Columbus Clippers enters the 2014 season with high hopes after finishing the 2013 campaign with a 71-73 mark and a second place finish in the West division.
Standouts Trevor Bauer and Preston Guillmet will anchor the team’s pitching staff like in 2013. Guillmet was an IL All-Star in 2013, leading the club with 20 saves and finishing third in the IL.
Second year man Chris Tremie will look to lead another loaded roster in 2014.
Pitching: Bauer, the No.2 organizational prospect for Cleveland, will lead the staff for the second straight season. Last season he went 6-7 with a 4.15 ERA in 22 starts. Bauer is looking to find the consistency that has him as one of the top prospects in all of baseball. Bauer has a mid 90’s fastball and a plethora of off-speed pitches, but has issues around the strike zone. Last season, he walked 89 batters in 138 IP. He will need to correct his consistency around the zone if he wants to be moved to Cleveland.
While, the rotation has solid pieces, the bullpen will be the key for the Clippers as they feature many top arms. C.C. Lee is the top arm in the pen’ as he has been solid since signing in 2008. In 167 minor league relief appearances, he is 18-11 with a 2.94 ERA. He has struck out 323 batters in 263 innings, while walking 84. Lee missed parts of 2012 and 2013 recovering from Tommy John surgery, but looks to be at full strength. He throws a low-90’s fastball and a hard slider to get rid of the opposition.
Infield: Jesus Aguilar and Ronny Rodriguez will lead the infield group. Rodriguez is coming off a solid season with the Akron Aeros, hitting .265 (124-for-468) with 25 doubles, six triples, five homers and 52 RBIs. His power numbers diminished in 2013, as he slugged a career-low five homers, but shows great bat-to-ball skill at the plate. He will look to get back on track in Columbus.
Aguilar power numbers were fine in 2013, slugging 16 homers for the Aeros and driving in 105 runners. He ended the season hitting .275 (137-for-499) with 28 doubles. At 23-years old, Aguilar is progressing rapidly and could make an impact with the Indians in 2014.
Outfield: Carlos Moncrief will lead the outfield. The No. 14 prospect in the Cleveland organization according to Baseball America, is ready to continue his climb as an everyday position player. Originally signed as a pitcher out of Chipola JC (Fl.), Moncrief moved to the outfield in 2010. Last season, he hit .284 (139-for-489) with 26 doubles, seven triples, 17 homers and 75 RBIs for the Aeros. He will be joined by Matt Carson and Tim Fedroff in the other three outfield spots.
Schedule: Columbus rolls into Coolray Field from June 3-6 and the G-Braves visit Columbus from April 22-25.
Projected Depth Chart:
Continuing the International League preview with the Indianapolis Indians, Triple-A affiliate of the Pittsburgh Pirates. The Indians finished an outstanding season, going 80-64 and coasting to a West Division title. However, they were swept in the first round of the IL playoffs by the Durham Bulls.
Last season, catcher Tony Sanchez and hurlers Vic Black and Kris Johnson led the charge. The Il All-Stars have moved on, as Black and Johnson were traded and Sanchez will spend most of the 2014 campaign at the big league level.
Do not be discouraged as the Indians feature a roster that has the talent to repeat as West Division Champion for the third straight season.
Pitching: It all starts with pitching and Indians may have the best pitching prospect in the IL with James Taillon. Taillon made a brief appearance with the Indians in 2013, going 1-3 with a 3.89 ERA in six starts for Indianapolis. Taillon is close to the big leagues, but needs to develop a third pitch to reach his full ceiling as a potential No.2 starter. Taillon has a mid-90’s fastball and a sharp breaking curveball, which leave the opposition baffled. However, he has to develop better feel for his changeup and slider. He will try to develop both pitches as a member of the Indians.
