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Carolina Countdown – Potomac Nationals

The Carolina Countdown previews the rest of the Carolina League in advance of the season. We will take a look at each club, both on and off the field. The countdown will progress alphabetically, and a new post will go up every weekday until it is over.

March 26: Carolina Mudcats
March 27: Frederick Keys
March 30: Lynchburg Hillcats
March 31: Myrtle Beach Pelicans

Introduction: The Potomac Nationals were established in 1978 as the Alexandria Dukes, playing in Alexandria, Va., before moving about 20 miles south to Woodbridge in 1984. Potomac has been affiliated with the Nationals since 2005 and enter the 2015 season as the Carolina League’s defending champion after winning their fifth title last year.

Last Season: The P-Nats rolled throughout the entire 2014 campaign, winning both the first (38-31) and second half (40-27) Northern Division titles. A weak division was certainly a help for Potomac, as they were the only Northern Division team to finish with a record above .500 at 78-58. However, the Nationals proved they were for real in the postseason by sweeping Lynchburg in the NDCS. Then, after dropping Game 1 of the MCCS to Myrtle Beach, the P-Nats rattled off wins in the next three games to secure the championship.

After winning the Carolina League's Manager of the Year award, Tripp Keister returns for Potomac in 2015. (Daniel Sato/The News Journal)

After winning the Carolina League’s Manager of the Year award, Tripp Keister returns for Potomac in 2015. (Daniel Sato/The News Journal)

The P-Nats won by razor-thin margins often throughout 2014, outscoring opponents by just eight runs over the entire campaign and registering an incredible 32-13 record in one-run games. For his help in guiding his club through those close contests, Tripp Keister was named the Carolina League Manager of the Year.

Potomac also had four Year-End All-Stars, including nearly their entire infield. First baseman Shawn Pleffner batted .298/.361/.393 with two homers and 44 RBIs, second baseman Tony Renda chipped in with a .307/.381/.377 line and 19 stolen bases and shortstop Stephen Perez hit .258/.364/.339 with two home runs, 50 RBIs and a team-high 29 steals. Oscar Tejeda was the club’s fourth Postseason All-Star after bashing a team-high 16 home runs and hitting .270/.318/.460 with 65 RBIs.

Manager: Potomac welcomes back their entire coaching staff for the 2015 season, led by the aforementioned Carolina League Manager of the Year. Keister, the former Delaware Blue Hen, was drafted by the New York Mets in the 33rd round of the 1992 Draft and played four seasons in the minor leagues, reaching as high as Double-A. After announcing his retirement, Keister took a job as an assistant at the University of South Carolina before moving into the head coaching role at Delaware State University. Two years later, he took a job as an amateur scout for the San Diego Padres. Keister returned to the collegiate ranks as the head coach of Division III Wesley College (Del.) from 2006 through 2011 before joining the Nationals organization as a manager in 2012. Pitching coach Franklin Bravo and hitting coach Brian Rupp join Keister in the P-Nats dugout.

System: The Washington Nationals are the favorite to win the 2015 World Series thanks to a homegrown young core of players, most notably outfielder Bryce Harper, shortstop Ian Desmond, third baseman Anthony Rendon and pitchers Stephen StrasburgJordan Zimmermann. The big league club also boasts a stable supporting cast of veterans like outfielder Jayson Werth and 2015 free agent prize, right-hander Max Scherzer. That young Washington nucleus, combined with general manager Mike Rizzo‘s ability to acquire solid role playing like catcher Wilson Ramos and RHP Doug Fister for little in return, means the Nationals shouldn’t have too many problems being competitive for years to come.

Lucas Giolito can hit 99 MPH on his fastball and is the top pitching prospect in baseball. (Carl Kline/MiLB.com)

Lucas Giolito can hit 99 MPH on his fastball and is the top pitching prospect in baseball. (Carl Kline/MiLB.com)

Just because there is so much young talent already on the big league roster doesn’t mean that there isn’t more to come in the future. Washington boasts MLB.com’s top pitching prospect in Lucas Giolito (No. 6 overall). The 6-foot-6, 255-pound right-hander breezed through Low-A Hagerstown last summer as a 19-year-old, going 10-2 with a 2.20 ERA and 100 strikeouts against 28 walks in 98.0 innings. He could see time with Potomac in 2015.

Washington also boasts two other players in MLB.com’s Top 100 prospects in outfielder Michael Taylor (No. 43) and RHP A.J. Cole (No. 53). Both players split time across Double-A and Triple-A last season, with the former batting a combined .304/.390/.526 with 23 home runs and 64 RBIs, and the latter finishing 13-3 with a 3.16 ERA in 25 starts across both levels.

Best Promotion: On the final day of the 2014 season, outfielder Steven Souza (now with the Tampa Bay Rays) made an incredible sprawling catch in left field to secure Jordan Zimmermann‘s no-hitter, the first in Nationals history. Potomac will honor commemorate that play with a Steven Souza “The Catch” figurine giveaway on June 13 when the P-Nats host the Frederick Keys.

