OGDEN — The last time Justin Yurchak played at Lindquist Field, his Great Falls Voyagers lost 7-4 to the Ogden Raptors in Game 1 of the 2017 Pioneer League Championship series.
His final game in the Pioneer League was three days later on his 21st birthday. Yurchak stood in the on-deck circle as Ogden recorded the final out in an 8-3 victory to win the league title.
Now, Yurchak finds himself in Dodger blue preparing for the 2019 season as an Ogden Raptor. He and new manager Austin Chubb both return to Ogden after at least one year away for the Pioneer League season that begins at 7 p.m. tonight when the Raptors begin a four-game homestand against the Grand Junction Rockies.
As a first and third baseman, Yurchak played 2018 in single-A Kannapolis, North Carolina. Then, during the late fall, the New York native was at his grandparents’ house in Massachusetts when he got a call from the Chicago White Sox farm director telling him he’d been traded.
“It took a while, I kept catching myself saying ‘us’ when talking about the White Sox so it took some adjusting,” he said. “It was kind of the same process as when I got drafted all over again — getting to know all the guys and getting accustomed to how the Dodgers do things.”
Yurchak hit .345 with eight home runs in his 2017 season in Great Falls. He’s one of many Raptors who can look to the development success of other Los Angeles Dodgers with hope for his own career.
His inspiration might be Max Muncy, the current Dodgers power-hitter who was traded into the organization after hitting .186 in 51 games with the Oakland Athletics in 2016. Muncy hit .263 with 35 home runs last year in the majors.
“They did some stuff with his swing in the minors and you saw what happened,” Yurchak said. “We’ve done a lot of work with them and so far it’s paid off and I’m really hoping to continue to develop.”
Chubb, a Florida native, played three seasons in the Washington Nationals farm system before being released. He helped coach a high school team for two weeks before getting a call from the Dodgers and played most of the 2015 season in high-A Rancho Cucamonga.
He became a player-coach halfway through the season, was assigned to Ogden as a hitting coach in 2016 and has managed Dominican Summer League teams for the Dodgers for the past two seasons.
He can point to former Raptors like Cody Bellinger, who was his teammate in 2015, for success stories to inspire his current team.
“Bellinger hit three home runs when he played in Ogden and now I’d say he’s the leader to potentially win NL MVP,” Chubb said. “Being able to show guys, this is what a guy like Bellinger, who’s like a superstar — at 19 years old he was in Ogden and this is the kind of hitter he was, and look at how he’s progressed over the years.
“And guys like Kyle Garlick and Matt Beaty, they weren’t super highly touted guys coming out of the draft but those guys performed and were rewarded for that. That’s awesome to be able to show guys. A lot of really good players have come through Ogden, it’s part of their progression to get to Los Angeles.”
Chubb said he was “really fired up” when he got the call from LA assigning him to manage in Ogden.
“I love this ballpark, the backdrop — when I get out to Utah and see the mountains, I remembered that they were beautiful but they’re right on top of you. Sometimes you forget how beautiful it is here,” he said.
Jeremy Arocho is one of a slew of previous Raptors players to return to the Raptors to open the 2019 season. The middle infielder is in his third season in the minors but is only 20 years old. He hit .313 with 10 doubles and two triples with the Raptors last season.
He said it’s every player’s goal to get promoted to higher levels but he’s happy to be in Ogden again, where he plans to show more leadership and said “it’s fun playing here in front of the fans.”
Arocho said conversations with former teammates like Jacob Amaya and Dillon Paulson give him confidence in the Dodgers’ player development, which involves replicating the same attitudes and processes across all levels.
“How they do minor league development here is so nice. Every level is the same thing ... just a different ball field,” Arocho said. “I’m just learning from them and doing things each day to get better.”
The Raptors were 46-30 last season, the second-most regular-season wins in franchise history. Chubb said he teaches that winning is part of player development.
“You’re still trying to move up but you’re still trying to help the team win,” Arocho said. “You’re trying to get better at everything you do but you’re helping each other out, doing the right things ... the little things matter.
“Just because you’re here doesn’t mean you’re going to just play for yourself. You try to play for the guy behind you and make everybody better.”
Many players who previously made stops in Ogden will open the 2019 season with the Raptors. Among them are pitchers Hunter Speer, Kevin Malisheski, Reza Aleaziz, Elio Serrano and Yeison Cespedes. Catchers Ramon Rodriguez, Tre Todd and Marco Hernandez have all previously played in Ogden while, in the infield, Arocho is joined by Kenneth Betancourt and Moises Perez.
Outfielders Andrew Shaps and Jon Littell also return to Ogden.
LA’s 2019 draft picks have yet to be added to minor league rosters. For now, the highest drafted players on the opening-night roster are pitcher Drew Finley, a former third-round pick of the New York Yankees who is on a rehab assignment, and outfielder Josh McLain, drafted by the Dodgers in the ninth round last year.