The rest of the staff will be rounded out by talented prospects Stolmy Pimentel and Brandon Cumpton. Both Pimentel and Cumpton got a taste of Triple-A and the big leagues last year. Cumpton impressed in 21 games (19 starts) for the Indians, going 6-7 with a 3.32 ERA. He made six starts for the Pirates, going 2-1 with a 2.05 ERA. Cumpton is a grinder, pounding the zone with low-90’s fastball and plethora of off-speed pitches, but doesn’t overpower hitters.
On the other hand, Pimentel has electric stuff, featuring a mid-90s fastball and mid-80’s split finger. His slider and curveball show flashes of excellence and could keep him in the rotation at the big league level, but he may be destined to be a reliever with his fastball-split combo.
Infield: Sanchez will likely start the season with the Indians, as the crowded backstop of the Pirates will keep him from playing in the majors to start the season. However, he will be the first to get the call from Pittsburgh. Last season, he hit .288 (75-for-260) with 26 doubles, 10 homers and 42 RBIs in 76 games with the Indians. He has the defensive prowess to succeed at the big league level, but may need to get his bat straight to be a full-timer at the MLB level.
Matt Hague and Brent Morel will be added to the fold, as the Triple-A veterans will be great players for the Indians. Hague enters his fourth season with the Indians, while Morel comes from the White Sox organization. Last season, Hague hit .285 (153-for-536) with 37 doubles, two triples, eight homers and 69 RBIs and Morel hit .266 (105-for-395) with 30 doubles, three triples, six homers and 54 RBIs.
Outfield: Gregory Polanco and Andrew Lambo will add thump to the middle of the Indians order. Polanco, the No.1 prospect in the Pirates organization according to Baseball America, has all the tools to succeed at the big league level but will need to refine his tools with Indianapolis. Last season, Polanco started the season in High-A Bradenton before jumping all the way to Triple-A for the IL playoffs. Polanco wasn’t the only one to have a big year in the system, as Lambo clubbed 33 homers and drove 99 runs in 2013 across three different levels. Lambo has great power potential and could be an asset to the Pirates but will start with the Indians. Jaff Decker will fill out the outfield, as the former Padres farmhand is rated the No.22 prospect in the Pirates organization according to Baseball America.
Schedule: Indianapolis will visit Coolray Field on May 17 through 20, while the G-Braves visit the Indians from June 15-18.
Projected Depth Chart:
The Buffalo Bisons, Triple-A affiliate of the Toronto Blue Jays, finished the 2013 campaign with 74-70 record and third place finish in the North Division. After a promising 20-10 start to begin the season, the Bisons fell off and ended right above .500.
Buffalo was led by International League All-Stars Jim Negrych and Mauro Gomez in 2013. Negrych has moved on to play for fellow North Division rival, Lehigh Valley, while Gomez signed an International contract with the Hanshin Tigers of Nippon Professional Baseball.
Without two former all-stars in the fold, the Bisons will have a lot of work to do to compete for a North Division crown.
Pitching: Sean Nolin will anchor the staff. The 6-foot, 5-inch, Nolin had an impressive showing in 2013, making 17 starts for Double-A New Hampshire, three for Triple-A Buffalo and one for Toronto. His spot start at the big league level didn’t pan out, as he was roughed up for six runs on seven hits in 1.0 IP. However, he rebounded well, going 8-3 with a 3.01 ERA in Double- A and 1-1 with a 1.53 ERA with Buffalo. Nolin has four pitches that he uses on both sides of the plate. He works his 2-seam fastball along with his curve, slider and changeup, to keep batters off balance.
He may be joined by teammate Marcus Stroman. The first round pick out of Duke University in 2012, has emerged as the No. 2 prospect in the Toronto Blue Jays organization according to Baseball America. Stroman dazzled at the Double-A level, going 9-5 with a 3.30 ERA. He struck out 129 batters in 122.0 IP. Stroman’s ability to pound the plate is his strongest asset, as he has walked 36 hitters in 131 minor league innings. Featuring a mid-90’s fastball with late sink and a hard slider, Stroman gives the opposition fits.
