by Mike Potter
FIVE COUNTY STADIUM/ZEBULON A whole new era officially begins for the Carolina Mudcats Friday night.
At 7:15 p.m. at Five County Stadium, the Mudcats – who had been members of the Double-A Southern League since arriving in Wake County in 1991 – will make their debut in the Class A-Advanced Carolina League against the Winston-Salem Dash.
The current Mudcats franchise played for the previous 25 seasons as the Kinston Indians, won five Mills Cup championships during the span and finished second in the league last season. In contrast, the Bulls did not win a single CL title during their final 28 seasons in the league before moving up to much greener pastures in Triple-A.
With the Cleveland affiliation continuing, manager Edwin Rodriguez – who was the Mudcats’ hitting coach in 2004 and was manager of the Florida Marlins for parts of the past two seasons – said there’s plenty of reason for optimism about a great year.
“I’m new in this organization, but they put a lot of emphasis on winning and I’m in 100 percent agreement with that,” Rodriguez said. “It’s easier to develop players and learn the game when you come to the field and you’re winning. The whole mental aspect of the game kind of changes and they’re more receptive to instruction, and everybody comes to the field early. They want to develop players, but they really believe it’s easier to develop players when you’re winning.
“We’ll have a good, balanced club. We’ll have speed, we’ll have power, pretty good hitters and good defenders. The chemistry is good. We’re talented, but we’re still young for this league.”
Clayton Cook (9-9, 4.56 at Kinston last season) will be the Opening Night starter against the Dash, the affiliates of the Chicago White Sox. It’s the first career Opening Night start for the 21-year-old from Amarillo, Texas, a ninth-round pick out of high school in 2008.
“There’s a little bit of butterflies, but I’m getting ready to start off on the right foot and get the season going,” Cook said. “For me it’s an advantage to have been in the league for a year. A lot of the same guys will be returning from other teams and we know each other’s strengths and weaknesses a little bit. The travel will be familiar, so I’ll know how to prepare better.
“And I’ll know the stadiums. Where the ball flies out of left or right and know how to pitch a little bit better. The ball looks like it flies out here a little bit, so I’ll definitely have to keep the ball down.”
Lefty Mike Rayl will pitch Saturday night, followed by Michael Goodnight on Sunday afternoon, southpaw T.J. House on Monday night in the series opener against the Wilmington Blue Rocks and then Danny Salazar on Tuesday.
Dale Dickerson will be the primary closer with Cody Allen also taking some of those duties. Brett Brach, Clayton Ehlert, Jose Flores and lefties Francisco Jimenez and J.D. Reichenbach will round out the bullpen.
Center fielder Tyler Holt will start as the regular leadoff man, with left-hitting second baseman Tony Wolters second and third baseman Giovanny Urshela hitting third. First baseman Jesus Aguilar is the cleanup man, followed by fellow infielder and designated hitter Jeremie Tice in the fifth spot and left-hitting catcher Jake Lowery in the sixth.
Lowery, a Richmond, Va., native who was a fourth-round pick out of James Madison last season, hit .246 with six homers and 43 RBI at Mahoning Valley.
“We’ve got a lot of top prospects on our team and a real good pitching staff,” Lowery said. “Obviously Edwin and (pitching coach) Scott Erickson are two big-league guys with a lot of experience. This is ‘Advanced’ A for a reason, because a lot of these guys are really experienced in minor-league ball. We’ve got some older guys on the team with tons of experience.
“The Indians treat us really well. It’s a high-class organization. And I really like this facility. We’ve got a great field, a great clubhouse, and looks like it’s going to be a great situation here.”
Left-hitting right fielder Carlos Moncrief will bat seventh, followed by shortstop Ronny Rodriguez in the eighth spot.
Rodriguez said he still hasn’t decided which of his other outfielders – Delvi Cid, Anthony Gallas or left-hitting Jordan Casas – will start in left and bat ninth on Friday.
Dwight Childs is the backup catcher while Justin Toole and switch-hitting Tyler Cannon are the reserve infielders.
“The biggest challenge at this level is to let them know they still have a long way to go,” said Rodriguez, who was the first Puerto Rican-born skipper in the big leagues. “Especially in high-A, they still have a long ways to go. And sometimes you have to be their father and grandfather and grandmother and psychologist and all that – and friend. They have to be comfortable talking about what’s going on off the field. In the big leagues, they don’t have to worry about the financial aspect of the game because they’re already set. In the minor leagues, some guys are just trying to survive.”