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Eric Peterson, Published May 23 2013

Roster building for RedHawks is heavy on stats

Fargo - The numbers printed on a sheet of paper help paint the picture of a player for Doug Simunic.

“We’ve got a formula,” said the Fargo-Moorhead RedHawks manager.

For example: The number of double plays a player hits into or the amount of home runs and extra-base hits give an idea of the hitter’s swing plane.

Having to decide on a player based on statistics is the reality when it comes to building an independent baseball team.

“You don’t always have a chance to see a guy with your eye before you sign him,” said Jeff Bittiger, who is a consultant for the RedHawks and a pro scout for the Oakland Athletics.

The RedHawks have their home opener against the Laredo Lemurs at 7:02 p.m. today at Newman Outdoor Field. The RedHawks (2-5) are off to a slow start seven games into this American Association season.

However, the franchise has a track record of plucking the right players to make a successful team.

F-M has had only one season with a below .500 record in its first 17 years, missing the playoffs twice. The RedHawks have won five league titles.

“You’re always anxious to see how it’s going to come out,” said Bittiger, who is a former pitcher and pitching coach for the RedHawks before moving into a consultant role. “Is it going to come out how you envision it on paper?”

While Simunic has the final say on personnel, building the roster is a team effort. RedHawks general manager Josh Buchholz scours through transactions and compiles a list of potential player targets. He passes that information along to Simunic and Bittiger.

Bittiger is the main “sounding board” for Simunic, said Buchholz. Simunic and Bittiger talk daily on the phone for a good part of the offseason.

Bittiger has helped with personnel decisions since F-M started play in 1996 in the re-formed Northern League.

In recent years, pitching coach Steve Montgomery and assistant coach Kole Zimmerman have become involved in the process.

Buchholz also has his eye on the salary cap. He lets Simunic know how and if a potential player fits into the team’s salary cap. The American Association salary cap this season is $115,000. Teams play 100 games, and the roster maximum is 22 players for most of the season.

“You try to make it as right as you can,” said Simunic.

Simunic and Bittiger have statistical categories they value more than others. For example, Bittiger prefers pitchers with strikeout ability. Simunic said he values run scored and RBIs more than batting average.

Of course, crunching numbers is not an exact science. A player’s overall value is hard to gauge until they get to Fargo.

“You don’t know what’s inside a guy,” Simunic said. “Once you get him on the job site is where you make your evaluation.”

Getting the right players from the outset is crucial because once the season starts player availability is scarce. The majority of quality players are already signed with a team.

“When you don’t have it right and you need to replace it, it’s hard,” said Buchholz. “It’s hard to find it in the real world.”

Bittiger is a former roommate of Athletics general manager Billy Beane, who is famous for his “Moneyball” method for building a team. Both Bittiger and Beane were players in the New York Mets organization in the early 1980s.

Simunic said it would be virtually impossible to build a team from scratch from the previous season. That means having quality returning players is essential.

The RedHawks brought back position players like center fielder Nic Jackson, shortstop Zach Penprase, catcher Todd Jennings and outfielder Buddy Sosnoskie. F-M also returned five pitchers from last season, including lefty Jake Laber, who is slated to start tonight against Laredo.

“There is no one that can empty a whole roster,” said Simunic. “They’re very important, to have repeat players. They’re sort of the nucleus.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Eric Peterson at (701) 241-5513.

Peterson’s blog can be found at peterson.areavoices.com