Fun Fact: Pedro Severino played in 94 games with Potomac in 2014, hitting .247/.306/.399 with nine homers and 36 RBIs. When Severino was growing up in Bonao of the Dominican Republic, he played pitcher, third base and outfield, three positions he all enjoyed, especially third base. However, when he was 15, his team’s regular catcher didn’t show up, and Severino was asked to fill in. As fate would have it, an opposing runner attempted to steal second base and Severino threw him out.

Because of that, his coach wanted to keep him behind the plate because he saw Severino’s potential but the teen threatened to quit playing baseball if it meant catching. Severino’s father was able to talk him into giving the position a try, and four months later, Severino was signed after his 16th birthday by Washington… as a catcher. Fast forward to today, and Severino is rated as the 11th-best prospect by MLB.com in the Nationals system and the best defensive catcher in the organization, according to Baseball America.

Nationals in Winston-Salem: The P-Nats become the first Northern Division team to visit BB&T Ballpark in 2015 with a three-game series from April 28-30. Potomac won’t return to Winston-Salem until the second half of the season, during a four-game set from July 10-13.

Our final Southern Division preview is on the horizon. Join us Thursday for a look at the Salem Red Sox. Thanks for reading!

– Scott

Carolina Countdown – Myrtle Beach Pelicans

The Carolina Countdown previews the rest of the Carolina League in advance of the season. We will take a look at each club, both on and off the field. The countdown will progress alphabetically, and a new post will go up every weekday until it is over.

March 26: Carolina Mudcats
March 27: Frederick Keys
March 28: Lynchburg Hillcats

Introduction: The Myrtle Beach Pelicans have been members of the Carolina League since their 1999 inaugural season. Myrtle Beach split the 1999 Mills Cup with Wilmington but won the 2000 championship outright. Since then though, the team has yet to win a title, although they are the only Carolina League team to have made a postseason appearance in four straight seasons. The 2015 season is Myrtle Beach’s first in affiliation with the Chicago Cubs, after four seasons with Texas.

Last Season: Myrtle Beach dominated throughout the 2014 campaign, finishing a full 13.0 games better than any other Southern Division team with an 82-56 overall record. The Pelicans scored the most runs (683) and allowed the second-fewest tallies (550) in the Carolina League. Myrtle boasted a circuit-high 13 players on the Midseason and/or Year-End All-Star teams en route winning the Southern Division in both the first half (44-24) and second half (38-32). In the postseason, the Pelicans took the final two games of a Best-of-3 to knock off Salem in the SDCS and won Game 1 of the MCCS against Potomac before the Nationals won the next three to win the Carolina League championship.

Joey Gallo drove in 50 runs in 58 games with Myrtle Beach in 2014. (Robert Gurganus/Myrtle Beach Pelicans)

Joey Gallo drove in 50 runs in 58 games with Myrtle Beach in 2014. (Robert Gurganus/Myrtle Beach Pelicans)

Chicks likely dug the Pelicans in 2014. Myrtle Beach slammed 111 home runs; no team was within 24 bombs. Infielder Joey Gallo won the Carolina League’s Most Valuable Player award, smashing a circuit-high 21 home runs and posting a .463 on-base percentage and .735 slugging percentage for a ridiculous 1.199 OPS in 58 games before getting promoted to Double-A Frisco. Outfielder Nick Williams added a .292/.343/.491 line with 28 doubles, 13 home runs and 68 RBIs. On the pitching side, Andrew Faulkner went 10-1 with a 2.07 ERA, 100 strikeouts and 31 walks in 104.1 innings.

Manager: In conjunction with Myrtle Beach’s move to the Cubs organization, Mark Johnson will become the Pelicans’ sixth manager in team history in 2015. Johnson spent the previous two campaigns with Low-A Kane County, earning Baseball America Minor League Manager of the Year and Midwest League Manager of the Year honors last year after guiding the Cougars to a circuit-best 91-49 record and a Midwest League championship after sweeping the postseason with a 7-0 record.

Entering his fifth season with the Cubs, Johnson began managing in the minors immediately after concluding a 17-year professional playing career. Johnson was drafted by the Chicago White Sox in the first round (26th overall) of the 1994 draft and spent the 1997 season with Winston-Salem, batting .253/.420/.379 with four homers and 46 RBIs in 120 games. The Perry, Ga. native reached The Show with the White Sox in 1998 and served as the team’s backup catcher through the 2002 season before getting packaged with RHP Keith Foulke and others in a trade that brought Oakland Athletics RHP Billy Koch to Chicago.

Johnson played 13 games with Oakland in 2003, seven with Milwaukee in 2004 and then spent time in the Cubs, Brewers, Arizona Diamondbacks and St. Louis organizations until his retirement in 2010, only returning to the big leagues for a 10-game cameo with the Cardinals in 2008. Johnson will be joined in the dugout by pitching coach David Rosario and hitting coach Mariano Duncan.

System: The Cubs haven’t had a winning campaign in seven years and have not won a playoff series since 2003. They have finished no higher than fifth in the National League Central in each of the past five seasons. Amazingly, they haven’t had consecutive 90-win campaigns since 1930. You also might have heard they have the longest championship drought in American professional sports, with their last World Series title coming in 1908.

