Dash announce 2015 starting rotation

On the eve of the club’s season opener tomorrow in Frederick, the Dash have announced their starting rotation to begin the 2015 season:

Thursday at Frederick: RHP James Dykstra
Friday at Frederick: LHP Jace Fry
Saturday at Frederick: RHP Robinson Leyer
Sunday at Frederick: RHP Tony Bucciferro
Monday at Potomac: RHP Matt Heidenreich

James Dykstra will get the call on Opening Night in Frederick on Thursday (Jody Stewart/W-S Dash).

James Dykstra will get the call on Opening Night in Frederick on Thursday (Jody Stewart/W-S Dash).

That means, if all holds to form, Leyer will take the ball and start the Dash’s home opener on April 16 against Myrtle Beach.

With the exception of Fry, each member of the rotation has ample professional starting experience. Fry, who was the White Sox’s third-round pick last June, pitched seven games out of the bullpen for rookie-level Great Falls in 2014 but was primarily a starter in his three seasons at Oregon State.

The biggest strength this collection of pitchers has as a whole is the ability to pound the strike zone and avoid free passes. Leyer’s career rate of 2.9 BB/9 is technically the “worst” of the group though he still rates as above-average when compared to all professional pitchers. Even Fry issued just 2.8 BB/9 in 216.0 collegiate innings with the Beavers.

Avoiding walks is going to be key for this starting rotation because they do not strike many batters out. Dykstra and Bucciferro are the best of the group at missing bats, having each fanned 7.4 batters per nine innings over their career. Fry (6.4 K/9 in college), Leyer (5.7), and Heidenreich (6.4) are all well below average in terms of getting strikeouts.

It is important to note that the defense behind the mound is going to be crucial to this group’s success because they want to coax frequent contact. And luckily for the Dash, their defense should be able to provide excellent support for their pitching staff.

Shortstop Cleuluis Rondon was rated by Baseball America as the Best Defensive Infielder/Best Infield Arm in the entire White Sox system, and second baseman Jake Peter is also an athletic double play partner up the middle. In the outfield, Keenyn WalkerAdam Engel and C.J. Beatty all contribute the athleticism needed to chase down fly balls. Walker also brings an elite arm, having been named the Best Outfield Arm in the White Sox system by Baseball America in 2014.

Stay tuned for our preview of the season opener. We’ll have it on the blog Thursday afternoon. You can catch the action on 600 AM-WSJS and the TuneIn App.

– Scott

Opening Day roster breakdown

The Dash just released their 2015 Opening Day roster, so let’s delve a little deeper into some of the names to know for the upcoming season:

CJ Beatty was with Winston-Salem for a brief time in 2014 (Jody Stewart/W-S Dash).

CJ Beatty was with Winston-Salem for a brief time in 2014 (Jody Stewart/W-S Dash).

Winston-Salem Natives:
OF C.J. Beatty & INF Chris Jacobs

Last season, Beatty became the first Winston-Salem native to suit up for the club in the Dash era. The outgoing Beatty is back for more at BB&T Ballpark this summer, and he will be joined by Jacobs, another Winston-Salem native.

Both players have taken a winding road to get to this point. Beatty was originally drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals back in 2009 before being released by the organization following the 2010 season. The North Carolina A&T product spent four seasons in various independent leagues before hooking on with the Chicago White Sox in 2014. Meanwhile, Jacobs was a 2007 selection of the Los Angeles Dodgers and played seven seasons in their system before getting released this winter and signing with the White Sox.

The Corner Mashers:
INF Keon Barnum & INF Trey Michalczewski

Two of the Dash’s main power sources in 2015 figure to come from the corners of their infield. Both Barnum (supplemental first round, 2012) and Michalczewski (7th, 2013) were highly drafted by the White Sox coming out of high school. The Dash are hoping each player can build off their 2014 campaign, when the pair combined to drive in 135 runs. The switch-hitting Michalczewski was ranked by MLB.com as the eighth-best prospect in the White Sox organization, while the lefty-swinging Barnum is 29th.

