Second-year Carolina Mudcats manager David Bell is in his 19th year of pro baseball and says he doesn't remember anticipating a season with quite as much enthusiasm.
Last season, Carolina (65-74) came within a game of winning the first-half championship in the Southern League's North Division before tailing off in the second half with a 28-42 record.
"I'm really excited," said Bell, whose team will host the Montgomery Biscuits—the Tampa Bay Rays' Double-A affiliate—in its first home series of the campaign. "I told them that in our first meeting. Because of the type of team we have, with a lot of them back for the second year, it's fun."
In its 20th season, the team has one huge prospect in outfielder Miami native Yonder Alonso, the Reds' No. 1 draft pick (seventh overall) in 2008. Alonso played just 29 games for Carolina last year because of surgery on his right hand, but he hit .296 with two homers and 14 RBI before being called up to Louisville for the playoffs. Baseball America has tabbed him as the No. 2 prospect in the Reds organization.
Bell said Alonso will play a lot of left field and two or three days a week at first base.
"I feel really comfortable in left," Alonso said. "I feel like I can do a good job out there. I'm not going to try to do the diving catches and the things I don't have the speed for. They told me stay out of the center fielder's way and I'll be fine."
The other key prospects are pitchers. Left-handed reliever Philippe Valiquette (1-1, 2.76 with three saves) returns from last season and was selected to pitch for Canada in the World Cup but was out with an injury. He and likely closer Jordan Smith (5-3, 3.44), who missed the second half with a sore elbow, are on Cincinnati's 40-man roster with Alonso.
Southpaw Alexander Smit (4-3, 3.04) has been a mainstay of the Dutch National Team through the past two Olympics. Dallas Buck (2-3, 4.82) was Arizona's third-round pick out of Oregon State in 2006 but missed all but eight starts last season with shoulder problems.
Matt Klinker is set to be the Opening Night starter, followed in the rotation by Buck, returning southpaw Tom Cochran, Daryl Thompson—who was injured and pitched in just eight games for Louisville—and Smit.
Returnees Jerry Gil, lefty Joe Krebs and Ruben Medina are in the bullpen along with lefty Daryl Harang.
Bell said he's high on the defensive potential of his infield, all of whom played for him at least part of last season. He also promised the team will run a lot this year.
"We have (Logan) Parker back, who'll play a lot of first base, (Jose) Castro at second, (Kris) Negron at short and (Eric) Eymann at third," the manager said. "That's a solid infield. And then you have (Jake) Kahaulelio, who can play all three positions (second, short and third)."
Outfielders Sean Henry, Carson Kainer and Denis Phipps are back along with Sean Danielson, who was with Pawtucket last season.Returnee Chris Denove and left-hitting newcomer Brandon Yarbrough are the catchers, and both were at big-league camp. Yarbrough, 25, is the team's local boy, a graduate of Richmond County High.
"It's pretty cool being near home," said Yarbrough, who was at Memphis last season. "I know a lot of family and friends who've been wanting to watch me play. I think we've got a good team. We've got a lot of guys who really love to play and play real hard. I think we'll have an exciting year."