Kris Bryant has the highest slugging percentage of any minor league over the last 30 years. (Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY Sports)

Kris Bryant has the highest slugging percentage of any minor league over the last 30 years. (Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY Sports)

But the future appears to be bright for the Cubs. Infielder Javier Baez (2014 MLB.com No. 7 overall prospect) and outfielders Jorge Soler (No. 49) and Arismendy Alcantara (No. 89) made up the first wave of a talented battalion of prospects to trickle through Wrigley Field last summer. But knowing that the levee on Baseball Prospectus‘ top farm system will break in 2015, president Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer spent the winter making sure that the time for baseball’s perennially hibernating bear is right now.

First, the Cubs hired manager Joe Maddon, who had led the Tampa Bay Rays to 90+ wins in four of the last six seasons and the 2008 American League pennant. That gave the Cubs the relevance they needed to convince LHP Jon Lester to come to the north side of The Windy City and lead the starting rotation.

Epstein and Hoyer then went out and made two key trades to shore up the middle of the defense, acquiring switch-hitting catcher Miguel Montero from Arizona and centerfielder Dexter Fouler from Houston. Combine all that activity with the expected MLB debuts of infielder/outfielder Kris Bryant (MLB.com’s No. 2 overall prospect), who led all of Minor League Baseball with 43 home runs in 2014 and who’s .666 slugging percentage as a pro is higher than any minor league of the last 30 years, and infielder Addison Russell (No. 5 overall), who batted .295/.350/.508 last year in Double-A, this season, even more talented prospects are on the way.

Best Promotion: When Winston-Salem visits Myrtle Beach for a four-game series from April 23-26, the Dash will witness the Pelicans’ first-ever “Geekend.” The Dash will battle the Pelicans on Hunger Games Night to open the series on the 23rd before the two teams try to use the Force to bring them victory on Star Wars Night on Friday, the 23rd. Myrtle Beach will host Superhero Night with special jerseys auctioned off to benefit the Special Olympics of South Carolina on Saturday before Retro Game Night will close out the series on Sunday the 24th.

Adam Wainwright was traded to the Cardinals on the same day he got engaged. (Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)

Adam Wainwright was traded to the Cardinals on the same day he got engaged. (Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)

Fun Fact: Future St. Louis Cardinals ace Adam Wainwright pitched for the Myrtle Beach Pelicans in 2002, going 9-6 with a 3.31 ERA. In 2003, Wainwright advanced to Double-A Greenville and, following the season, decided to propose to his longtime girlfriend Jenny Curry. However, on that fateful day in December, every time Wainwright was about to get down on one knee to pop the question, his phone would ring. Wainwright kept ignoring multiple calls from the unknown number until finally his mother’s number came up. He answered it, only for his mother to inform him that he had been traded from the Atlanta organization to St. Louis. Wainwright, slightly stunned, hung up the phone, got down on one knee and finally completed his proposal, to which Curry said, “Yes.” The two were married in 2004.

Pelicans in Winston-Salem: The Dash will host Myrtle Beach for a record 17 home games in 2015. Winston-Salem and Myrtle Beach will open up the sixth season of BB&T Ballpark on April 16 to start a four-game series. The Pelicans will come back to Winston-Salem for another four-game series from May 8-11 before returning for a pair of three-game sets in June (15-18 and 28-30). The Dash’s penultimate homestand of the 2015 campaign begins with three games against Myrtle Beach from August 18-20.

Thanks so much for reading! We’ll get to the defending champion Potomac Nationals tomorrow.

– Scott

Carolina Countdown – Lynchburg Hillcats

The Carolina Countdown previews the rest of the Carolina League in advance of the season. We will take a look at each club, both on and off the field. The countdown will progress alphabetically, and a new post will go up every weekday until it is over.

March 26: Carolina Mudcats
March 27: Frederick Keys

Introduction: Founded in 1963, Lynchburg joined the Carolina League in 1966, making the Hillcats the second-oldest continuously operating team on the circuit, behind only the Winston-Salem franchise. The 2015 season marks the 40th that Lynchburg will spend in the Carolina League and their first in affiliation with the Cleveland Indians. The Hillcats have now been affiliated with 10 MLB teams over their history, but have normally been very successful; their seven Carolina League titles leave them behind only Winston-Salem for the most in league history.

Last Season: While certainly no juggernaut, the Hillcats were nothing if not consistent, following up a 34-36 first half of the 2014 campaign with a 34-35 record after the All-Star Break. Despite finishing under .500 overall at 68-71, Lynchburg claimed a playoff spot by virtue of their second place finish in the second half of the season before Potomac swept their Mills Cup semifinals series.

Lynchburg pitchers combined for the worst ERA (4.36) of any team in the Carolina League, but that was no fault of Greg Ross, who had the lowest ERA of any starting pitcher on the club at 3.50 to go along with his 5-3 record in 79.2 innings. Infielder Jose Peraza, MLB.com’s 39th-best prospect, and outfielder Kyle Wren (more on him below) helped charge up the offense, with the former batting .342/.365/.454 with 35 stolen bases and the latter slashing .296/.359/.357 to go along with his 33 swipes.