Returning Relievers:
RHP Brad Goldberg, LHP Sean Hagan, RHP Zach Isler, LHP Jefferson Olacio

Dash pitchers fanned the most opposing batters (1,087) in the Carolina League last season, and at least four of them will be back with the club in a bullpen role in 2015. Pitching coach J.R. Perdew also returns for a fourth consecutive season. Since Perdew rejoined Winston-Salem for his third tenure with the franchise in 2012, the club possesses a team earned run average of 3.85, which is third-best in the Carolina League during that span.

Why Walk?
RHP Tony Bucciferro & RHP James Dykstra

Speaking of returning pitchers, both Bucciferro and Dykstra come back to the Dash in 2015. If either right-hander is on the mound, expect opponents to try to swing away; the duo combined for 140 strikeouts against just 22 walks last year with Winston-Salem. The ability of each to pound the strike zone and pitch efficiently should help rest the bullpen and keep arms fresh throughout the year.

A 2012 Bounce-back?
LHP Matt Heidenreich & OF Keenyn Walker

Both Heidenreich and Walker turned in promising seasons for the Dash back in 2012. The pair are hoping that starting the 2015 campaign in Winston-Salem can help both them and the club rekindle the magic of 2012, when the Dash went 87-51 and finished 13.5 games better than any other team in the Carolina League. Heidenreich, a 2009 fourth-round pick, and Walker, a 2011 supplemental first rounder, both have the talent to make it happen.

The 2014 Draft Class:
LHP Brian ClarkLHP Jace Fry INF Jake Peter

Three members of the White Sox 2014 draft class will open the season with a full-season club for the first time. Clark and Fry figure to be critical on the pitching side, while Peter should open the year as the Dash’s starting second baseman. How the trio adjusts to the rigors of a 140-game schedule will be key to how much success Winston-Salem enjoys in 2015.

The Brother:
RHP Robinson Leyer

Euclides Leyer pitched in 34 games for the Dash a year ago, but in 2015, it’s up to his brother Robinson to carry on the family name in a Winston-Salem uniform. When you might see the name “Leyer” on the back of the Dash uniforms, however, may be slightly different this season. Euclides worked only as a reliever with the Dash, while Robinson has been a starter throughout his professional career, something that will continue with the Dash in 2015.

The New Guy:
RHP Michael Ynoa

One of the newest members in the entire White Sox organization is Ynoa, who was packaged along with big league RHP Jeff Samardzija in the December trade that sent Dash alums INF Marcus Semien, RHP Chris Bassitt, C Josh Phegley and INF Rangel Ravelo from Chicago to Oakland. Ynoa received the largest contract the A’s had ever given out ($4.25 million) in 2008 and was ranked a top 100 prospect twice before injuries derailed his career. Maybe a fresh start in a new organization is what it takes to get the talented right-hander back on track.

Familiar Fielding Faces:
OF Nick Basto, OF Adam Engel, INF Justin Jirschele & INF Cleuluis Rondon

This group helps makes up nine of the 10 infielders and outfielders on the Dash’s Opening Day roster who played for the club last season. How they are able to use their past experience in the Carolina League will be crucial to determining if the Dash can return to the postseason.

The Catching Duo:
C Omar Narvaez & C Jeremy Dowdy

The 2014 Dash Opening Day roster featured three backstops, so playing time for both Narvaez and Dowdy should be easier to find than the 2014 trio had last year. It will be interesting to see how much manager Tim Esmay platoons the pair if they are both able to get ample rest, as Narvaez bats from the left side while Dowdy is a right-handed hitter.

The Intriguing Southpaw:
LHP Andre Wheeler

Wheeler didn’t pitch full-time until his final year at Texas Tech in 2013 but has steadily put up impressive numbers in his first two professional seasons. Originally drafted as an outfielder by the Dodgers out of high school, Wheeler can be a crucial part of the 2015 Dash if he continues to build on his success pounding the strike zone with his high-voltage stuff.

