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Modesto Nuts ready to defend California League title with flurry of returning top prospects
2024 Modesto Nuts
The Modesto Nuts enter the 2024 Minor League Baseball season as the defending California League Champions. Twelve of the 30 players on this year’s Opening Day roster contributed to last year’s championship run (Dan Rogers/@DopeShotDan).

Some of the Seattle Mariners’ most highly touted prospects are back wearing “Modesto” across their chests as they begin to embark on a week of championship celebrations and a year of development as they continue their pursuits of playing in Major League Baseball.

On Friday, the Single-A season began with the defending California League champions, the Modesto Nuts, defeating the Stockton Ports by a score at Banner Island Ballpark. Receiving the Opening Day nod from second-year manager Zach Vincej was right-hander Tyler Gough, Seattle’s ninth round pick in the 2022 MLB Draft. Gough called the opportunity an honor, especially after only throwing 30 innings over 10 games before dealing with an oblique injury.

“It means the world. I'm honored and excited and ready to go out there and showcase myself for Modesto and for the fans,” the 20-year-old said. He was handed a no-decision after tossing four strong innings in which he gave up a run off four hits and three walks while punching out four in their 7-2 win. 

The Nuts dropped the second game of the season 4-2 before pounding the Ports in the series finale Sunday by a 14-5 score. The team has taken the short drive back to Modesto to prepare for Tuesday’s home opener at 7:05 p.m. against the Lake Elsinore Storm, the Single-A affiliate of the San Diego Padres. 

But before first pitch, there will be a ceremony to honor last year’s historic team that clinched Modesto’s 10th California League championship in team history and first since 2017 after completing a two-game sweep of the Rancho Cucamonga Quakes in September — their second title won as an affiliate of the Seattle Mariners organization. As part of festivities, the first 500 people through the gates of John Thurman Field will receive a replica championship ring. Additionally, Nuts General Manager Veronica Hernandez shared that fans can expect a champagne toast during the pregame ceremony.

"That’ll be special. It'll be a nice little memory of last year,” Vincej said. “It was a great run. A great group of guys. The coaching staff was amazing. It takes an army to have that kind of success as a team, so it was great to look back on. We had a lot of special guys on that team. We’ll celebrate that for a few minutes.

“Having a sellout, that would be really cool for the guys to see immediately on game number one. And that speaks volumes of the support that we've gotten all year from the Modesto fans. It's great to see them come out and support us and it helps us with our success. So it'll be very special. It'll be something that we're looking forward to. But we're also looking forward to what we can do this year and how we can get better.”

Twelve of the 30 players on this year’s Opening Day roster contributed to last year’s championship run, including the Mariners’ trio of 2023 first-round draft picks: Colt Emerson (Rd. #22), Tai Peete (CB-A #30) and Jonny Farmelo (PPI #29). 

“It’s very important to celebrate the past and what we did last year, but right after that ceremony ends, we’re present,” Emerson said. “We’re ready for the season and we’re going to win a lot of games this year.”

Emerson, an 18-year-old native of Ohio who the Mariners are hoping is one of their star middle infielders of the future, was clearly ready on Friday night. Batting second, the star shortstop blasted a solo home run on the first pitch he saw in the 2024 season. The blast matched his 2023 total. In 16 games with the Nuts last season, Emerson slashed .302/.436/.444/.880 over 78 plate appearances and 63 at-bats.

MLB Pipeline currently ranks the Seattle Mariners Farm system 18th out of 30 MLB systems, with Modesto hosting six of the top 14 Mariners prospects. Emerson is ranked third, Lazaro Montes fourth, Farmelo sixth, Peete seventh, Michael Arroyo ninth and Aidan Smith fourteenth.

Also smashing balls over the fences of Banner Island Ballpark throughout the opening series was Montes, Farmelo, and Smith. Smith blasted a pair of home runs in Sunday's finale.

“It’s really exciting to be back here in Modesto. I’m really looking forward to the fans,” Montes said through translator and bench coach Hecmart Nieves. “The fans are the fuel for the players when we're out there playing the game… It was amazing to win the entire thing last year and we’re hoping to come back this year and get that back-to-back for Modesto.”

Since getting called up to Modesto midway through last season, the 19-year old Montes has quickly become a fan favorite. After most games, he can be found taking photos and signing autographs for fans down the third base line. Many times, he is the last player to return to the clubhouse.

“I  was a fan one day. I know what it feels like to be in the ballpark and watching the guys play and you want the autograph,” the 6-foot-3, 210-pound Cuban outfielder said. “Now, I’m doing it for them. It's a special thing to be on the field. For me to be taking care of those kids and fans that come out here and support me and the team is really, really important.”

Peete shared similar sentiments. He hopes to learn from last season’s experiences and to put on a show for the masses. In 62 at-bats over 14 games, the 18-year-old Georgia native hit .242 with a .686 OPS. On Aug. 27, he hit two grand slams for his first two career home runs in professional baseball. Last month, he participated in the inaugural Spring Breakout prospect showcase, where he hit a two-run double.

“After the offseason after the spring I had, I'm pretty excited about what's to come over these next couple of months here. I’m  just ready to perform and entertain… I'm here to play the sport I love and I'm ready.”

This season, the Nuts will continue their three weekly promotions: Together Tuesdays, Silver Sluggers and Pups & Pints.

“The 2024 season will be a special one,” said Hernandez.