Manager: The Hillcats will welcome Mark Budzinski into the dugout to lead their club for the first time as an affiliate of the Cleveland Indians. Budzinski earned his first-ever managing experience last year with Class A Lake County of the Midwest League, leading the Captains all the way to the Championship Series before falling to the Kane County Cougars (Chicago Cubs) in three games.

Budzinski played collegiately at the University of Richmond and was selected by the Indians in the 21st round of the 1995 draft. He spent 11 seasons in the Cleveland, Cincinnati, Milwaukee and Philadelphia systems, finally earning that coveted promotion to The Show in 2003 with the Reds. Budzinski’s MLB career was short; it lasted just four games and seven plate appearances before he was sent back down to the minors for good until his retirement following the 2005 campaign. The Severna Park, Md. native will be joined in the dugout by pitching coach Tony Arnold and hitting coach Bobby Magallanes.

Francisco Lindor is the top prospect in the Cleveland Indians organization. (Paul Sancya/Associated Press)

Francisco Lindor is the top prospect in the Cleveland Indians organization. (Paul Sancya/Associated Press)

System: Poised to be one of baseball’s breakout teams in 2015, the Indians have seen much of their enviable young core of talent graduate to the majors to help their big league club try to challenge Detroit, Kansas City and the White Sox for the American League Central crown. All five of Cleveland’s starting pitchers are 29-and-younger and of the team’s nine projected regulars, six are still in their 20s. So the upcoming season could be the first of many that the Indians are a serious threat not just in the Central, but also in the entire American League.

While the Cleveland farm system may not be the strongest top-to-bottom (Baseball Prospectus ranks it 17th overall), there are a couple of high-impact prospects on the way that could help the big league club as early as this summer. The first name that comes to remember is infielder Francisco Lindor, the fourth-best prospect in all of baseball. Still just 20 years old, Lindor was the youngest player in the Eastern League (Double-A) on Opening Day last season and became the youngest position player in the International League (Triple-A) after a midsummer promotion. Along the way, he played in his third consecutive All-Star Futures Game, batting .276/.338/.389 across the two levels with 11 home runs and 28 stolen bases in 126 games.

The other Indians prospect ranked among the minors’ best is outfielder Clint Frazier (54th overall). Cleveland made Frazier the first high school position player selected in the 2013 Draft (5th overall), gave him a franchise-record $3.5 million signing bonus and watched him slash .266/.349/.411 with 13 bombs and 50 RBIs with Low-A Lake County in 2014, his first professional campaign. Frazier could see time at High-A Lynchburg in 2015.

Best Promotion: On Saturday, May 3, the Hillcats will host “Kentucky Derby Night” against the Myrtle Beach Pelicans. Fans who wear a seersucker, fancy hat and/or a bow tie will receive discounted admission to the game.

Outfielder Kyle Wren was a Midseason All-Star for the Hillcats last year, but was traded to the Brewers in the offseason. (Photo courtesy of Baseball America.)

Outfielder Kyle Wren was a Midseason All-Star for the Hillcats last year, but was traded to the Brewers in the offseason. (Photo courtesy of Baseball America.)

Fun Fact: Outfielder Kyle Wren was named the Braves’ Single-A Player of the Year after his strong performance for Lynchburg last season. However, after Atlanta fired his father, Frank, as the team’s general manager and his uncle, Jeff, a scout in the organization, the team shipped Kyle to the Milwaukee Brewers in exchange for minor league pitcher Zach Quintana.

Hillcats in Winston-Salem: Lynchburg makes its first appearance at BB&T Ballpark for the 2015 season for a three-game series from May 27-29. The Hillcats will also come south two times after the All-Star Break, for a set from July 19-21 and then again for a weekend series from July 31-August 2.

We’ll come back into the Southern Division tomorrow to talk about the Myrtle Beach Pelicans. Have a wonderful day!

– Scott

Carolina Countdown – Frederick Keys

The Carolina Countdown previews the rest of the Carolina League in advance of the season. We will take a look at each club, both on and off the field. The countdown will progress alphabetically, and a new post will go up every weekday until it is over.

March 26: Carolina Mudcats

Introduction: Members of the Carolina League since their inception in 1989, the Keys are now in their 26th year in affiliation with their parent club just under 50 miles to the east, the Baltimore Orioles. The franchise originated when the Orioles decided to move their Class A affiliate from Hagerstown, Md., but things on the field did not go so smoothly at first; Frederick was swept in a doubleheader by the Durham Bulls, with then-Atlanta Braves prospect Dennis Burlingame tossing a seven-inning perfect game in one of the contests. However, since then, the Keys have played in and won five Carolina League championships, interestingly enough beating the Kinston Indians, now the Carolina Mudcats, in four of them to take the Mills Cup to Maryland.

Last Season: The Keys finished the 2014 campaign in a tie with the Wilmington Blue Rocks at the bottom of the Northern Division with a 62-74 overall record, 13.5 games behind the Potomac Nationals, Frederick’s rivals from the Old Line State. The Keys finished with the worst record in the division in the season’s first half at 32-35 but were able to just barely rise above that by a half-game in the second half at 33-37.

Michael Burgess was a steady force in the Keys' lineup throughout 2014 (photo via the Frederick Keys).

