Hillcats Open Indians Affiliation With Prospect Filled Outfield
David Freier | On 15, Apr 2015
The Hillcat green and gold are set to take the field again for another season. For 2015 this marks the 20th season of the Hillcats moniker for a team in Lynchburg and the 75th anniversary of professional baseball in the hill city. On top of all these momentous milestones the Hillcats will be at the start of a new four-year affiliation as a farm club of the Cleveland Indians. With this new affiliation the hometown fans will kick off their connection to Cleveland with a team comprised of some of the best and brightest prospects the Indians farm system has to offer.
The coaching staff is headed up by second year manager, Mark Budzinski. He was once a Cleveland minor-leaguer himself and a product of the University of Richmond. Budzinski makes his home in Richmond, Virginia so this season provides added opportunities to see his family. As any devotee of professional baseball knows family time is precious as there can be long periods of absence when you are far from home and there the breaks in the season are few in number.
Budzinski said in relation to his proximity to his home in Richmond, “The toughest part of this game is the family aspect and being away from home. We’re appreciative of the opportunity to spend more time together.”
The Hillcats hitting coach will be Bobby Magallanes, who comes to the Indians system this year after having previously served as a manager, scout and coach in the Angels and White Sox systems. The coaching staff is rounded out by longtime Cleveland pitching coach Tony Arnold who comes from the Columbus Clippers and is beginning his 21st year as a coach in the Indians system.
The team’s offense will be anchored by their grade-A outfield. The Opening Day outfield will feature three of the Indians top five prospects as rated by Baseball America. This talented group of players is looking forward to playing together.
“We’re all on the same page here. We all want to get better and make each other better as much as possible,” Bradley Zimmer said. “We’ll push each other every day in practice and games.”
Centerfield is manned by Clint Frazier, the Indians 2013 first round draft selection, of whose 177 professional hits, 48 have gone for extra bases and 18 of those as home runs. Right field features the up and coming slugger Zimmer, the Indians 2014 first round draftee out of the University of San Francisco, and left is held down by Mike Papi, the former University of Virginia first-baseman being converted by the Indians to outfield. He had three home runs to help Lake County make a playoff run at the end of the 2014 season.
Continuing the slugging roster for the Hillcats will be first baseman Nellie Rodriguez. A high schooler from New York City, many are expecting a break out power performance by him this season, and if that develops it will just add more threat to the Hillcats lineup.
The middle infield is manned by players new to the Hillcats but already familiar with the Carolina League. Both James Roberts at second base and Yhoxian Medina at shortstop spent time with the Carolina Mudcats, the Indians affiliate at High-A last season. Ivan Castillo and Joe Sever will fill out the infielders for the Hillcats, while Luigi Rodriguez, another Carolina league veteran will fill the role of fourth outfielder. Finally at the hot corner, will be Paul Hendrix in his second professional season since being drafted out of Texas Christian University in 2013. The catching duties will be shared by Eric Haase, making his debut in High-A ball this year, and Alex Monsalve, another Carolina League veteran.
The Hillcats pitching staff will feature another group of top notch prospects, including starters Mitch Brown, Adam Plutko, Dylan Baker, Luis Lugo and Virginia native D.J. Brown. Both D.J. Brown and Plutko return to the Carolina league, while Mitch Brown, Lugo and Baker are making their Carolina league debut’s this season. With D.J. Brown being a graduate of James Madison University, that gives the Hillcats squad two hometown players for which to cheer, since Papi is a former Cavalier.
The back end of the pitching staff will be anchored by Ben Heller who pitched in 17 games for the Mudcats last year, after being prompted from Lake County. He earned a single save with the Mudcats, but averaged more than a strikeout per inning and held opposing batters to a 0.148 average while on the mound. The remainder of the Hillcats staff will be made up of a mix of league veterans; Mike Peoples, Benny Suarez, Michael Rayl, and Mason Radeke, and newcomers to High-A ball; Justin Brantley, Robbie Aviles, Luis Lugo, and Delvy Francisco. Brantley is a cousin of current Cleveland outfielder Michael Brantley, while Francisco is a Rule V draft pick in the Triple-A round out of the Philadelphia organization.
On paper this looks like a strong offering in the Carolina League’s Northern Division. “We have a very deep lineup at all twelve guys,” Budzinski said. “We’re covered at all positions on the field. Pitching-wise our starting and our bullpen is very strong.”
With six of the Indians top 30 prospects according to Baseball America, as well as twelve players with former Carolina League experience, with luck and health the excellence on paper will translate into games in the win column and the Hillcats will compete for their ninth Carolina league championship since 1978.