About David Freier
The 2017 season will be the first time since 1998 that the Carolina League hosts its own cavalcade of stars. The last time the Carolina League held an All-Star game featuring the Northern Division stars versus the Southern Division stars, High-A Lynchburg pitcher Triston McKenzie was not even a year old and was still living in Brooklyn, New York. The relocation of two franchises from the California League to the Carolina League during the previous off-season followed the end of the cross-country California-Carolina League All-Star contest.
The strength of the 2017 High-A Lynchburg Hillcats is pitching. Right-hander Triston McKenzie, Cleveland’s third ranked prospect according to Baseball America, heads up a staff that leads the competition of the ten-team Carolina League. This overall pitching performance puts the Hillcats only two games behind Central Virginia rival Salem, with four games remaining before the All-Star break, heading into play on Thursday.
“Our starting pitching has been our strength,” said manager Tony Mansolino. “We have some guys here that have had some success in the past and continue to get better.”
Andrew Calica grew up in southern California and baseball has been a part of his life for as long as he can remember. The 6’1”, 190 lb. center fielder was selected by Cleveland in round 11 of the 2016 draft out of the University of California- Santa Barbara. This was the second time the Indians had drafted Calica, after previously selecting him the 17th round in 2012.
Rather than signing out of high school, Calica chose to attend college. Getting a redshirt his freshman year due to injury, he stayed four years at UCSB and many draft watchers considered him a solid pick, perhaps one of the strongest seniors in the 2016 draft.
“My parents always put education first,” said Calica about choosing college over an early start to a professional baseball career. “I know how important that was so I wanted to make sure that was a priority for me and UCSB was a great school, a good educational system, and a good atmosphere.”
The first thing you notice about Triston McKenzie is his size. He stands a spindly 6’5”, weighing in at only 165 lbs. When shaking hands with McKenzie you can feel the strength of his grip as his hand envelops yours. It is no wonder he has an intuitive feel for pitching that led the Indians to draft him 42nd overall in 2015.
Born in Brooklyn, New York his family moved to Royal Palm Beach, Florida, when he was young and he readily adapted to life in the south.
“I kind of like the setting down there a lot more, a slower lifestyle,” he said about growing up on the east coast of Florida.
Last season, Justin Garcia featured a flowing mane of dark blonde hair. This season, he has it cut short. Either way, he has been a reliable arm out of the High-A Lynchburg Hillcats bullpen.
Garcia was born in Rowlett, Texas, a suburb of Dallas. He attended Weatherford College for two years before the Indians selected him in the 38th round of the 2013 First Year Player Draft. He is now in his fourth season in their farm system and enjoying every minute of being a professional ballplayer.
Observing Sam Haggerty on the field, there is a look of fierce determination, a scowl, that suggests he will do anything to defeat his opponent. As an observer of ball players you might describe him as tough, determined, or scrappy. That would be accurate, but incomplete.
The 5’11”, 175 lb. second baseman is the first High-A Lynchburg player of 2017 to win a Carolina League Player of the Week award. Originally drafted by Cleveland in the 24th round of 2015, this is Haggerty’s second full season assignment in the Tribe organization. He got into 100 games with Low-A Lake County last year, and played briefly with the Rookie level Mahoning Valley team after signing.
Thomas Pannone turned 23 years old three weeks and one day into the current minor league baseball season. This past weekend he was given a late birthday gift by the Cleveland Indians organization, a promotion to AA Akron after only five starts decked out in the new blue and lime green duds of the High-A Lynchburg Hillcats.
If Pannone was on your list of the most likely Hillcats player to get the first promotion to AA that would be a surprise. He is not ranked in the top 30 Indians prospects according to the 2017 Baseball America Prospect Handbook. They list Pannone as a left-handed reliever, just ahead of his new AA Akron teammates Luis Lugo and David Speer, and behind Hoby Milner, a Rule V pick since returned to the Phillies, and Edwin Escobar, a journeyman who never actually suited up for the Cleveland organization.
At 6’1”, 175 lb., Martin Cervenka is a right-handed hitter who looks like he belongs on a ball field.
Born in Prague, Czechoslovakia, he was the first Czech player to sign with the Indians organization. He has been playing baseball as a professional since he was 16. Now 24 years old, this is his first year at the High-A level.
“It was exciting for me,” he said about signing. “Ever since I was young I wanted to play pro baseball. Luckily I got the opportunity with Cleveland. It was just cool to have the experience.”
The Cleveland Indians made Ka’ai Tom a 5th round selection in 2015. He is one of two native Hawaiians on the 2017 High-A Lynchburg Hillcats roster, along with fellow Hawaiian outfielder Connor Marabell.
Baseball in Hawaii has a long tradition. Over 40 players from Hawaii have donned a Major League uniform – names that include Charlie Hough, Mike Lum, Kolten Wong, and Shane Victorino. Tom hopes to join that list of players someday. Like many players he got his love of baseball through his family.
“My dad, my grandpa, my uncle, all played baseball,” said Tom, “so it was kind of born into me, to carry on the family tradition of playing baseball.”
Matt Esparza is a 22-year-old 14th round pick in 2015 by the Cleveland Indians out of Folsom, California.
“I think it’s going to be a unique experience,” said Esparza about earning his first Opening Day start. “I’m looking forward to it. I’m excited and hopefully there is a good energy for the team.”
Esparza, who stands 6’2” 195 lbs., will be a veteran anchor of the High-A Lynchburg pitching staff, along with returning fellow starter Thomas Pannone.
Baseball is a game of rhythms. In each season and each game there is an ebb and flow to its pace. A hitter adapts to a pitcher, a team adopts a new strategy, or a star player retires or moves on. All of these events produce change.
This year, the High-A Lynchburg Hillcats are all about change. In their third season as a Cleveland Indians affiliate, there are many new elements to the Hillcats, and not just the faces in the dugout. Over the winter, the playing surface was completely remade. The renovation was begun immediately after the 2016 season. The field was leveled, a state-of-the-art drainage system was installed, and new turf and a warning track were put into place.
For the second consecutive season as a Cleveland Indians’ affiliate, the High-A Lynchburg Hillcats reached the Carolina League playoffs. This year they took it one step further, winning the Northern Division playoff against the Potomac Nationals and advancing to the Mills Cup Championship before bowing to the Myrtle Beach Pelicans, who would win their second consecutive Carolina League title.
The Hillcats’ success as a team was achieved through a combination of a strong offense and consistent pitching.