The Tall Guys:
RHP Jose Brito & LHP Jefferson Olacio

At six-foot-seven, both Brito and Olacio share the distinction of being the tallest players on the Opening Day roster. The height of both hurlers may be the same, but how they pitch is completely different. The 210-pound Brito is a finesse pitcher, hoping to lure opponents into chopping the ball into the ground, while the 295-pound Olacio tries to overpower opposing batters.

Stay tuned for a preview of the season opener in Frederick on Thursday!

– Scott

Coaches Luncheon and Media Day photos

The Dash held their annual Coaches Luncheon and Media Day Tuesday afternoon at BB&T Ballpark. The full recap is available here. Here are some photos from the first public appearance for the 2015 Dash in Winston-Salem this season:


While waiting for the team photo to be taken, outfielder C.J. Beatty got in a selfie with his new teammates.


Eventually, the Dash did get their 2015 team photo taken.


Following the team photo, the Coaches Luncheon gave locals a chance to meet the 2015 Dash over lunch.


Before a record crowd of about 220 guests, Dash team president Geoff Lassiter announced the Shalom Project of Winston-Salem as the club’s 2015 Charity Partner.


Lassiter then presented longtime Winston-Salem Journal reporter Lenox Rawlings with the Dash’s Service Through Sports Award.


The crowd got to hear from new Dash manager Tim Esmay.


Look out for some cool factoids on the BB&T Ballpark scoreboard this season after the players filled out short surveys about their likes and talents.


It was then time to take each player’s head shot…


But things got a little crazy just before the squad’s first workout at the ballpark as Winston-Salem natives C.J. Beatty and Chris Jacobs counted down this year’s fireworks!

It was another successful run at what has become a tradition before Opening Day… Which, speaking of, is in just two days when the Dash travel to Frederick to take on the Keys. We’ll take a look at the Dash’s starting rotation tomorrow, so check back then!

– Scott and Brian

Carolina Countdown – Wilmington Blue Rocks

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
April 1: Potomac Nationals
April 2: Salem Red Sox

Introduction: The Wilmington Blue Rocks franchise actually dates back to 1976, when the team played as the Peninsula Pilots in Hampton, Va. The Pilots played in the Carolina League from 1976 through 1987, and then again from 1989 through 1992 before moving to Wilmington. Since becoming the Blue Rocks, Wilmington has been affiliated with the Kansas City Royals in every season except for the 2005-06 campaigns. The Blue Rocks have won four Mills Cup, but none since 1999.

Christian Winford was the Royals' Minor League Pitcher of the Year in 2014. (Brad Glazier/MiLB.com)

Christian Binford was the Royals’ Minor League Pitcher of the Year in 2014. (Brad Glazier/MiLB.com)

Last Season: The Blue Rocks struggled throughout the 2014 campaign, going 33-35 (4.5 GB) in the first half of the season before slipping to 32-37 (9.0 GB) in the second half. Wilmington’s overall record of 65-72 was tied with Frederick for the worst in the Northern Division.

The Blue Rocks boasted the Carolina League’s best run prevention last year, posting the circuit lowest ERA (3.09) en route to allowing the fewest runs (469). Part of Wilmington’s success on the mound was limiting free passes; Blue Rocks pitchers surrendered just 330 walks (2.55 per nine innings). Right-handed pitcher Christian Binford epitomized this, walking just 11 against 92 strikeouts in 82.2 innings to post a 5-4 record and 2.40 ERA. The Hagerstown, Md. native was named Kansas City’s Minor League Pitcher of the Year in 2014.

