Hillcats Open Indians Affiliation With Prospect Filled Outfield

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.

David Freier was born in Brooklyn New York in 1966 less than a decade after the Dodgers had departed the very same borough. His first professional baseball game was at Yankee stadium and to this day he and his father still argue over who started for the Orioles that day (his father says Mike Cuellar, while he insists it was Jim Palmer). Being a lover of underdogs he naturally became a Mets fan. He grew up in Montclair New Jersey which had the advantage of being home to two baseball legends, Yogi Berra and Larry Doby, as well as having a local college which regularly held baseball card conventions that fed his baseball card hobby. While attending college at the University of Richmond he and some of his friends attended a Richmond Braves game in the then (1985) brand new Diamond stadium, and now home to the Richmond Flying Squirrels. This began what has become a passion for the minor leagues of baseball. During his 10 years as a Richmond resident he and his future wife developed an affinity for the Braves, especially when Richmond fan favorite Francisco Cabrera scored the winning run to knock the Pirates from contention and vault the Braves into the World Series of 1991. During extensive travels he has rooted for the Minnesota Twins, Minneapolis Loons, St. Paul Saints, Iowa Cubs, Philadelphia Phillies, Erie Sea Wolves, Berkshire Bears and of course the Lynchburg Hillcats. To date he has visited over 110 different baseball parks in which he has seen a game. He joined the Society for American Baseball Research in 2000 and has been a member ever since, where he participates on the Biographical and Minor Leagues committees when time permits. In his day job he is an Associate Professor of Biomedical Science at Lynchburg College in Virginia.

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