Infield: The Bisons lost two all-stars in Negrych and Gomez, so they will have to rely on Triple-A veterans like Steve Tolleson, Chris Getz, Dan Johnson, Andy Laroche, Mike McDade and Erik Kratz. Tolleson had a solid season for Charlotte in 2013, hitting .288 (113-for-382) with 28 doubles, eight homers and 53 RBIs. Johnson, “The Great Pumpkin,” has played parts of seven seasons in the Major Leagues, tallying a .236 batting average, 53 homers and 194 RBIs in his career. He will have to work his way back to major league roster by starting the season with Buffalo. I
Outfield: The Bisons will have three jackrabbits in the outfield in Anthony Gose, Kenny Wilson and Kevin Pillar. Gose split the season between Triple-A Buffalo and Toronto in 2013, hitting a combined .244 (132-for-540) with 26 stolen bases. While, Gose was bouncing from Triple-A to the Majors, Pillar was making his unprecedented climb to the MLB. The former 32nd rounder out of Dominguez Hills University (Ca.) signed for $1,000 in 2011 and has become an asset for the Blue Jays’ organization. In three minor league seasons, he has accumulated a .321 (398-for-1240) batting average with 84 doubles, 15 triples, 22 homers, 185 RBIs and 82 stolen bases. He made his Major League debut in 2013, playing in 36 games for the Blue Jays. Wilson doesn’t have the accolades of Gose and Pillar, but he might be the best athlete of the three. In five seasons, he has swiped 194 bases and is a career .229 hitter.
Schedule: The Bisons will meet up with the G-Braves on May 5-8 at Coolray Field, while the G-Braves travel to New York on May 13-16.
Projected Depth Chart:
The Syracuse Chiefs struggled to get things going in 2013, finishing the season in last place in the North Division with a 66-78 mark. With injuries at the Major League level, the Chiefs roster was depleted throughout the campaign.
This season, the Chiefs are focused to put up a better showing. First year man Billy Gardner Jr. will lead a solid group of players in 2014.
Pitching: The Chiefs will be lead by right-hander Ross Ohlendorf. Last season, he went 4-6 with a 4.66 ERA in 14 games (13 starts) for the Chiefs. He was promoted to the big league level several times, making 16 appearances and going 4-1 with a 3.28 ERA for the Nationals. This will be Ohlendorf’s fourth tour in the International League level, having played with Indianapolis Indians in 2011, the Pawtucket Red Sox in 2012 and Syracuse in 2013.
While, Ohlendorf enters his fourth year of IL play, the staff will get a shot in the arm if top prospect A.J. Cole makes the club. Cole is the No.2 prospect in the organization according to Baseball America. Last season, he went a combined 10-5 with a 3.60 ERA through High-A Potomac and Double-A Harrisburg. He may need a little bit more seasoning, but he has the stuff to excel at the Triple-A level. Cole features a mid-90’s fastball, a tight changeup and hard breaking curveball. He works his fastball on both edges of the plate and utilizes his changeup as his strikeout pitch. In 143 innings, Cole fanned 151 batters in 2013. Through four minor league seasons, Cole has amassed 393 strikeouts in 353 innings.
Infield: IL All-Star Zach Walters will be the staple of the offense. The shortstop clubbed a league-high 29 homers in 2013, while batting .253 (123-for-487) with 32 doubles and 77 RBIs. Walters’ accolades earned him a big league call up in September, going 3-for-8 with one triple and one RBI in eight games. He will be joined on the diamond by Pacific Coast League All-Star Brock Peterson. Peterson, who slugged 25 homers and drove in 86 runs as a part of the Memphis RedBirds, elected free agency and signed with the Nationals during the offseason. Peterson has made a strong impression during the 2014 Grapefruit League season, batting .370 (10-for-27) with two doubles, one homer and six RBIs in 15 games. He will likely start the season at Syracuse with incumbent Adam LaRoche manning first base at the big league level. The rest of the infield will be composed of experienced Triple-A talent, as Wil Rhymes, Jeff Kobernus, Mike Fontenot and Emmanuel Burriss will fight for playing time.
