In early April, nearly every minor league team can be promoted as their parent club’s team of the future. It’s a time when hope and potential are in full bloom.
More often than not, teams fail to reach that potential.
The chances that the 2016 Carolina Mudcats succeed – with two first-round draft picks in their every day lineup – might be better than normal.
The Mudcats will open their season Thursday at Salem (Va.) with the Atlanta Braves’ top prospect Dansby Swanson at shortstop (the No. 1 overall pick last summer) and North Carolina native Braxton Davidson (the Braves’ top pick in 2014) in the outfield.
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In addition, there are nine players who spent part of 2015 with the Mudcats, who went 71-68 last summer.
“We’ve got a lot of speed on this team and that’s going to play a huge role,” manager Rocket Wheeler said. “We’ve got a team of speed. Braxton has a little power and Dansby, he’s got speed and power.”
Swanson, 22, hit .289 in 22 games of rookie ball last year, but he had his season end early when he was hit in the face with a pitch. Fully recovered and sporting a batting helmet with a cheek plate, the incident isn’t something he thinks about. “Because I don’t remember any of it,” he said.
Davidson, 19, hit .242 with 10 HRs and 45 RBIs with Rome (Ga.) of the Class A South Atlantic League last season.
“It distracts pitchers from their focus on the plate,” Davidson said of speed’s role in the game. “It gives you the chance to do more going from first to third on any hit and just put pressure on the other team’s defense. It’s about making plays and using your speed to be aggressive on offense.”
Davidson is in a veteran outfield with 2015 Mudcats Sean Godfrey and Keith Curcio. Godfrey hit .304 with 10 stolen bases in 62 games for Carolina last season. Curcio had 38 RBIs in 101 games.
Swanson was traded to the Braves in December after being selected by Arizona with the top overall pick last June. He quickly became the centerpiece of the Braves’ rebuilding effort, centered around the move of the team from downtown Atlanta to the suburbs, about five minutes away from Kennesaw, where Swanson grew up before leading Vanderbilt to a College World Series title in 2014 and the finals again in 2015.
“It’s pretty easy to watch,” said Evan Phillips, a Clayton High graduate, 2015 draft pick and a part of the Mudcats’ bullpen. “There’s not a lot of nit-picky things. You know Dansby is going to be there to make plays for you, that’s for sure.”
Swanson’s path to a spot at SunTrust Park (the Braves’ home to open in 2017) could be a quick one, so a look at baseball’s No. 1 pick might need to come early in the season.
“If he gets off to a great start, who knows what goes down,” Wheeler said of Swanson. “He only had a few at-bats last year before he got hit in the face. Just needs to get some at-bats to get him going again.”
Former UNC Pembroke player Jordan Edgerton will get the majority of the time at third base. Joey Meneses is penciled in at first base, with Reed Harper and Omar Obregon at second and Ryan Gebhardt likely will back up Swanson at short.
Enderson Franco, a Venezuelan, will make the opening-night start for Carolina. A 23-year-old, he made 25 starts last season in the minors. He’ll be joined in the rotation by Ryan Lawlor, Ryan Clark, Max Povse, a Green Hope High grad, and Matt Withrow.
The bullpen includes Phillips, Cuba native Raymar Navarro and 2015 draft pick Chase Johnson-Mullins.
The Mudcats, after making the northern run of the Carolina League to Salem and Wilmington, will return home April 14 to host reigning league champ Myrtle Beach.
The group’s dates together at SunTrust Park in Atlanta Braves’ uniforms will be determined by how well things go along N.C. 39.
“We’re all here to win games and if we win games, there’s a good chance that a lot of these guys are going to advance together through the system,” Davidson said. “If you win and you’re productive those things take care of themselves.
“Right now, I’m all about winning with the Carolina Mudcats and trying to win a championship for this team.”