By Kevin Schneider
Cleveland Indians officials expect a crop of exciting young infielders to grow their skills with the Carolina Mudcats this season and help replenish the farm system depleted by promotions and trades.
Led by former Florida Marlins Manager Edwin Rodriguez, Cleveland’s new high-A affiliate started their season at home in Zebulon, N.C., against the Winston-Salem Dash. Rodriguez says the team will entertain fans and win; he emphasizes he means this.
“We’re going to be a young team, and we’re also going to be a very offensive team,” Rodriguez says, on the field before Tuesday’s exhibition loss to the Indians. “We’re going to be very talented.”
Rodriguez in 2010 became Major League Baseball’s first Puerto Rican manager. Now, he glows when talking about the Carolina infield’s hitting and defensive capabilities, with starters ranging from ages 19 to 21.
Two natural shortstops lead the way. Rodriguez says Tony Wolters, 19, will slide to second base most days but will continue to play an occasional game at short. Ronny Rodriguez, who will turn 20 on April 17, will see most days at shortstop.
Wolters will be playing in his first full pro season after missing time last year from injury. Baseball America rates the California native as the seventh best Indians prospect. At Mahoning Valley in 2011, he batted .292, with 19 steals.
Wolters says he’s focused on “slowing down the game and not doing too much.”
Rodriguez, who Baseball America rates as the Indians 13th best prospect and the best infield arm, moves up from low-A Lake County last year, where he hit .246 with 11 HRs and 46 RBIs, to go with 10 steals. He’s from the Dominican Republic.
At first, Jesus Aguilar, 21, possesses needed power in the Indians farm system. Baseball America 2012 Prospect Handbook rates him as the Indians best power hitter in the system. At 6-foot-3 and 257 pounds, he’s the Mudcats’ largest player and hopes to top the 23 homers and 82 RBIs he collected in Lake County and Kinston last year. He hit a combined .284.
Aguilar, signed by the Indians in 2007 from Venezuela, says he’s focused on maintaining balance in all aspects of his game, including his footwork at first base.
“I want to play hard all year,” he says. “I just want to play my game.”
With former first-round pick Beau Mills having struggled offensively in the past and Matt LaPorta aging and returning to Columbus, Aguilar represents a possible future in-house option to again make first base an offensive position in the lineup.
But he also echoed the sentiments of many Mudcats players as they adjusted to the 6,500-seat Five County Stadium and prepared to play the big-league club.
“I feel excited because it’s the first year here,” Aguilar says.
And at third, Giovanny Urshela, 20, smacked the Mudcats’ only extra-base hit, a double, in the team’s 13-0 loss to its parent club. From Colombia, he spent last year at Lake County and hit .238 with 9 homers and 36 RBIs.
Catcher Jake Lowery, 21, hit .245, with 6 homers and 43 RBIs at Mahoning Valley in 2011. The developing power hitter led the New York Penn League in extra- base hits and walks.
Lowery says he studies Indians catcher Carlos Santana whenever he can on TV to learn and wants to work on staying consistent for this, his first full pro season.
Along with the infield, Rodriguez identifies the bullpen at the team’s strength and says Dale Dickerson, 25, will close games after saving three games with a 2.80 ERA last year for Lake County. Carolina has a talented group of hurlers to get him the ball.
Clayton Cook, 21, has been slotted to be the Mudcats’ top starter. He went 9-9 with a 4.56 ERA in 25 starts in 2011 for Kinston. He had an impressive 106 strikeouts against 53 walks.
Rodriguez says Danny Salazar, 22, with a great fastball, Michael Goodnight, 22, with a strong breaking ball, will start. In eight starts last year in the Arizona League and then Lake County, Salazar struck out 18 in 14.2 innings to go with a 3.07 ERA. Goodnight, spend most of last year with Lake County, where he went 5-12 with a 4.15 ERA in 130 innings.
The team also should include Cody Allen, 22, touted by Baseball America last as the “closest to the majors” from the 2011 draft based on his stellar pro debut and low 90s fastball. He shot through the farm system last year, starting in Mahoning Valley and moving all the way to Akron.
Collectively, the reliever had a 1.65 ERA with 75 strikeouts in 54.2 innings pitched. Born in Orlando, he pitched for High Point University, a short drive from Five County Stadium.
Mike Rayl, 23, at 6-foot-5, has the “best control” from the 2011 draft, according to Baseball America. He compiled 121 strikeouts and only 26 walks in 25 starts at Lake County and Kinston last year.
T.J. House, 22, last year at Kinston had a 5.19 ERA in 25 appearances, including 24 starts and one complete-game shutout.
Right fielder Carlos Moncrief, 23, possesses a power arm and bat, his manager says. Moncrief, after converting from pitcher to outfielder before the 2010 season, has hit .241 in Mahoning Valley and then .233 last year at Lake County to go with 16 HRs and 53 RBIs.
Center fielder Tyler Holt, 23, should leadoff for the Mudcats. He did against the Indians, after hitting .254, with 34 steals last year for Kinston. Baseball America rates Holt as the Tribe system’s best defensive outfielder.
Left fielder Delvi Cid, 22, collected one of the three hits for Carolina against Cleveland. He stole 28 bases in batting .197 in 79 games for Kinston last year.
If You’re Going
In Zebulon, near Raleigh and Durham, minor-league baseball matters. The area’s residents embrace the team and many take pride in helping young players learn their craft in a friendly environment.
Danny Duncan, in his sixth year of handling video operations for the Mudcats, for instance, says he appreciates getting to know the players personally, before they earn promotions.
“Coming here, you usually see them on the way up,” he says. “In Durham, you see players on the way down.”
Nearby Durham houses the Bulls, the Triple-A affiliate of the Tampa Rays, and the inspiration for the classic baseball flick Bull Durham.
Mudcats General Manager Joe Kremer says Indians fans can check out games in Zebulon knowing it’s a “very family place” with a friendly staff. Promotions include $1 hot dogs on Tuesday and “Thirsty Thursdays” with $2 beer drafts, along with numerous on-field entertainment and activities between innings for fans.
“We try to keep them engaged,” Kremer says.
Photo: Robert Willett/News Observer