Major League Baseball Spring Training games will soon be underway, with MLB’s 30 teams bringing their best and brightest talents together in Arizona and Florida to begin training for the beginning of the 2021 MLB season. When they do, five former Bellingham Bells will be amongst them.
Former Bells Spencer Howard, David Banuelos, Michael Rucker, Seth Martinez and Chase Strumpf have all been invited by their MLB clubs to participate in Spring Training. Each team can bring their 40-man roster and 20 additional non-roster invitees.
Bellingham was part of the development of all five players. All are fantastic representatives of our hometown team who utilized their summers in Whatcom County to learn and grow as players and as people, too. Here’s an update on five of Bellingham’s brightest prospects as they go into 2021 MLB Spring Training.
The future is extremely bright for Phillies right-handed pitcher Spencer Howard. A 2015 and 2016 Bell, Howard is currently the only former Bell on a 40-man MLB roster.
Howard was drafted by the Phillies out of Cal-Poly in the 2nd round of the 2017 MLB Draft and made his first MLB start with the Phillies on August 9, 2020. Howard logged six appearances during the 2020 season and finished the season with a 5.92 ERA in 24.1 innings pitched. Many media sources project he will be part of the club’s starting rotation in 2021.
During Howard’s two summer stint in Bellingham, he worked closely with pitching coach Jim Clem to develop his velocity and pitches.
“Spencer Howard was a walk-on and eventually red-shirted his first season at Cal Poly in 2015,” Clem said. “That said, it was evident to his coaches that he had a lot of promise, which he really showed during summer 2015 in Bellingham. Spencer just needed some time to develop, he really hadn't pitched a lot. He became a reliever for the Bells during that first summer and his growth from the beginning of the summer to summer’s end was truly remarkable.”
Howard showed flashes of high-level talent while in Bellingham. He accumulated a career ERA of 2.11 in 55.1 innings pitched as a Bellingham Bell. He was honored with a West Coast League All-League Honorable Mention in 2016.
During the 2016 season, Howard was brilliant, with a 1.45 ERA in 32.2 innings pitched. Howard walked only four batters during the 2016 season.
“Spencer became a dominant force,” Clem said. “He is high energy, his motor ran fast when competing, but he learned to harness it. It was just such a joy to watch him transform into an elite pitcher, he really worked hard at it.”
Howard was also a fantastic representative of the Bells while in Bellingham, universally recognized for being a hard worker, good teammate and overall great guy.
“Spencer was one of the most humble, hardest working Bells we’ve ever had,” Bells general manager Stephanie Morrell said. “He loved to have fun, too. Guys loved him. He put in the work, and led by example. I remember hearing he was getting up at 6:00 a.m. on a regular basis, even after late road trips and home games, to run and go to the gym. I was pretty impressed by that. It was fun to watch his rapid improvement while he was here in Bellingham and it’s been no surprise he’s had success in his MLB career. He is a top notch athlete and an even better human being.”
“Working with Spencer was so much fun,” Clem said. “He’s such a great guy. Loves to laugh, super dedicated, a special talent, and a terrific teammate.”
Banuelos, a 2016 Bell, was invited to this year’s spring training as a non-roster invitee with the Minnesota Twins. During the 2019 MLB season, Banuelos saw time with the Fort Myers Mighty Mussels (Class A - Advanced) and the Cedar Rapids Kernels (Class A - Full Season). He racked up 209 at bats and 37 hits on the season.
Banuelos, a catcher, was drafted out of Long Beach State by the Seattle Mariners in the fifth round of the 2017 MLB Draft. He was traded to the Twins in December 2017.
Banuelos had a terrific collegiate career with the Dirtbags, full of accolades.
“After his season with the Bells, Banuelos returned to Long Beach State and had an outstanding season as a junior, was named a "First Team All-American" and was one of three finalists for the "Johnny Bench Award," an award given to the country's best catcher,” Clem said. “Saying David is a fierce competitor on the field would certainly be an understatement!”
As a Bell, Banuelos was magnificent behind the dish and helped lead the Bells to a second place finish in the West Coast League. He also added some nice depth to the Bells lineup, hitting .248 in 141 at bats.
"David came to Bellingham after he had a solid sophomore season at Long Beach State,” Clem said. “He was that lockdown catcher that every team hopes to have, plus he was tough offensively, and he was great with our pitchers too. While we had a terrific roster that summer, David had a lot to do with the success the Bells had in 2016.”
Banuelos shined both off and on the field with the Bells, showcasing a high work ethic and amount of leadership that has continued to develop in his professional career.
“The first time I met David, I remember thinking - this guy is already a professional,” Morrell said. “It doesn’t surprise me at all that he’s had success.The way he went about his business each and every day was so impressive. It was evident he had the drive, desire and talent to turn baseball into a career and I couldn’t be happier that he’s had the opportunity to chase his dream of being a Major Leaguer.”
“He gives it all he has all of the time,” Clem said. “David is so consistent behind the plate, his throws to second are bullet-like and they are spot on. He was popular with our team, great in the clubhouse, really well-liked by everyone. David was like having a coach on the field. He was such a great Bell!"
A two year Bell, right-handed pitcher Rucker was a key part of the Bells’ 2014 West Coast League championship pitching staff. He will join spring training as a non-roster invitee of the Chicago Cubs.
Following his undergraduate career at BYU, Rucker was drafted by the Cubs in the 11th round of the 2016 MLB Draft. He has accumulated a 3.26 career ERA in the minors over 331 innings pitched. In 2019, Rucker rose to AAA with the Iowa Cubs, and also spent time in AA with the Tennessee Smokies.
