, but the opportunity to come back here was too good not to do it.”

The Mustangs will play a three-game series at Idaho Falls. Tuesday will be a league-wide off-day (recurring each week). The team will make its Dehler Park debut at 6:35 p.m. Wednesday with the first game of a six-game set against the Rocky Mountain Vibes.

This season will feature a 96-game schedule, 20 games longer than in previous years. 

Among the rules changes for 2021 include a home run challenge to decide extra-inning games, as well as designated pinch hitters and pinch runners that may be used without having to remove the original player from the lineup.

2021 Mustangs opening day roster

Pitchers (12): 11-Norman Coleman-Goodwin, 5-11, 200, Queens, N.Y.; 13-Tyshaun Chapman, 6-1, 190, Pontiac, Mich.; 14-Adolfo Espinoza, 6-3, 185, Victorville, Calif.; 15-Easton Barnes, 6-3, 185, Lawrence, Kan.; 16-CJ Gonzales, 5-11, 210, Lewiston, N.Y.; 19-Peyton Culbertson, 6-2, 205, Collierville, Tenn.; 23-Sean Jackson, 6-0, 175, Vallejo, Calif.; 26-Misael Castillo, 5-8, 175, Egg Harbor, N.J.; 34-Colin Kelly, 6-7, 230, West Nyack, N.Y.; 35-Alex Smith, 6-3, 230, Memphis, Tenn.; 38-Sam Wells, 6-6, 230, Sebastopol Calif.; 45-Gaylon Viney, 6-3, 185, Del City, Okla.

Catchers (3): 17-Robbie Kellerman, 6-1, 190, Cary, N.C.; Jerry Chavarria, 5-10, 210, Washington, D.C.; 48-Adarius Moody, 6-1, 230, Richmond, Va.

Infielders (4): 4-Dalton Cobb, 5-10, 180, Alexandria, Ala.; 8-Chris Eusay, 5-11, 190, Anacoco, La.; 21-Jesus Azuaje, 5-9, 185, Buckeye, Ariz.; 40-Daniel Cipriano, 6-3, 240, Agoura Hills, Calif.

Outfielders (4): 9-Jalen Garcia, 6-0, 190, Billings; 22-Austin Fitzpatrick, 6-4, 215, Benicia, Calif.; 25-Caeden Harris, 6-1, 190, Overland Park, Kan.; 51-Mike Bradshaw, 6-5, 230, Crestwood, N.Y.

Email Greg Rachac at Greg.Rachac@406mtsports.com or follow him on Twitter at @gregrachac

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