However, for all their success preventing runs, Wilmington struggled to score them. The Blue Rocks scored a staggering 126 fewer runs than seventh-place Potomac and were the only team to bat under .250 (.224) and post on-base (.292) and slugging percentages (.334) below .315 and .370, respectively. Third baseman Hunter Dozier (Kansas City’s sixth-best prospect, according to MLB.com) was one of just two Blue Rocks to post an OPS above .700, registering a .826 mark to go along with his .295 average, four home runs and 39 RBIs.

Manager: Brian Buchanan will move to the Class A-Advanced level in 2015 after managing the Royals’ Low-A affiliates (Kane County in 2012 and Lexington from 2013-14) during each of the last three seasons. The 13th-manager in Blue Rocks history, the 2015 campaign is also the sixth for Buchanan as a skipper in the Royals organization. The Jupiter, Fla., native starred at the University of Virginia collegiately, earning All-American honors in 1994. He was selected by the New York Yankees in the first round (24th overall) of the 1994 draft and broke into the majors with the Minnesota Twins in 2000.

In his six-year MLB career with Minnesota, the San Diego Padres and New York Mets, Buchanan hit .258/.328/.439 with 32 home runs, smacking as many as 11 in 2002. After closing out the 2004 campaign with the Mets, Buchanan played in the Minnesota, Colorado Rockies and Cincinnati Reds organizations before spending the 2007 season in Japan. He returned to the States and spent the 2008 and 2009 season in the Kansas City organization with Triple-A Omaha. Buchanan’s pitching coach is Steve Luebber, the longest-tenured coach in Blue Rocks history at nine consecutive seasons. Hitting coach Abraham Nunez rounds out the staff.

System: In more ways than one, the Blue Rocks’ 2014 campaign mirrored that of their parent club. Both teams were built around strong pitching and defense (Fangraphs rated the Royals as the best defensive team in baseball) and struggled offensively by not hitting for power or getting on base frequently. There was just one significant difference: the Royals were successful. Kansas City became the very first team in baseball history to make the playoffs while finishing dead last in both home runs and walks. And as you also probably heard, by doing so, the Royals snapped a 29-year postseason drought and won the American League pennant before bowing to Madison Bumgarner and the San Francisco Giants in Game 7 of the World Series.

Yordano Ventura is expected to lead the Royals' rotation after the departure of James Shields in free agency. (Ed Zurga/Getty Images)

Yordano Ventura is expected to lead the Royals’ rotation after the departure of James Shields in free agency. (Ed Zurga/Getty Images)

The Royals’ method of winning last year was certainly thrilling even to non-Kansas City fans, but also likely unsustainable, which is why many expect them to take a step back in 2015. That being said, there are a lot of young players on the roster like 1B Eric Hosmer, C Salvador Perez, RHP Yordano Ventura and LHP Danny Duffy.

Kansas City also boasts five players in MLB.com’s Top 100 prospects list, which is more than all but four teams. The son of former National League Rookie of the Year and All-Star Raul Mondesi, Raul Adalberto Mondesi (No. 41 overall) is the team’s top prospect. A shortstop defensively, Raul Adalberto struggled with Wilmington last year, batting just .211/.256/.354. However, Mondesi was the youngest player in the Carolina League, tackling High-A as just an 18-year-old.

The other top 100 prospects behind Mondesi in Kansas City’s organization are all pitchers. LHP Sean Manaea (No. 57) was 7-8 with a 3.11 ERA in 25 starts with the Blue Rocks last season after being drafted with the Royals’ supplemental first round pick (No. 34 overall) out of Indiana State. RHP Kyle Zimmer (No. 59) was limited to just 4.2 innings with Rookie-level Idaho Falls last year due to a variety of injuries. Meanwhile, LHP Brandon Finnegan (No. 76) shot through the farm system after being picked 17th overall out of TCU, finishing his season with 13.0 innings out of the bullpen for Kansas City in both the regular season and playoffs. Finnegan will begin the 2015 campaign in the minors as a starter, and as will RHP Miguel Almonte (No. 85). The Dominican flamethrower went 6-8 with a 4.50 ERA in 110.0 innings for Wilmington last season.