Rucker was rock solid out of the bullpen for the Bells in 2014, maintaining a 1.42 ERA in 25.1 innings pitched. He had a particularly impressive outing in Game 1 of the 2014 WCL Championship Series vs. Corvallis, throwing 3.1 innings of shutout baseball.
"Michael Rucker's two summers with the Bells was very helpful to his development,” Clem said. “He really hadn't pitched much in college before he arrived in Bellingham, so the experience he gained in the WCL really helped prepare him for his time at BYU. Over three college seasons (one at Gonzaga and two at BYU) he accumulated a 17-2 record with 8 saves and a 2.90 ERA. Not many put up numbers like that.”
“Michael was so impressive to watch, and he made a big impact for the Bells, especially late in the season during our championship run,” Morrell said. “Over the two summers spent in Bellingham, he grew up with the Bells. He quickly developed into a fierce and confident competitor. It was fun to watch him become a leader in the clubhouse and it was pretty clear he had a bright future.”
“When thinking about Michael,” Clem said. “There were times when he simply dominated the competition, shattering bats along the way was not uncommon. It was fun to watch, as you could see him growing up right in front of you. It's great to see he's in the Major League camp!"
Martinez was a member of the 2014 Bells, an integral part of the roster that brought home the first West Coast League title to Bellingham. He’s now with the Houston Astros and has been designated a non-roster invitee for spring training.
The right-handed pitcher was traded to the Astros from the Oakland Athletics in December 2020. He has been assigned to the AAA Sugarland Skeeters for the 2021 season.
In 2019, he pitched 28.2 innings for the AA Midland Rockhounds, finishing the season with a 1.26 ERA and only 9 walks. He also saw time with the Class-A Advanced Stockton Ports.
Martinez was the Bells ace in 2014, and was named the West Coast League Pitcher of the Year at the conclusion of the 2014 season. He had the league’s lowest ERA (2.07). Martinez also ranked third in the WCL for wins (6) and fifth for strikeouts (50).
"Seth Martinez led a Bells pitching staff that put up amazing numbers during the summer of 2014,” Clem said. “While the team led the league in practically every pitching category, Seth set the tone for our team.”
“It was pretty obvious Seth was a special talent from the first time we saw him throw,” Morrell said. “He had electric stuff, good velocity and he competed fiercely. There was so much excitement in the air every time Seth threw. You could just tell he was a guy who was going to have a bright future.”
Martinez has been widely known for his competitiveness, skill, and quiet leadership.
“Seth was such a great competitor,” Clem said. “I always got the feeling after he finished his warm-up pitches in the bullpen, prior to starting his game, that something special might take place that game. He was a surgeon on the mound, his precision at hitting his spots was uncanny. Seth is the definition of a pitcher, he has exceptional stuff, his control is always locked-in, and his presence on the mound is that of pure confidence. He was such a pleasure to work with and it seemed the rest of the staff that summer fed off of his performances and went out and did their best as well. Our staff was loaded that summer, and there were a lot of good pitchers around the league, but Seth was the best of the best!”
Strumpf, a 2016 Bell, was drafted out of UCLA by the Chicago Cubs in the 2nd round of the 2019 MLB draft. He has been invited to spring training as a non-rostered player.
Strumpf, an infielder, played with teams at the rookie, shortseason-A and fullseason-A levels during his first season in minor league baseball (2019). On the season, he hit .244 with 3 home runs and 17 RBI.
During a three year career at UCLA, Strumpf was outstanding. As a junior in 2019, he started all 63 games, was named to the Pac-12 All-Conference Team and named to several First Team Pre-Season All American teams.
With the Bells, Strumpf was impressive defensively in the middle infield and added depth to the Bells lineup. Strumpf ended the 2016 season with a .247 average and 6 home runs, but came on particularly strong at the end of the season, averaging .300 with 4 home runs during the month of August. He was a major contributor during the team’s 2016 playoff run, hitting three home runs in five games.
"Chase Strumpf was such a mature player at a very young age,” Clem said. “He came to Bellingham right out of high school, was a very decorated high school player, and he certainly lived up to his reputation and then some. He was such a great Bell! He played hard, with a lot of heart, and it didn't take long for him to adjust to the level of play.”
At the conclusion of the 2016 season, Strumpf was awarded Honorable Mention All-West Coast League honors.
“I remember watching Chase in his very first game as a Bell and I was blown away by his defensive skills,” Morrell said. “He made everything look easy, everything looked routine. So talented, great range. Very rarely did you ever see him make an error. He had just graduated high school and not yet played an inning of collegiate baseball, so that was pretty impressive. Once he adjusted to collegiate pitching, later in the season, he really started to hit the ball and was a huge part of our West Coast League playoff run. You pretty much knew right then, that this kid had a bright future, and I think he’s still far from the ceiling. ”
Strumpf, although one of the youngest players on the 2016 Bells roster, was a role model and leader amongst the club.
“You really wouldn’t have known how young he was,” Morrell said. “He was so professional, so kind. He was a leader on the squad and known for his work ethic. He understood how important the community was and he always took the time to sign every autograph. He was absolutely the kind of guy you want to have on your team. We are big Chase Strumpf fans around here and can’t wait to see what he can do this year.”
“Chase is a special talent, a special player, and a special young man,” Clem said. “It's no surprise to Bellingham fans that Chase is in major league camp. He can really play."