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Previewing the all-new Carolina Mudcats

The little red machine

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Chris Heisey of the Mudcats - PHOTO BY NIKOLAUS/ CAROLINA MUDCATS

Carolina Mudcats center fielder Chris Heisey apparently was unfazed Sunday afternoon in Pearl, Miss., when, on the third pitch of the game, he homered off the Mississippi Braves' Tom Glavine.

Yes, that Tom Glavine: the future Hall of Famer and two-time Cy Young winner who has notched 305 major league wins and earned a World Series ring. (The 43-year-old Glavine, recovering from elbow surgery, also seemed unfazed by the homer: He put in two innings before leaving mid-game to fly to Atlanta, where he's expected to be activated this week.)

For baseball fans living on the west side of the Triangle, the sun rises and sets on the Triple-A Durham Bulls. Yet from Raleigh eastward, the Carolina Mudcats are the home team, the scrappy Double-A farm club of the Cincinnati Reds.

There are high expectations for the Mudcats this season, as they try to outdo last year's 80-60 record. While that tally, the best in the Southern League, helped crown them 2008 North Division champions, the Mudcats lost to the Mississippi Braves in the Southern League finals in five games.

But we're in a new season, with a new manager in former 12-year big leaguer David Bell, and new pitching coach Rigo Beltran, formerly of the Single-A Dayton Dragons. (Beltran recently replaced Tom Browning, who was arrested in Florida for allegedly failing to pay child support.)

There is also a new major league affiliate. The Mudcats' six-year courtship with the Florida Marlins ended last fall when, in the convoluted dance card of team affiliations (the Los Angeles Dodgers cut its ties to Jacksonville, which was then scooped up by the geographically close Marlins), the Mudcats inked a deal with the Cincinnati Reds through 2011.

Todd Frazier of the Mudcats - PHOTO BY NIKOLAUS/ CAROLINA MUDCATS

With a new parent club, Mudcats fans will have to acquaint themselves with a new roster of prospects moving through the organization. Heisey, who's hitting .412 with 17 at-bats—and whose speed and strong arm helped him log 12 outfield assists with the Sarasota outfit—is one of several Mudcats players to watch this season. Left fielder and Reds' No. 2 prospect Todd Frazier went 10-for-22 through five games, and catcher Chris Denove, also formerly with Sarasota in the Florida State League, is hovering around the .400 mark.

Former All-American at Oregon State, Dallas Buck is back after Tommy John surgery on his elbow and debuted on Opening Day allowing five hits and three runs in five innings. While Buck's slider and changeup remained unaffected from the injury, sustained while he was in college, MLB.com noted his fastball, which was consistently in the 90s, has dipped to the 80s. With the Mudcats, perhaps he'll regain his speed. James Avery also had a decent start on Sunday, completing five innings and allowing three runs—42 of his 78 pitches connected for strikes.

In the season's infancy, the players we're watching in April may be elsewhere by July. We haven't seen first baseman Yonder Alonso, the Reds' first-round pick who is warming up in the Florida State League; he is expected to join the Mudcats later in the season.

That said, unlike the Marlins, which often quickly harvested its farm clubs in search of budding talent, the Reds are known for cautiously—and slowly—promoting their players to the majors. (Former Bull standout Jonny Gomes, traded to the Reds organization, is cooling his cleats in Louisville with the Bats, Cincy's AAA affiliate.) Yet considering the Reds, trying to improve on last year's dismal 74-88 record (23 1/2 games behind the Chicago Cubs), are struggling early with a 3-3 record, including an embarrassing 10-2 loss to the lowly Pittsburgh Pirates, there may be more movement in the deeper reaches of the franchise.

Or as Charlie Scrabbles' Cincinnati Reds blog, Redreporter.com, put it bluntly: "There's a hell of a lot more to get excited about in Zebulon than there is in Cincinnati this season."

The Mudcats host their home opener against the Huntsville (Ala.) Stars Monday, April 20, at 7:15 p.m. at Five County Stadium near Zebulon. You can listen to games (and watch pitch-by-pitch simulations) on the Web at gomudcats.com.

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