Baseball’s back in Zebulon
The Carolina Mudcats held their annual media day, introducing the 2011 opening night roster to the media and sponsors on Tuesday afternoon. The Mudcats, for the third straight year, will be managed by former big leaguer David Bell. Along with Bell,38, hitting coach Ryan Jackson will return for his third season with the Mudcats. Pitching coach Tom Brown will also return for his second consecutive year. It’s just not the coaching staff that will be recognizable to Mudcat fans, as all but five players on the current roster made an appearance for the Mudcats in 2010. Manning the starting staff will be right-handed pitcher Daryl Thompson. The former big leaguer had a year full of ups and downs; when healthy, Thompson dominated Southern League batters with a 3.71 ERA, but had a 0-5 record. A shoulder injury and a bout with mono limited the 25-year-old to only 12 scattered starts. Joining Thompson will be righty Dallas Buck, 2010 Reds minor league Pitcher-of-the Year Jordan Hotchkiss, Canadian James Avery, and lefty Travis Webb.
“We have guys who are capable of doing a lot, having a lot of success here and at the next levels,” Bell said. “We have a lot of guys coming back from injuries. If they perform the way they are capable of, which we fully expect, it could be a pretty exciting year because we have a lot of talent.”
Along with the strong starting staff, the bullpen will be equally as good, if not better. Left-handers Lee Tabor and Donnie Joseph join righties Brad Boxberger, Justin Freeman, Nick Christiani, Ruben Medina, and newcomers Mark Serrano and Jeff Jeffords. Jeffords, however, will begin the season on the seven-day disabled list. The bullpen will be highlighted with Boxberger, a 2009 supplement first rounder out of USC. Boxberger went 4-6 with a 3.19 ERA in 14 games for High-A Lynchburg before being promoted to Carolina during the middle of the season. Once promoted to Double-A, however, Boxberger was converted to a reliever and had growing pains, posting a 1-4 record with a 8.49 ERA in 22 games out of the pen. Bell wouldn’t stick to one pitcher as the set-in-stone closer, but feels that the team will winning so many games, they won’t need to be too concerned about it.
“We’re going to be winning so many games, we’re going to need multiple closers so I hate to just name one guy,” Bell joked. “Seriously, that is the goal, we’ll need more than one (closer.)”
Bell does mention Joseph and Freeman as sharing the closing duties.
As for Bell’s starting lineup, it will feature power first baseman Naftali Soto, who hit 21 home runs for Single-A Lynchburg last season while holding a .268 clip. The backstops for the Mudcats will be defensive-minded Chris McMurray and first-time Mudcat Kevin Coddington. Around the rest of the infield will feature a list of familiar names. Mike Costanzo will return to man the hot corner while Miguel Rojas,who had the late promotion to Carolina last season, will be the starting shortstop. Jose Castro, Eric Eymann, and Jake Kahaulelio will mix-and-match for second and will get playing time all over the infield throughout the season.
Bell said that having so many players having the ability to play multiple positions will make it easier on him if a player needs a day off or is injured.
The outfield will feature minor league free agent David Cook, Cuban defector Felix Perez, Kyle Day, and Cody Puckett. Bell will use Puckett’s ability to play the outfield and second base at his advantage. Bell said Puckett may even get some time at third base.
“I think Puckett will play a lot of second base, a lot of left field, and occasionally play some third base,” Bell said. “He’s a guy who makes a lot of sense to move him around because he can play multiple positions. We might as well keep his versatility in case something happens.”
Bell also noted how much power in the middle of the lineup the Mudcats have. Cook hit 25 home runs in 2009 as a member of the Birmingham Barons. Bell believe that Cook and Soto will provide the most power.
“Both (Cook and Soto) will be somewhere in the middle of the line up,”Bell said. “We have guys like Phips and Perez who can get on base, guys in the middle of the order, along with Cozanzo and Puckett."
The Mudcats will also begin with six players on the disabled list. Besides Jeffords and Day, left-handed pitcher Matt Fairiel, who is recovering from arm surgery, won’t be available until the middle of the season. Catcher Chris Denove tweaked his shoulder once again and will be on the shelf. Righty Derrik Lutz is still recovering from his second Tommy John surgery in as many years. He should be ready by mid season as well. Infielder Shane Carlson, will also begin 2011 on the disabled list.
2011 will mark the 21st and final season for Double-A baseball at Five County Stadium. After this season the Mudcats, in basically what was a three-team swap, will leave the Southern League and will become the High-A affiliate of the Cleveland Indians as a member of the Carolina League. Bell and the players hope that the Mudcats will be able to finish the final Double-A season on top, and believes they can, giving fans a source of assurance.
“We’re going to be good,” Bell said.