Best Promotion: The Blue Rocks will have two excellent bobblehead promotions in 2015. Wilmington’s game against Frederick on April 18 is Elena Delle Donne Bobblehead Night. Fans will also have the chance to meet Delle Donne, who earned three CAA Player of the Year and AP All-American honors at the University of Delaware and now plays for the WNBA’s Chicago Sky. The Blue Rocks will also have National Baseball Hall of Famer George Brett Bobblehead Day on August 1 against the Carolina Mudcats. Speaking of Brett, a 13-time All-Star, 1980 AL Most Valuable Player and member of the 3,000 hit club…

George Brett kissed home plate at Kauffman Stadium after the last home game of his career. (Photo: Cliff Schiappa, Associated Press)

George Brett kissed home plate at Kauffman Stadium after the last home game of his career. (Photo: Cliff Schiappa, Associated Press)

Fun Fact: Brett works for the Royals as a special instructor during Spring Training, among other responsibilities. One of the traditions he helped implement at Royals camp one year was one in which players take batting practice with no fielders. Then, at the end of the session, the players would run around the outfield and collect the baseballs, looking for one in particular; whoever found the ball specially marked by Brett would earn $100.

Blue Rocks in Winston-Salem: Wilmington’s first trip to BB&T Ballpark does not come until a four-game series from June 8-11. The Blue Rocks will also come down to Winston-Salem for a three-game set from July 28-30.

Well, that does it for our 2015 Carolina Countdown! Thanks so much for reading and keep tabs on the Dash Board as we continue to get you ready for the Dash’s season opener April 9 at Frederick.

– Scott

Carolina Countdown – Salem Red Sox

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
April 1: Potomac Nationals

Introduction: Having joined the Carolina League in 1968, the Salem Red Sox are the third-longest tenured team on the circuit. Originally known as the Salem Rebels, the team was affiliated with five other MLB teams before coming under Red Sox control in 2009. Salem has won five league championships, most recently in 2013.

Reed Gragnani was a Year-End Carolina League All-Star for Salem in 2014. (Photo courtesy of Soxprospects.com)

Reed Gragnani was a Year-End Carolina League All-Star for Salem in 2014. (Photo courtesy of Soxprospects.com)

Last Season: Salem was the second Southern Division playoff team in 2014. The Red Sox sputtered along for most of the campaign until a seven-game winning streak in the middle of August pushed them into second place in the division, allowing Salem to clinch a playoff berth by 2.5 games over Carolina with a 35-33 second half record. The Red Sox went 33-35 in the first half of 2014 to record a 68-68 record overall, 13.0 full games behind Myrtle Beach at the top of the Southern Division. Once the Sox reached the postseason, Salem took Game 1 of the SDCS over Myrtle Beach, but the Pelicans won the last two games of the series to advance to the Mills Cup Championship Series.

The Red Sox scored the second-most runs (648) in the Carolina League last season behind catcher Carson Blair (.261/.385/.471, 9 HR, 41 RBI) and infielders Reed Gragnani (.300/.409/.406, 53 RBI) and Jonathan Roof (.301/.384/.461, 4 HR, 23 RBI). Justin Haley was the only pitcher on the team to toss at least 35 innings and post an ERA under 3.00. The right-hander went 7-4 with a 2.82 ERA in 92.2 frames.

Manager: Former major league second baseman Carlos Febles returns for his second season with Salem in 2015. Febles was signed by the Kansas City Royals as a 17-year-old in 1993 out of El Seibo in the Dominican Republic. Febles spent the 1997 season with Wilmington in the Carolina League, batting .237/.333/.347 with three home runs, 29 RBIs and 49 steals in 122 games.

