The Carolina Mudcats start their 25th anniversary season with new hopes of a better on-field product and a team that connects a little more than past year’s squads with Triangle baseball fans.
The Braves’ affiliation with the Mudcats begins Thursday night when they host the Salem Red Sox at Five County Stadium in Zebulon to start their 2015 season in the Advanced-A Carolina League. It is the first time Carolina has been associated with a Major League Baseball franchise from the region.
What to look for this season:
1) It’s all about the pitching
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The Carolina League has always been a pitcher-dominated league and the Mudcats hope that trend continues. There are two players on the Braves’ 40-man roster on the club – lefty Yean Carlos Gill (7-6, 3.35 ERA in 2014), who will start on opening night, and right-hander Mauricio Cabrera, likely a reliever – on the pitching staff. Lucas Sims, Andrew Thurman, Steve Janas and Tyler Brosius round out the rotation set by pitching coach Derrick Lewis.
Sims (8-11, 4.19) was the Braves’ 2012 first round pick and is Baseball America’s No. 4 prospect in the Atlanta system. “Right now, it’s just about getting more consistency with all three pitches (fastball, curveball, changeup,” he said.
Thurman was a second round pick.
Brosius is a North Carolina native who set high school passing records at Waynesville Tuscola High School before signing with N.C. State. He spent two seasons on the Wolfpack roster behind Russell Wilson and Mike Glennon before deciding to switch to pro baseball.
2) On the field
Catcher Jose Briceno, a standout defensive catcher acquired from Colorado in the off-season, should lead the Mudcats’ infield defensively. He hit a career-high 12 home runs with Asheville in the Carolina League last season and threw out the highest percentage of base runners in the league.
Shortstop Johan Camargo is the 12th-rated prospect in the Braves’ system according to Baseball America.
Last year’s first-round pick by the Braves – outfielder Sean Godfrey from Ball State – begins his first full-season in pro ball with the Mudcats. He hit .321 with 39 RBIs over 62 games at Lynchburg, Rome and Danville last summer.
“I had a good spring training, a great first-time experience there,” Godfrey said. “I just worked on a few things with my swing. It’s all about getting more consistent in every part of my game.”
3) Satorially speaking: it’s all about the socks
The Braves organization requires minor league players to wear their pants up, just below the knee, so you will not see any super baggy, Manny Ramirez-style long pants on the field, except for the coaches, who are exempt from the rule.
The directive did cost the Mudcats some money. Carolina vice president/general manager Joe Kremer said the team had to order all new pants because everything they had was too long by Braves’ standards.
4) A proven skipper
The Mudcats have a veteran skipper in Luis Salazar, who begins his 13th season as a Minor League manager. Even more important to the Mudcats’ postseason hopes is his Carolina League resume. He’s led Carolina League clubs to the playoffs in each of the past three seasons.
You probably had one of his baseball cards growing up. He was a career utility man (infielder/outfielder) who totaled more than 1,000 hits during a 13-year MLB career hopping around with the Padres, Cubs, White Sox and Tigers from 1980-92.
5) The Fan Experience
The biggest addition at Five County Stadium is the biggest widescreen video board in the Minor Leagues. A new 82-foot wide and 34-foot high video board, dubbed “Mudzilla” by Mudcats’ owner Steven Bryant, replaces the scoreboard in left field.
“It will allow us to provide more entertainment to our fans between the action on the field,” Bryant said. “We’ll have better close up shots, so our fans will have to be on alert for the kiss cam. It’ll allow us to put on more of a show.”
Also coming this season is a 5,000-square foot kids zone to open in May, a new Cabana area and picnic areas.