Outfield: The outfield is so deep that the Chiefs may send top prospect Brian Goodwin back to Double-A Harrisburg. Despite playing 164 games at the Double-A level, Goodwin may start the season with Harrisburg, because the Chiefs outfield will have Tyler Moore, Eury Perez and Steven Souza occupying one of the three spots. Moore is a Triple-A standout, having batted .318 (55-for-173) with ten homers and 46 RBIs in 45 games for the Chiefs in 2013. Perez, the No. 20 prospect in the Nationals organization according to Baseball America, batted .300 (121-for-403) with 18 doubles, five triples, seven homers and 28 RBIs in 96 games for the Chiefs in 2013. The newcomer will be Souza, who will make the jump to the Triple-A level for the first time in his career. Souza hit .300 (82-for-273) with 23 doubles, one triple, 15 homers and 44 RBIs in 77 games with Double-A Harrisburg. He enters the 2014 campaign as the No.10 prospect in the Nationals organization according to Baseball America.
Schedule: The Chiefs will meet the G-Braves at Coolray Field from July 6-9, while the G-Braves make the trip to Syracuse, NY from July 25 through 28.
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The Rochester Red Wings enjoyed a magical ride in 2013, starting the season 10 games under .500 before winning 57 of their last 94 to sneak into the International League playoffs with a 77-67 mark. However, they were clipped by the Pawtucket Red Sox in the first round of the playoffs, 3 games to 2.
Chris Colabello led the Rochester attack in 2013. The IL Rookie of the Year and MVP, hit .352 (119-for-338) with 24 homers and 76 RBIs. He led the league in batting, slugging percentage (.639) and on-base percentage (.427).
He will lead another loaded group in Rochester, as the Red Wings look to compete for the North division title in 2014.
Pitching: The staff will be without 2013 IL All-Star Andrew Albers, who was released by the Twins during Spring Training. However, another southpaw All-Star in Kris Johnson will anchor the Red Wings staff. The former Pittsburgh Pirates’ farmhand led the IL in ERA with a 2.39 and won ten games for the Indianapolis Indians. He was traded in the offseason to the Twins in exchange for RHP Duke Welker.
He will be likely be joined by two of top pitching prospects in the Twins’ system, Alex Meyer and Trevor May. Meyer is the No.3 prospect in the Twins organization according to Baseball America. He was traded from the Washington Nationals organization in 2012 in exchange for Denard Span. In two minor leagues seasons, spanning three levels, he is 14-9 with a 2.91 ERA and fanning 239 batters in 207 innings. He features a mid-90’s fastball, hard sinker and knuckle-curve. Joining Meyer in the rotation will be May. May hasn’t been as sharp as Meyer in his minor league career, posting a 46-40 record with a 4.05 ERA in six seasons. However, he has punched out 806 batters in 677 innings with his mid 90’s fastball, changeup and slow curveball.
Infield: The pitching staff will not have to do much, as Colabello will lead the offense again. He will not be alone as he will have interesting journeymen with him in Brandon Waring, Deibenson Romero and Eric Farris around the horn. The addition of Daniel Santana at shortstop will complete the infield. Santana enters the season as the No.9 prospect in the Twins organization according to Baseball America. In 2013, he hit .297 (160-for-539) with 22 doubles, 10 triples, two homers and 45 RBIs in 131 games for Double-A New Britain. Santana will provide a table-setter at the top of the order as he scored 66 runs and stole 30 bases in 2013. The Rochester Red Wings would have been an easy favorite to win the division if one of the top prospects in baseball, Miguel Sano, didn’t go down with season-ending surgery during Spring Training.