Michael Burgess was a steady force in the Keys’ lineup throughout 2014 (photo via the Frederick Keys).

The club’s lone Year-End All-Star was outfielder Michael Burgess, who smashed 15 home runs, ranking in a tie for fourth-most in the league. Burgess also batted .315/.366/.579 with 32 doubles and 68 RBIs in 83 games. Frederick also boasted two pitchers who ranked in the top 10 of the Carolina League in ERA in Matt Taylor (6-2, 3.69 ERA) and Brandon Kline (8-6, 3.84). The Keys also saw six starts from Baltimore’s top prospect, and the 21st-best in baseball according to MLB.com, Dylan Bundy (1-2, 4.78).

Manager: The 2015 season is Orlando Gomez’s 52nd in professional baseball, his 20th as a minor league manager and his 11th in the Orioles organization. Gomez led the Keys from 2010-12, winning the 2011 Mills Cup and compiling a 214-204 record, making him the only manager to reach 200 wins in franchise history. Before joining the Orioles staff in 2005, Gomez served as a manager, coach and scout in the Oakland Athletics, Texas Rangers, Cleveland Indians, Seattle Mariners and Tampa Bay Devil Rays organizations. His first managerial job came in 1977 with Rookie-level Medicine Hat in the Oakland organization, just a year after his 13-year minor league career ended. Gomez played in the New York Yankees, Cincinnati Reds, Kansas City/Oakland A’s and California Angels organizations, reaching as high as Triple-A. He will be joined in the dugout by pitching coach Kennie Steenstra and former Keys All-Star Paco Figueroa as hitting coach.

System: Things were ugly when Baltimore introduced Dan Duquette as its general manager after the 2011 season. Since winning the 1997 American League East division, the Orioles had not posted a winning record in 14 consecutive campaigns, including five straight seasons with win totals in the 60s. Like he had with the Montreal Expos in the early 1990s and the Boston Red Sox in the late part of the decade, Duquette immediately infused the Orioles with young talent, pushing the club to a 93-win season and a playoff appearance in 2012. After an 85-77 season in 2013, Baltimore won 96 games and the AL East last year before falling to the Kansas City Royals in the ALCS.

The Orioles return most of the core of that team, which like a typical Duquette roster, is filled with talented and young players from top-to-bottom. That being said, a whopping 12 of Baltimore’s 21 highest-paid players will qualify for free agency at the end of the year, and the Orioles’ system is just the 22nd-best in baseball by Baseball Prospectus. Baltimore has just one other prospect in Hunter Harvey (No. 42) ranked among the top 100 prospects by MLB.com. Harvey, who pitched in the Futures Game in July, went 7-5 with a 3.18 ERA, 106 strikeouts and 33 walks in 17 starts over 87.2 innings pitched for Low-A Delmarva last season.

Best Promotion: On August 15 against the Carolina Mudcats, the Keys will host Seinfeld Night, in which all fans have the chance to meet the Soup Nazi. Just remember, it’s very important not to embellish on your order. No extraneous comments. No questions. No compliments. And if you don’t get any bread… just forget it.

Fun Fact: If you’ve been watching March Madness, you’ve probably heard the name Pat Connaughton. The Notre Dame senior guard scored nine points in the Irish’s tournament-opening win over Northeastern before turning in a season-saving performance in the third round of the dance against Butler. With the score tied at 55, Connaughton blocked Butler guard Kellen Dunham’s potential game-winning three with one second left in regulation and then nailed a 3-pointer of his own to break a 59-59 tie in overtime and give Notre Dame a lead they would never relinquish.

Pat Connaughton is a Notre Dame basketball player and a Baltimore Orioles farmhand (Michael Hickey/Getty Images).

Pat Connaughton is a Notre Dame basketball player and a Baltimore Orioles farmhand (Michael Hickey/Getty Images).

Well, Connaughton is also a prospect in the Orioles organization. A right-handed pitcher on the baseball diamond, the Arlington, Mass. native was selected in the fourth round of the 2014 MLB Draft. Connaughton went 0-1 with a 2.56 ERA at Short Season Class A Aberdeen but did not pitch for the Keys after being promoted August 11 to Frederick.

Keys in Winston-Salem: Frederick does not visit BB&T Ballpark until Independence Day for a series from July 4-6. The Keys then close out the regular season with a four-game set from August 27-30.

The Carolina Countdown continues Monday with the Lynchburg Hillcats. Have a great weekend!

-Scott

Carolina Countdown – Carolina Mudcats

The Carolina Countdown previews the rest of the Carolina League in advance of the season. We will take a look at each club, both on and off the field. The countdown will progress alphabetically, and a new post will go up every weekday until it is over.

Introduction: The Mudcats are now in their fourth season in the Carolina League and, after three years under the Cleveland Indians’ umbrella, are beginning their first year of affiliation with the Atlanta Braves. The franchise originated in 1978 as the Kinston Eagles and relocated to Zebulon in 2012 after the original Mudcats relocated to Pensacola, Fla. The 2015 season is a big milestone for the franchise, as it represents their 25th anniversary playing at Five County Stadium in Zebulon.