He worked his way up for an 11-game cup of coffee with the Royals in 1998 and was named the No. 30 prospect in baseball by Baseball America before the 1999 campaign. Over his six-year MLB career, all with Kansas City, Febles batted .250/.328/.559 with 414 career hits while smashing as many as 10 home runs and swiping 20 bags in one year. After signing with Boston as a free agent following the 2003 season, he spent the 2004 campaign with Triple-A Pawtucket before retiring from his playing career. Febles eventually began serving as a hitting coach in the Red Sox organization starting in 2007 before getting his first managing gig in 2011 with Short Season Class A Lowell in the New York-Penn League in 2011. The 2014 Salem Red Sox was the first team he helped steer into the playoffs as a manager. Joining Febles this year will be pitching coach Paul Abbott and hitting coach Joe Nunnally.

Mookie Betts batted .291/.368/.444 in 52 games for the Boston Red Sox in 2014. (Carlos Osorio/AP Photo)

Mookie Betts batted .291/.368/.444 in 52 games for the Boston Red Sox in 2014. (Carlos Osorio/AP Photo)

System: Under the Theo Epstein and Ben Cherington regimes, the Red Sox have become one of baseball’s model organizations, embracing the analytical side of the game, showing a keen eye towards injury prevention and stocking up their farm system with young and talented players. That being said, their previous three seasons have been a roller coaster, with the 2013 World Series title sandwiched between two last place finishes in the American League East.

However, the Red Sox should be in for a strong rebound in 2015 due to free agent acquisitions Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval, potential bounceback seasons from infielders Dustin Pedroia and Xander Bogaerts and exciting young talent playing bigger roles like infielder/outfielder Mookie Betts and outfielder Rusney Castillo.

While Boston is expected to contend in the AL East in 2015, they have a slew of prospects due to come up in the next few years that should continue to infuse the team with younger and cheaper players. In fact, the Red Sox have the sixth-best farm system, according to Baseball Prospectus.

Boston won a bidding war to sign the No. 9 overall prospect in baseball, inking Cuban infielder Yoan Moncada for $31.5 million. Moncada could see time with Salem in 2015. The Red Sox have also developed catcher Blake Swihart (No. 19), who batted .293/.341/.469 with 13 homers and 64 RBIs across Double-A and Triple-A last season, and LHP Henry Owens (No. 20), who was 17-5 with a 2.94 ERA and 170 strikeouts against 59 walks in 159.0 innings. LHP Eduardo Rodriguez (No. 90), infielder Rafael Devers (No. 97) and outfielder Manuel Margot (No. 100) are the team’s other prospects that rank among baseball’s best.

Best Promotion: On Friday, June 5, Salem will host “Harry Potter Night” against the Potomac Nationals. Fans are encouraged to grab their wand and glasses and participate in a snitch hunt around LewisGale Field.

Fun Fact: Former Boston Red Sox knuckleballer Tim Wakefield pitched for the Salem Buccaneers (Pittsburgh Pirates) in 1990, going 10-14 with a 4.73 ERA. That was only Wakefield’s second season pitching. He was originally drafted by the Pirates as a first baseman, but was constantly caught fooling around with the knuckleball with teammates during infield drills. After Wakefield batted .189 with Short Season Class A Watertown in 1988, he split the 1989 season on the mound and at first base before transition to the mound full-time in 1990. Wakefield made his MLB debut with Pittsburgh in 1992, signed with the Red Sox as a free agent in 1995 and wound up pitching in Boston for 17 seasons. In his 19-year MLB career, Wakefield went 200-180 with a 4.41 ERA and a 2009 All-Star Game selection.

Red Sox in Winston-Salem: The Salem Red Sox’s first trip to BB&T Ballpark in 2015 is for a weekend series from May 15-17. Salem comes back at the end of the month from May 30-June 2 and then again to close out the first half of the season in a four-game set from June 18-21. After that, the Red Sox make just one more trip down south to Winston-Salem for the remainder of the regular year, another weekend clash from August 7-9.

Thanks for reading! We will close out the Carolina Countdown tomorrow with a look at the Wilmington Blue Rocks.

– Scott

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!


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

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