Outfield: The outfield will feel the impact of the Sano loss, as he will not be working in one of the corner spots during the IL campaign. Without Sano, they will rely on Jermaine Mitchell, Dan Rohlfing and Chris Rahl. All three outfielders are seasoned Triple-A vets. Mitchell had a solid campaign between Rochester and Lehigh Valley in 2013, hitting .268 (91-for-340) with seven homers and 29 RBIs. He stole 20 bags and will add great defensive ability out in centerfield.
Schedule: The G-Braves will play the Red Wings from May 30 through June 2, while Rochester visits Coolray Field from June 7-10.
Projected Depth Chart:
The IL preview series continues with the Lehigh High IronPigs of the North Division. The Philadelphia Phillies’ affiliate finished the 2013 campaign with a 72-72 mark and a fourth place finish in the North.
The IronPigs were led by All-Stars infielders Cody Asche and Cesar Hernandez. Asche hit .295 (119-for-404) with 24 doubles, five triples, 15 homers and 68 RBIs, while Hernandez batted .309 (121-for-391) 12 doubles, nine triples, two homers and 34 RBIs. Hernandez finished third in the league in BA and first in triples.
The IronPigs will have to rely on its offense, again, in 2013, as they will be pretty thin in the pitching department.
Pitching: The IronPigs will be led by the Phillies top pitching prospect, Jesse Biddle. The No.2 prospect in the Philadelphia Phillies organization according to Baseball America will have to improve from his 5-14 mark from 2013 in Reading to help Lehigh Valley. Despite losing 14 games, Biddle ranked third in the Eastern League in strikeouts (154), first among starters in opponent average (.210) and appeared in the XM Futures All-Star Game in New York. The former first rounder in the 2010 draft has an impressive array of pitches, featuring a low-90’s fastball, a 12-6 curveball, hard slider and a changeup. Biddle has strikeout stuff, fanning 479 batters in 458 minor league innings, but has some control issues. In 2013, he walked a career high 82 batters, leading the Eastern League. He will likely be joined by Austin Wright, David Buchanan and Sean O’Sullivan in the rotation.
Infield: The group around the horn may be one of the best in all the IL. Maikel Franco, who hit .320 (173-for-541) with 31 home runs and 103 RBIs between High-A Clearwater and Double-A Reading, leads the group. The No.1 prospect in the Phillies organization according to Baseball America was a Florida State League All-Star and appeared in his second Futures All-Star Game in July. He was named the Phillies Minor League Player of the Year at the end of the season.
In addition to Franco will be former IL All-Stars Hernandez and Jim Negrych. Hernandez made the Triple-A All-Star team as a reserve, while Negrych was the starter. As a member of the Buffalo Bisons in 2013, Negrych hit .285 (109-for-382) with 27 doubles, one triple, three home runs and 44 RBIs. Hernandez may work in the outfield, as he continues to add versatility to his game. Another player that may have to move around will be Cody Overbeck. Overbeck led the IronPigs with 19 homers in 2013, but may have to work in the outfield to get time on the field as Franco will likely spend a lot of time at first base.
Outfield: The outfield will have some speedsters patrolling the gaps with Clete Thomas and Tyson Gillies manning two of the three spots. In 63 games with the Iron Pigs, Gillies hit .220 (47-for-217) with 31 runs and 13 stolen bases. He is an instant threat on the base paths, having swiped 108 bases in his minor league career. Alongside, Thomas and Gillies will be Kevin Frandsen, who was outrighted to Triple-A Lehigh High over the weekend. Frandsen has spent the majority of the last two seasons with the big club, slugging seven homers and driving in 40 runs as a part-time player for the Phillies.
Schedule: Lehigh Valley will come to Coolray Field from May 1-4 and the G-Braves will travel to Allentown, PA from May 9-12.