Last season: With a 62-74 overall record, the Muddies struggled throughout the 2014 campaign, finishing in third place in the Carolina League Southern division, 19.0 games behind first-place Myrtle Beach. Carolina owned the worst record in the league during the first half of the season at 29-38. The Mudcats made things interesting in the second half of the season, but the Dash ousted them from postseason consideration during the final set of the half.

Ryan Merritt dominated on the mound for Carolina, going 13-3 with a 2.58 ERA in 25 starts en route to both Midseason and Year-End All-Star Team honors. Outfielder Anthony Gallas (.276/.331/.480, 21 2B, 8 HR, 31 RBI) and infielder Erik Gonzalez (.289/.336/.409, 14 2B, 7 3B, 3 HR, 46 RBI, 15 SB) also represented the Mudcats in the Midseason All-Star Game.

Luis Salazar (left) will once again manage the Braves' High-A club, which has moved from Lynchburg to Carolina (AP Photo/Don Petersen).

Luis Salazar (left) will once again manage the Braves’ High-A club, which has moved from Lynchburg to Carolina (AP Photo/Don Petersen).

Manager: After managing the former Braves’ High-A affiliate in Lynchburg the last four seasons, Luis Salazar will now the lead the ship in Carolina. Salazar, now in his fifth season with the Braves and his 13th as a minor league manager, has guided his teams to the playoffs in each of the last three seasons. This included the Lynchburg club that won the 2012 Mills Cup Championship over the Dash. A 13-year major league veteran, Salazar will be joined in the dugout by pitching coach Derrick Lewis and hitting coach Carlos Mendez.

System: After winning 94 and 96 games, respectively, in 2012 and 2013, the Braves slumped to a 79-83 finish last year, causing the team to unload many veterans in an attempt to rebuild for a brand-new ballpark scheduled to open for the 2017 season. The offseason trades to dump Jason Heyward, Evan Gattis and Justin Upton, in particular, netted Atlanta seven of their top 13 prospects as ranked by MLB.com. In addition to stocking up their farm system, the lineup teardown should put the Braves in position for a high draft pick in 2016.

Trying to replicate their 14-straight division title run of the franchise’s glory days in the mid-90s and early-2000s, Atlanta’s system is loaded with arms. In fact, of the team’s top 15 prospects by MLB.com, 10 are pitchers. That being said, the Braves’ top prospect according to MLB.com is middle infielder Jose Peraza (No. 39 overall), who batted .339/.364/.441 across both High-A and Double-A last season.

Rated as 78th-best prospect in baseball, Mike Foltynewicz (No. 79 overall) was acquired from Houston in the Gattis trade over the winter. The flame-throwing right-handed went 7-7 with a 5.08 ERA in 21 Triple-A outings (18 starts) last season. He fanned 102 batters in 102.2 innings. Atlanta also has two other prospects in the bottom of the MLB.com’s rankings in catcher Christian Bethancourt (No. 94) and right-handed pitcher Lucas Sims (No. 95). Bethancourt batted .283/.308/.408 in 91 Triple-A games before getting a cup of coffee at the big league level to close out the 2014 season. Meanwhile, Sims posted an 8-11 record with a 4.20 ERA in 28 High-A starts spanning 156.1 frames.

Best Promotion: On the weekend of May 15-16, the Mudcats will wear specially-designed jerseys for “Strikeout Cancer Weekend.” Following Carolina’s Sunday game against Myrtle Beach, the team will hold a jersey auction giveaway with a portion of the proceeds to be donated to cancer research charities.

Fun Fact: Thirty-year-old catcher Yenier Bello appeared in eight games in High-A last season, and his path to get there was incredibly interesting. Bello was caught attempting to escape from Cuba in 2012 and was immediately suspended from baseball and had his passport revoked. In the spring of 2013, he retired from the game, eventually earned his passport back and traveled to Ecuador. From there, Bello went to Mexico, established residency and, come March of 2014, signed a minor league contract with Atlanta.

Mudcats in Winston-Salem: The Muddies visit BB&T Ballpark during the Dash’s first homestand of the season, a three-game series from April 20-22. From there, Carolina won’t come back to Winston-Salem until the second half of the season, returning from July 22-24 and then again from August 21-23 in the penultimate regular season homestand.

The Carolina Countdown will continue tomorrow with the Frederick Keys. Stay tuned!

- Scott

Baseball returns in…

Two months.

Today is February 16. Opening Night at BB&T Ballpark is April 16.

With those two months to go, the ballpark is buzzing with activity, as is Glendale, Ariz., the site of White Sox Spring Training.

Sox pitchers and catchers will report to Spring Training on Friday, while the first full-team workout is next Tuesday, February 24.

There are many former Winston-Salem stars who will be focal points of Spring Training, whether they are trying to grab the attention of the big league club or even attempting to break camp with the team. Scott Merkin, the excellent beat writer on WhiteSox.com, compiled a list of potential impact prospects for the club in 2015. Through this list, it is very clear that the White Sox farm system is the strongest it has been in several years.

The impact from some of those players will come within the Minor Leagues, but Jim Callis expands upon those who could register important time in Chicago.

