The Charlotte Stone Crabs head into Thursday's season opener against the Fort Myers Miracle a confident team that expects to be successful this year in the Florida State League.
"We really have a great team this year," said reliever Chris Rearick who had 20 saves for the Low-A Bowling Green Hot Rods last season. "I actually think that our team is better than what we had in BG last year. I hate to say this, but it's even comparable to the team they had here two years ago."
Rearick is, of course, referring to the 2010 version of the Stone Crabs that went 80-59 in the regular season before losing the Florida State League Championship to the Tampa Yankees.
"That's how good I think this team is," Rearick continued. "I've been on a couple of championship teams, in college and last year at BG, but I just have a crazy feeling about this year."
Shortstop Derek Dietrich, who figures to be one of the lineups major run-producers after leading the organization in 2011 with 22 home runs, concurs with Rearick and also likes the makeup and talent of the 2012 Stone Crabs.
"I feel like we're going to have a really good team talent-wise, as well as individuals with our chemistry," said Dietrich. "We all get a long really well and it's something to build on. I think we're going to have a good season.
Manager Jim Morrison, who will be at the helm for the fourth season, is very pleased with the group of players that will take the field for the Stone Crabs in 2012 as well.
"I've had nothing but rave reviews about the players here and the quality of character they have and how hard they play the game," said Morrison who has a career 393-392 record as a minor league manager. "It seems to be a wonderful group of guys."
This year's Charlotte team is in many ways a microcosm of the big league club for which it is an affiliate, the Tampa Bay Rays. It is a team that has a very talented and deep starting rotation and figures to showcase exceptional defense.
The rotation will feature first-year-pro and 2011 1st-round draft pick Grayson Garvin and a quartet of Latin American starters who are all considered to be some of the better arms in the system - Enny Romero, Albert Suarez, Wilking Rodriguez and Braulio Lara.
Like the Rays, the Stone Crabs starting pitching is so deep that C.J. Riefenhauser, who had a 2.31 ERA as a starter last season at Bowling Green, will begin the year in pitching out of the bullpen.
The same holds true for George Jensen, who led the entire minor league system in wins in 2011 when he posted a 13-4 record and Victor Mateo who went 12-6 with a 3.98 ERA while making 20 starts.
"We're excited to have these kind of guys starting for us, and of course, we have some really good arms in the bullpen as well," said Morrison of the pitching staff that he will manage.
"Every time you get to see a new guy get out there on the mound, I do get excited," said Dietrich when asked about playing defense behind such a talented starting rotation. "We've got a great group of arms that are really talented. It's going to be fun playing defense behind them and also producing runs for them in the lineup."
Rearick, who has closed out games before for many of this year's starting staff, is excited to see just how good this year's rotation can be.
" I'm looking forward to seeing our starting staff and seeing how good they're going to be this year. I feel like the sky's the limit for them especially when they are pitching well."
Defensively the 2012 Stone Crabs will showcase a speedy and fundamentally-sound outfield that is comprised of 1st-round draft pick Mikie Mahtook, Cody Rogers, Ty Morrison and Kevin Kiermaier.
"They can definitly cover some ground, that's for sure, said Rearick of the outfield that will playing behind him. "I wont be afraid to give up fly balls during the year because they're going to be able to cover ground like nothing."
"Having a great defense behind you makes it that much more reassuring that you can just go after a guy and let them hit it and that any guy behind you is going to make a play."
Morrison cites the outfield as one of the strengths of this year's club as well, but not only for the defense that they will provide, but for the potential that they bring to the lineup as well.
"We're very fortunate to have those guys out there and they add a lot of excitement on the offensive side as well," said Morrison.
"Hopefully we'll be able to take those extra bases that we're looking to do and play the Rays Way. In the outfield, hopefully they give us another couple of steps, where somebody elses might not be able to get to that ball, but we will. Those things, coupled with others, should make us have a solid season and a good defensive club."
The infield will be anchored by Dietrich who says that he feels "comfortable playing anywhere defensively." While he figures to be the club's primary shortstop, there are four other infielders who will all see playing time at second, third and short.
Robi Estrada, Hector Guevara, Robby Price, and Riccio Torrez are all in the mix for playing time - and will all get it - according to manager Morrison.
"We're going to be working everybody in. Riccio, who was taken last year in the draft, is going to be given an opportunity to play. Robby Price has done a good job wherever he's gone. He's led the league in on base percentage and certainly has good, quality at bats. We believe that everybody that's playing for us has earned the opportunity to go out and get a chance to play and show their skills."
First base will be manned by Phil Wunderlich, who had 17 home runs and 86 RBI last season at Bowling Green, while three catchers will share backstop duties - Mayo Acosta, Lucas Bailey and Keith Castillo.
While expectations are high among the players on this year's team, Morrison knows that at the Single-A level, players are still learning how to play the game
"We're going to let them go out there and play and some fun and do their thing," said Morrison. "Will there be ups-and-downs over the course of the season? Sure there will. These are growing pains in life that we all had as we played this game."
"I tell the players, 'lets make a new mistake every day and we'll be real smart by the end of the season.'"
John Gregg is Publisher and Senior Editor of Rays Digest. You can follow him on Twitter at @RaysDigest. He can also be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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