‘Exponential growth.’ New-look Lexington Legends prioritizing development this season.

Gregg Zaun knows what it takes to “survive” in the world of professional baseball.

So when the former Major League Baseball catcher was brought on as the recently renamed Lexington Legends’ manager — his first-ever managerial opportunity — Zaun set out to build a roster rooted in development.

“We got a bunch of guys that are ready to row the boat in the same direction,” Zaun said as his team prepared to open a four-game home stand to start the season against the High Point (N.C.) Rockers. “They’re putting in work every day. You know, the game has changed a lot since I last had a uniform on, but the one thing that I’m finding out is maybe the players are a little bit different these days, they look at different things, they focus on different things. But in their heart of hearts, they want to be coached and want to get better. And it’s about baseball. So that’s been a pleasant surprise for me, is understanding that these kids … they’re no different than I was. I just wanted somebody to coach me, I wanted somebody to make me better.”

The Legends’ 2024 roster, which as of Tuesday held 27 players, is notably young; only five players are older than 27, which, according to the organization, makes Lexington’s the youngest roster in the Atlantic League of Professional Baseball (ALPB). An independent league in its 26th season of existence, the ALPB has sent more than 1,400 players to Major League organizations; Zaun’s goal is to add as many Legends to that total as he can.

“For me as a manager, I want to get guys to the next level,” Zaun said. “I’m going to judge my season on how many guys we get to the next level. And I’m hoping I’m gonna send them back there with a bunch of tools in their box that’s going to help them keep going forward. That’s what I’m looking at.”

Zaun had youth in mind when building his first Legends roster for that reason, and said that affiliated teams “are not looking for a 32-year-old guy that’s just been in Triple-A.” To be a Lexington Legend this season, it’s not enough just to want to win, or simply love the sport — players have to be dreaming of the next level.

“If you’re 32 and the highest level of baseball you’ve been to is Triple-A, and you’re still in the Atlantic League, there’s little to no chance you’re moving on,” Zaun explained. “So what are you here for? Are you just playing because you’re enjoying the game? I didn’t want to be dealing with too many of those guys. What I wanted was an opportunity to put my stamp on a player and say, ‘You know what, I coached that kid up, and three months after he came to me he’s in Double-A, and he’s doing really well and he’s on his way now.’ And that’s gonna make my heart beat a little bit faster. That’s what I’m here for.”

New Lexington Legends manager Gregg Zaun played 15 years in Major League Baseball and won a World Series with the Marlins in 1997.
New Lexington Legends manager Gregg Zaun played 15 years in Major League Baseball and won a World Series with the Marlins in 1997.

Where Zaun got started

Zaun, a self-described “teacher at heart,” played in over 1,200 games from 1995 to 2010, suiting up for nine separate teams after first being drafted in 1989 by the Baltimore Orioles. He won a World Series with the then-Florida Marlins in 1997, and most recently served as a bench coach in the unaffiliated Pioneer League last year with the Glacier Range Riders in Montana.

His staff in Lexington includes pitching coach Arthur Rhodes, a former pitcher and teammate of Zaun in the minors and a 2011 World Series champion with the St. Louis Cardinals; former second baseman Kevin Castleberry, selected by the Philadelphia Phillies in 1987 and by the Atlanta Braves in 1989’ and former utility player Mikey Reynolds, a 2013 MLB Draft selection by the Braves.

“I played a long time in the big leagues, but I was never an All-Star,” Zaun said. “And I had to try a lot of different things just to survive. I mean, my entire career, from the day I was drafted to the day I left the game, was about survival. I was always looking over my shoulder for the next young catcher who was coming along to take my job.”

Zaun said his background in the MLB gave him the tools to last at the game’s highest level, having learned a variety of methods and techniques to not only generate success, but also maintain it. So, in crafting the roster, he and his staff evaluated each players’ strengths and abilities, while attempting to pinpoint where a player has room for improvement.

“You sit there and you identify each player and their skill set, body style, abilities,” Zaun said. “And you think to yourself as a teacher, which one of those methods, which one of those tools can I put in his bag to help him get better? And I think that’s the beauty of not ever having been that superstar player. Tried a little bit of this and tried a little bit of that in trying to know what works and what doesn’t.”

Zaun said “a lot of it’s been lost on the game,” and explained how he sees the younger generation of baseball players at a disadvantage because of what was prioritized as they progressed in age and competitive level.

“Because most of these kids are of the generation, they’re showcase players,” Zaun said. “They can throw it really hard, they can hit it really far. But can they throw it really hard for a long time and throw it where they want to? Nope. Can they hit it really far all the time? Nope. They’re not polished, and that’s the game’s fault. Affiliated baseball has failed them, in my opinion.”

Identifying and developing talent

That’s where Zaun, alongside Castleberry, Reynolds and Rhodes, comes in, with the goal of teaching and learning and growing every single day. But that starts with identifying the talent, and seeing who might fit best inside Zaun’s desired style of play. Zaun called himself an “uptempo guy” who enjoys high-energy, action-packed baseball because “speed kills.”

Take 25-year-old infielder Payton Robertson, for example. Robertson, one of the first players Zaun identified as someone he wanted to sign, stole more than 60 bases last season with the Pioneer League’s Northern Colorado Owlz, an opponent of the Glacier Range Riders. Again, Zaun’s career experience played a key role in his process — this time, in spotting potential.

“That kid can fly and he can play premium positions at shortstop and center field,” Zaun said. “So that was one of the things that I wanted to do, was have that ability. Because I remember being a catcher and always knowing where guys like him were in the lineup, and what it meant. When are they coming around? How do I need to pitch this guy? How do I need to manage the game? Because, if he gets on first base, chances are he should be standing on third before too long. That puts a lot of pressure on a defense, it makes pitchers make mistakes. It makes infielders make mistakes, they have to get rid of it faster. Speed kills. It’s just the reality of the situation.”

Zaun praised his roster’s work ethic and dedication to their shared goal and philosophies, and compared the players’ progress to “exponential growth.”

“We’ve come a long way in a short amount of time, and we’re just gonna get better,” Zaun said. “It’s kind of like exponential growth. Once you get it, all of a sudden, everything is possible. And it grows out of control really, really quickly. And that’s the thing that I’m seeing. Guys come in, they bought in, they’re listening to what the coaching staff is saying, making adjustments on a daily basis, they’re getting better. And that’s what this league is all about. It’s about getting better and either getting back to affiliated ball, getting back to the big leagues or getting there for the first time.”


High Point Rockers at Lexington Legends

What: Atlantic League of Professional Baseball season opener

When: 6:45 p.m.

The Lexington Legends are back with a new mascot for the 2024 Atlantic League season

Goodbye Counter Clocks. Under new owner, Lexington’s baseball team changing name again.