MARION -- It's that time of year again.
The 12th season for the Southern Illinois Miners began with orientation, media interviews and a players-led workout Wednesday at Rent One Park.
"It's always a favorite day," said Miners manager Mike Pinto, who is also the team's chief operating officer. "I love getting guys here."
Pinto's focus was sharper than ever in the offseason after 2017 produced the only losing record in the franchise's history. Pinto has been the manager since the team's inception; the Miners won the Frontier League championship in 2012.
"I'm excited to get started," Pinto said. "The stench from last year, I can still taste that. You get a standard where you win every year, you want to stay with that."
The Miners went 39-57 last year and didn't have a player named to the postseason all-star team for the first time in team history.
The next two weeks are filled with exhibition games and innersquad scrimmages that will determine who stays on the 24-man roster for opening night on May 11. This year's spring camp features eight exhibition games starting with a doubleheader Friday afternoon.
"We have tough evaluations coming up and I have to let 17 of these guys go and that's uncomfortable," Pinto said. "I don't look forward to that, but I needed to make sure we had the number of guys we needed to not ever have happen what happened last year."
Pinto brought in a wealth of experienced players and told the team Wednesday that he'll likely release a player who will become an all-star somewhere else, but that the player who stays will be an all-star, too. At least that's the caliber of competition expected.
"I feel like whatever team we end up with," said returning outfielder Nolan Earley, "it will be a good group this year."
Earley is one of nine outfielders in spring camp, a number that will be cut to four or five, Pinto said.
"You can't stress too much about it," Earley said. "I'm going to play my game. I'm not looking for any special treatment. ... The extra exhibition games are going to be good for a lot of guys. You'll get to see more of what guys have and maybe it will make it a little easier on Mike to make decisions."
Pinto said he targeted more experienced pitchers in the offseason to make sure his bullpen doesn't get taxed. That's one reason he signed Williams Perez, the first Miners roster member to have pitched in the major leagues. Perez hadn't arrived in Marion yet as of Wednesday afternoon.
The Miners also have a revamped coaching staff with familiar names. Steve Marino, the former Miners captain, is now the hitting coach. And former catcher Toby DeMello is the first official bullpen coach in team history and will also serve as "strategic coach" as a numbers cruncher.
"Toby is one of my best friends and we worked well together as teammates," Marino said. "So there's no reason we won't do the same on the coaching staff."
Pinto said that Marino was basically a hitting coach while he was a player. Marino agreed, saying he enjoyed working with rookies and helping players the same way older players helped him.
"I was always willing to help," Marino said. "Now I can just focus on that instead of worrying about getting two hits every night."
Tyler Martin, who is not a former Miners player, is the new pitching coach. John Lakin and Ralph Santana have returned to their usual roles.
The coaching staff's first priority before the May 11 opener is putting together the right roster of players, and those evaluations began Thursday morning.
"It's going to be a war," Pinto said. "I want to see who wants to be here."