Carlos Sanchez will need to rely on his glove in order to overcome Micah Johnson and win the White Sox second base spot (Steve Orcutt/W-S Dash).

Carlos Sanchez will need to rely on his glove in order to overcome Micah Johnson and win the White Sox second base spot (Steve Orcutt/W-S Dash).

Second base is the most important and intriguing Spring Training battle, and it likely features a pair of former Winston-Salem studs. Carlos Sanchez and Micah Johnson are about as even as two young players can be at this stage in regards to a starting slot in the big leagues. Both are within the top 10 of every White Sox prospect list. Both have skills that tantalize and flaws that worry the White Sox.

If you are a fan of defense, then Sanchez is the candidate for you. However, if you are looking for offensive upside, Johnson will gain your vote. It will be a fascinating debate that may stretch into April.

Both of those men have already reported to Glendale, along with some other notable names. Per this report from Dan Hayes of CSN Chicago, around 25 players have already arrived to Spring Training.

This group includes left-hander Carlos Rodon, who has already been in Glendale for more than a week, Courtney Hawkins, Jared Mitchell, Keenyn Walker and reigning American League Rookie of the Year Jose Abreu.

The vibes around the organization are as positive and optimistic as they have been in the last few years, and the fun begins in Arizona shortly.

Stay tuned to the blog for more updates as Spring Training rolls along.

– Brian

FutureSox recognizes 18 former Dash stars

Carlos Rodon is the White Sox top prospect, per FutureSox.com (Jody Stewart/W-S Dash)

Carlos Rodon is the White Sox top prospect, per FutureSox.com (Jody Stewart/W-S Dash)

With Spring Training quickly approaching, the writers at FutureSox have compiled their Top 30 White Sox prospects, 18 of whom have played in Winston-Salem at some point.

The 2014 version of the Dash boasted 11 of the top 30, including four of the Sox five best prospects, per FutureSox. The full countdown and a description of each farmhand are available here (1-15) and here (16-30).

Here are the 18 Dash alumni on the list, with the members of the 2014 roster in italics.

1. LHP Carlos Rodon
2. INF Tim Anderson
3. RHP Frank Montas
5. RHP Tyler Danish
6. INF Micah Johnson
7. OF Courtney Hawkins
8. INF Carlos Sanchez
9. INF Trey Michalczewski
11. RHP Chris Beck
14. OF Jacob May
15. INF Cleuluis Rondon
16. INF Tyler Saladino
17. OF Trayce Thompson
20. INF Keon Barnum
21. C Kevan Smith
24. OF Adam Engel
27. INF Andy Wilkins
28. RHP Mike Recchia

A few thoughts:

  • It should come as no surprise that Rodon checks in as the top prospect. He will almost certainly be atop every White Sox prospect list in advance of the 2015 season. Last week, MLBPipeline.com named Rodon the second-best southpaw prospect in the Minors.
  • This time last season, both Danish and Montas were viewed as prospects, but not as the elite-level Minor League arms that they became in 2014. In Winston-Salem last year, the duo combined to go 9-3 with a 2.23 earned run average in 28 starts. There are still doubters, but both men continue to climb the Minor League ladder and collect more believers.
  • Michalczewski figures to be the highest-ranked prospect to begin the 2015 season with the Dash. After enjoying significant success in Low-A Kannapolis, the White Sox sent the 19-year-old to Winston-Salem. Michalczewski hit just .194 in 19 games, but he did show some flashes of his noticeable talent, including his three-hit, three-RBI showing in that playoff-like final home Friday game against Carolina.
  • Another likely returnee is Rondon, who continues to wow people with his glove. He held his own at the plate in Winston-Salem (.247) over 53 games, the majority of which featured him in the two-hole.
  • It is great to see someone like Recchia on this list. The former Minor League free agent zoomed through CL offenses before jumping to Double-A Birmingham, where he performed well. His story is fascinating. His personality is great. Now, his status as a true prospect in the system is starting to show.

The Dash’s 2015 season begins in exactly 70 days. Stay tuned for more information as Opening Day approaches.

– Brian

The other side of the Samardzija trade

Most White Sox fans are thrilled about the proceedings at the Winter Meetings. The Sox have been the “it” team of the week thus far by signing Yankees closer David Robertson and trading for Oakland righty Jeff Samardzija.

Within the latter of those two transactions, the White Sox had to surrender some significant talent. On behalf of the entire Dash organization, I would like to wish good luck to the four players included in the blockbuster deal: right-handed pitcher Chris Bassitt, catcher Josh Phegley and infielders Rangel Ravelo and Marcus Semien.

All four of these players spent a significant amount of time in Winston-Salem and were tremendous both on and off the field. Even though they are no longer members of the White Sox system, I hope Dash and Sox fans continue to root for them in Oakland.

Here are some thoughts from Twitter as this deal came to be:

Some players in the White Sox system weighed in as well:

Indeed, good luck to those who are now Athletics. Winston-Salem fans will be tracking your careers.

– Brian

Dash Top 10 – #1: Record crowd watches Fourth of July game

The 2014 season is in the books, and there were many great moments throughout the summer. Here is the full list of the Dash Top 10.