Projected Depth Chart:
Like the Boston Red Sox, the Pawtucket Red Sox enjoyed a successful 2013 campaign. However, they fell one series short of becoming International League Champions. Pawtucket won the North Division after posting an 80-63 mark, they also defeated the Rochester Red Wings in a five game series to advance to the Governor’s Cup. But, they eventually ran short as the Durham Bulls clipped them in the IL Championship series.
The Paw Sox were lead in 2013 by IL All-Stars hurlers Rubby De La Rosa and Anthony Carter. Carter finished the season second in the IL in saves, while De La Rosa went 3-3 with a 4.26 ERA.
This season, the Paw Sox will gun for another championship with a star-studded roster, full of top-notch prospects and salty veterans.
Pitching: De La Rosa and Carter will likely spend most of their time at the big league level, but it will open up spots for the three-headed monster of Allen Webster, Matt Barnes and Anthony Ranaudo. Webster comes in with the most experience, having made 21 starts at the Triple-A level. He went 8-4 with a 3.60 ERA. The former Los Angeles Dodgers’ farmhand was a part of the monster trade that saw the Red Sox swap Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford, Nick Punto and Josh Beckett to the Dodgers in 2012.
He will be backed in the rotation by two former first rounder’s’ in Barnes and Ranuado. Barnes made one start at the Triple-A level (5IP, 0ER) after a rocky season with Portland of the Eastern League (5-10, 4.33 ERA), but he features a mid-90’s fastball and a devastating changeup. With 275 punch outs in 233 minor league frames, Barnes has huge upside for the Paw Sox.
Ranaudo doesn’t come with the strikeout ratio of Barnes, but the right-hander posted solid marks for Triple-A Pawtucket. In six appearances, he went 3-1 with a 2.97 ERA in 30 IP. Before he joined the Paw Sox roster, he went 8-4 with a 2.95 ERA in 19 starts for Portland. He was rewarded with an Eastern League All-Star team selection and an appearance in the Futures Game, representing Team USA in New York.
Infield: The key to any strong infield is the receiver. The Paw Sox will have top catching prospect Christian Vasquez calling the games behind the dish. The Puerto Rico native, dominated the Eastern League in 2013, batting .289 (99-for-342) with 19 doubles, one triple, five homers and 48 RBI. Prospects around the game are raving about the 23-year old catcher, calling him a “game-changer.” Although, he posted huge numbers at the plate in 2013, defense is his calling card, routinely recording pop times between 1.7 and 1.8.
He will be joined around the infield by another top-tier prospect in Garin Cecchini. The Lake Charles, LA native is coming off a career year, hitting .296 (71-for-240) with 14 doubles, three triples, two homers and 28 RBIs. He will command the hot corner, although they may try and move him around with Will Middlebrooks potentially blocking him from getting to the Major Leagues.
Outfield: Jackie Bradley Jr. will likely lead the outfield. The No. 3 prospect in the Boston system according to Baseball America is returning to Pawtucket for the second straight season. Last season, he hit .275 (88-for-320) with 26 doubles, three triples, 10 home runs and 35 RBI. He is knocking on the door, but struggles at the big league level will have him in Pawtucket for the start of the 2014 season. Along with Bradley Jr. will be Bryce Brentz manning one of the corner positions. Brentz will return to Pawtucket for the second straight season after hitting .264 (86-for-326) with 16 doubles, one triples, 17 homers and 56 RBis in 82 games. He enters the season as the No.16 prospect in the Red Sox organization according to Baseball America.
Schedule: The Braves will travel to Pawtucket on May 26 through 29, while the Paw Sox come to Coolray Field on August 11 through 14.
Projected Depth Chart:
After finishing 2013 with the worst record in the International League, the Gwinnett Braves will return to the diamond with a lot to prove in the 2014. They will be led by first year man Brian Snitker, who returns to bench after serving as the Atlanta Braves third base coach for the last three seasons.
Before we get into the Braves 2014 roster and potential players to look for, we will take a look at the rest of the league with an in-house feature on all the other 13 teams in the IL.
