Eastern Wake: Sports

Mudcats build around talented, motivated group

Erik Gonzalez throws to first on the run during practice on media day for the Carolina Mudcats at Five County Stadium in Zebulon on Tuesday.
Erik Gonzalez throws to first on the run during practice on media day for the Carolina Mudcats at Five County Stadium in Zebulon on Tuesday. amoody@newsobserver.com

The Carolina Mudcats open their season Thursday at Five County Stadium with a lineup that doesn’t feature the big prospect names of a season ago but does include proven young talent.

Franciso Lindor and Tyler Naquin are gone, but 10 players return from last season’s team, and everyone on the roster is chasing the same dream: getting to the big leagues. The Class A Carolina League is a dividing line for separating those with the ability to make that happen.

“This is kind of the funnel where everybody gets pushed,” first-year Mudcats manager Scooter Tucker said, “and to make that next jump to double-A this is the deal breaker for these guys.”

The Mudcats will play seven Carolina League teams a total of 140 times (on average 20 per team), meaning there’s a lot of familiarity between opposing pitchers and hitters.

“High-A ball … is a separator for guys,” said Mudcats’ pitching coach and 11-year MLB veteran Steve Karsay. “It separates guys who have an opportunity to move on in their career and guys who don’t. And in this league, with only eight teams, guys are going to have to learn to make adjustments on their own when something goes wrong.

“If you’re not able to make an adjustment at the High-A level, it’s going to be very hard to make an adjustment at those higher levels.”

Three names to know

Left-hander Shawn Morimando gets the opening night pitching assignment. He was a 19th-round selection in 2011 and appears ready to make that trip through the funnel.

Karsay thinks the Virginia Beach native is just a few adjustments away from big things.

“We’d like to see him cut down on his walks a little bit,” Karsay said. “But stuff wise, he’s there. He just needs to refine his tools and be more consistent and he’ll move along to double-A. His pitches (fastball, change-up, curveball, slider) are pretty refined. We’d like to see him get a little better at working his fastball to both sides of the plate.”

Two position players who could prove worth watching are third baseman Yandy Diaz and outfielder LeVon Washington.

Diaz, a 2013 signee from Cuba, is making the transition from the outfield.

“What I’ve seen of him was very impressive,” Tucker said. “Learning to play third base, he’s a natural outfielder so we’ll have some growing pains but from an offensive standpoint (he) looks very impressive during the spring.”

Washington, a second-round pick in 2010, has experienced something new going into his fourth season with the organization: a healthy spring.

He brings a simple approach to the ballpark.

“To me, the pitcher’s mound is the pitcher’s mound and home plate is home plate. I’m going to come out here with my same punch, do the same things,” he said. “I’m not going to see anybody throwing with their foot or anything new. It’s baseball.”

Washington is part of an outfield that includes two former minor-league all-stars in Logan Vick (2012 Midwest League) and Ollie Linton (a two-time Southern League all-star) and Cleveland native Anthony Gallas.

“It seems like everybody out here’s hungry, ready to go take somebody’s place that’s ahead of them,” Washington said. “I played with a lot of these guys last year at Lake County and they were a pretty hungry bunch.”

What’s in the pipeline

Lindor, the top prospect in the Indians’ organization, has moved on, but the Mudcats have confidence in Dominican Republic shortstop Erik Gonzalez, who spent 39 games with the club last season.

“He’s very athletic and somebody the organization is very high on,” Tucker said. “He got a little bit of a taste of it here last season.”

Gonzalez, 22, is the only member of Cleveland’s 40-man roster playing with the Mudcats.

The next big prospect in the Indians’ pipeline – outfielder Clint Frazier – could see time with the Mudcats before the season ends, but his debut at Low-A Lake County (Ohio) was delayed by a hamstring pull. He’s still in Goodyear (Ariz.) at the Indians’ spring training as of now but will shift to the Lake County lineup when he’s healthy.