Previous moments:
#10 – Shortest MiLB game in 2014
#9 – DeMichele’s five-hit, five-run effort
#8 – Buckner’s controversial walk-off blast
#7 – Narvaez’s two-homer Dash debut
#6 – Danish tosses six no-hit innings
#5 – Anderson rescues Dash with walk-off homer
#4 – Team names “Big Kev” MVP
#3 – Wendelken overshadows Rodon’s debut
#2 – Bucciferro’s takes no-hitter into ninth

Moment #1 – July 4
8,184 fans watch Fourth of July game

A record crowd of 8,184 enjoyed postgame fireworks on July 4 (Photo via Andrew Dye/Winston-Salem Journal).

A record crowd of 8,184 enjoyed postgame fireworks on July 4 (Photo via Andrew Dye/Winston-Salem Journal).

Even though the Dash did not post a great record, the 2014 season included some fantastic moments, many of which we have rehashed over the last couple of weeks. However, these milestones, awards and records would not have been possible without one important thing…

You.

The Winston-Salem Dash enjoy success, both on and off the field, due to the unending support from the fans. Since moving into BB&T Ballpark in 2010, more than 1.5 million fans have enjoyed Dash baseball here in the Triad. Only one other organization in Class A-Advanced baseball has welcomed more fans during this span than the Dash.

A year ago, a single-game record 7,576 fans took in the Dash’s Fourth of July game, which took place despite a rough weather evening. This year, Winston-Salem residents experienced a picture-perfect Fourth of July weekend.

This weather contributed to an even bigger attendance figure on July 4. For the first time in BB&T Ballpark history, a whopping total of 8,184 spectators watched Wilmington’s 5-0 win over Winston-Salem.

Even though the game did not go the way that Dash fans desired, the atmosphere were electric. The concourses were jam-packed. The place to be in the Triad was BB&T Ballpark, because of both the game and the fireworks.

This community has embraced the Dash organization, and that fact was more evident on July 4 than on any other night.

Thanks to each and every one of you who attended a Dash game in 2014. You are the reason why the Dash recorded another incredibly successful season.

Our Dash Top 10 for 2014 is in the books. Stay tuned for more offseason news and notes here on the Dash Board.

– Brian

Dash Top 10 – #2: Bucciferro’s near no-hitter

The 2014 season is in the books, and there were many great moments throughout the summer. Over the next few weeks, we will count down the Dash Top 10 of 2014.

Previous moments:
#10 – Shortest MiLB game in 2014
#9 – DeMichele’s five-hit, five-run effort
#8 – Buckner’s controversial walk-off blast
#7 – Narvaez’s two-homer Dash debut
#6 – Danish tosses six no-hit innings
#5 – Anderson rescues Dash with walk-off homer
#4 – Team names “Big Kev” MVP
#3 – Wendelken overshadows Rodon’s debut

Moment #2 – July 20
Bucciferro takes no-hit bid into ninth at Frederick

Tony Bucciferro came within two outs of a no-hitter on July 20 at Frederick. (Jody Stewart/W-S Dash)

Tony Bucciferro came within two outs of a no-hitter on July 20 at Frederick. (Jody Stewart/W-S Dash)

“Two outs from glory.”

Those were the final words Tony Bucciferro said to me after a lengthy postgame conversation. Those four words ate at him, a reality that he had not fully digested.

A couple of hours before he uttered those four words, Bucciferro turned in the greatest pitching performance in Dash history. Through eight innings, the right-hander held the Frederick Keys scoreless at Harry Grove Stadium, the only facility that gives BB&T Ballpark a run for its money when discussing the most hitter-friendly Carolina League parks.

Frederick had not put good wood on a Bucciferro pitch through those eight innings. The closest thing to the obligatory “defensive gem” was a foul pop up that Joey DeMichele snagged after a lengthy gallop. It was a great play, but this came against the first batter of the contest, and it was never going to be a hit.

With 96 pitches under his belt and the chance at glory in front of him, Bucciferro took to the hill for the ninth inning. On a 1-2 pitch, he retired nine-hole hitter Jerome Pena with a pop out to second.

All-Star Glynn Davis followed, and his speed prompted third baseman Nick Basto to play on the grass. Davis lashed the first pitch he saw toward Basto, and his glove did not climb high enough to spear the glory-ending single.

The single understandably rattled Bucciferro a bit, and multiple players offered some words of encouragement before squaring off with Adrian Marin. The first pitch, like many of Bucciferro’s throughout this Sunday evening, was located perfectly, and Marin dribbled a double play ball to second.

One pitch after seeing his no-hit bid disappear, Bucciferro completed the only one-hit, nine-inning shutout by a Winston-Salem hurler in the Dash era, which began in 2009. He was two outs shy of the first nine-inning, solo no-no since Bill Kazmierczak turned in the gem on May 20, 1988, against Virginia.

It was a remarkable outing, one that Winston-Salem fans will not soon forget. Even though he did not earn the “glory” that was up for grabs, Bucciferro recorded an outing that is unparalleled in the modern era.

Our top moment of 2014 is on the horizon. What could be better than Bucciferro’s gem? Find out Wednesday!

– Brian

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