We will start the tour with the North Division and the Scranton Wilkes-Barre RailRiders.
Scranton finished the season fifth in the North Division with a 68-76 record. Right-hander Chris Bootcheck and outfielder Thomas Neal represented the RailRiders in the Triple-A All-Star Game.
This season, the RailRiders bolster an inexperienced Triple-A roster, but heavy with top tier prospects.
Pitchers: Right-hander Jose Ramirez and left-hander Nik Turley will anchor the staff. Last season, Ramirez was regarded as the best pitching prospect in the Yankees system. After missing the start of the season with fatigue, the hurler breezed through the Eastern League, going 1-3 with a 2.76 ERA in nine games. He was promoted to Triple-A Scranton in June and made eight starts for the RailRiders before being shut down with an oblique strain in July. He was roughed up in first stint at the Triple-A level, going 1-3 with a 4.88 ERA. However, he has the stuff to succeed at the Triple-A level, featuring an upper 90’s fastball and tough change-up. He will need to develop his slider to be an effective starter.
While, Ramirez works on his third pitch, southpaw Turley is exceeding expectations. The former 50th rounder (1,502 overall pick), third to last pick in the 2008 First Year Player Draft out of Harvard-Westlake High School in California, was placed on the 40-man roster in the offseason after a stellar season with Double-A Trenton. The 6-foot, 5-inch lefty went 11-8 with a 3.88 ERA and lead the Thunder to an Eastern League Championship. He features a low-90’s fastball, a filthy curveball and nice change-up, but has never pitched at the Triple-A level.
Infielders: The RailRiders’ experience will come from the diamond. The 2011 International League MVP, Russ Canzler will lead a talented group around the horn. Canzler has spent three seasons at the Triple-A level, posting a career .277 batting average with 52 homers and 224 RBI. During his MVP campaign in 2011 with the Durham Bulls, he hit a career-high .314 (149-for-474) with 18 homers and 83 RBI. He will likely be joined Zelous Wheeler, Addison Maruszak and Corban Joseph.
Outfielders: With an offseason overhaul by the New York Yankees, signing of outfielders Jacoby Ellsbury and Carlos Beltran, the Scranton outfield will be loaded with top-tier talent. Top prospect Slade Heathcott will lead the group. The left-handed hitter batted .267 (104-for-399) with 22 doubles, seven triples, eight homers and 49 RBI in 103 games with the Trenton Thunder in 2013. Regarded as one of the most complete players in all of minor league baseball, Heathcott will have to stay on the field to showcase his talents, having missed parts of four straight seasons with lingering injuries. He is trending upward though as he played a career-high 103 games last year. Fellow outfielder Zoilo Almonte will lighten the load as he will take over one of the corner spots. Almonte returns for his second season with the RailRiders after hitting .297 with six homers and 36 RBI for Scranton. Filling out the outfield will be Ramon Flores or Ronnie Mustilier.
Schedule: The RailRiders and G-Braves will meet on July 21-24 at Coolray Field and July 29- August 1 at PNC Park. Last season, Scranton took 6 of 8 against the Braves.
Projected Depth Chart:
Much like David Hale, outfielder Todd Cunningham has seen quite a shift in his expectations this spring. A year ago, he entered Major League camp as the reigning Atlanta Braves Minor League Player of the Year, an award that earned him a spot as a non-roster invitee. He played in 22 Grapefruit League games before ultimately opening the season with Triple-A Gwinnett, where he went on to hit .265 with 60 runs scored an 20 stolen bases. This spring, Cunningham is a member of the 40-man roster with a taste of the Majors under his belt (he hit .250 in eight games for Atlanta last year), vying for a return trip to Turner Field. Gwinnett Braves Media Relations Manager Dave Lezotte caught up with him today at Champion Stadium in Lake Buena Vista, FL.
DL: Last year, you were a non-roster invitee to Braves Spring Training. This year, you’re on the 40-man roster. How does this spring compare to last year?
TC: Every year, you’re just trying to get ready for Spring Training. Wherever you settle in the lineup or whatever team you end up on, it kind of works itself out. It’s all about getting ready for the season and being ready to go for game one.
DL: You’re competing for a roster spot with Atlanta, going up against some former Gwinnett teammates like Jose Constanza and Joey Terdoslavich. What’s that competition like?
TC: We all get along so well, there’s no bad blood among us. It’s all about the competition. We go out and we play hard, all of us enjoy the game of baseball. We have that connection, that bond, regardless of what happens. It’s all about going out there and playing hard.
DL: Obviously you still root for those guys when they’re at the plate.
TC: Yeah, they’re your teammates. You’ve come up with them and played with them, so you want everyone to do well.
DL: Last year with Gwinnett, you hit two home runs all year. In your third game this spring, you homered. What was it like showing some power in a Major League Spring Training game?
TC: It feels good. Hopefully that works itself into my swing; it’s something that I’ve tried to incorporate a little bit. Hopefully that shows up throughout the whole season.
DL: As a G-Brave in 2013, you were the everyday centerfielder. This spring, you’ve been playing a lot of left field. Are you still working towards being in center, or is it left field now?
TC: The whole goal is to be able to play as many (positions) as possible. You start looking at the levels above you, the big league level and who they have, and there’s a lot of contracts out there. For me and my position, trying to find a way to get in there, you have to be able to play more than one. The more positions I can play, the better, but obviously the longer I can stay in the middle of the field, the better, too.
DL: Is there different preparation involved for playing the corner outfield spots as opposed to center?
TC: Balls just don’t stay true on the corners, you get all the slices and hooks and top-spin. It’s a lot about first-step reads.
DL: Last season with Gwinnett, you hit .265 and stole 20 bases. Is there an area of your game that you’re working on improving for this year?
TC: Just being able to drive the ball consistently. I’d kind of go through stretches last year where I’d get behind some balls. To be able to do it throughout the whole year, would obviously improve (my) game.
DL: Last year, you got the opportunity to make your Major League debut with the Braves. It was a limited stint, but certainly an eye-opening experience for you. How important is that experience for you heading into this season?
TC: It’s great. It put me in position to come in as a roster invitee. It was just a really cool experience, to kind of get (my) feet wet. Especially when we were on that 14-game winning streak, it was a lot of fun to be in that atmosphere.
DL: Brian Snitker is the manager in Gwinnett this year. You got a chance to work with him at the Major League level last season, what are your thoughts on Snit?
TC: I’m excited to have his experience transferred down to the Triple-A level. He’s been around the game for a long time, so I’m sure there are things that everyone can pick up from him.
DL: The Gwinnett roster obviously will take shape once the Atlanta roster works itself out, but there should be a veteran presence on the club this year. I know you guys aren’t thinking about Triple-A just yet, but what’s your early feeling about the Gwinnett club?
TC: The whole goal, like I said, is to get to the big leagues, but also be ready for game one. I think everyone is going to be on the same page there and be ready in case the opportunity presents itself to be in Atlanta. As far as how the Triple-A team is going to shape up, I think it’s going to be a lot of guys all with the same goal in mind, which is really cool when you get that many guys on the same page. It should be an exciting year, wherever I end up.
DL: If you do end up back in Gwinnett at some point this season, how do you handle that?
TC: Just the same as I’ve always handled it. It’s baseball, I’m trying to get better, I have things that I’m working on. Keep the big picture in mind, trying to get back to Atlanta, and just keep working.
Chris Roughgarden of the Gwinnett Braves Photography Staff was at Champion Stadium on Thursday night to shoot the Atlanta Braves/Washington Nationals night game. She got some great shots of several 2013 G-Braves, which can be viewed in the slideshow below. The Braves won the contest, 3-2.