from Bill Hass, with Bill on Baseball(Greensboro Grasshoppers) at www.goshoppers.com:
Youthful Hoppers open season at Delmarva Thursday
The drills, the preparation and the anticipation are over, and now the Greensboro Grasshoppers get down to the business of playing games that count.
The Hoppers open the South Atlantic League season Thursday night at Delmarva. Although local fans got a glimpse of them last week in an exhibition game against the Miami Marlins, the Hoppers will be out of sight for awhile. After four games in Delmarva they play three at Lakewood before returning for the home opener in NewBridge Bank Park on Thursday, April 16.
“I don’t mind being on the road,” said manager Kevin Randel. “I think it will calm our nerves a little bit. We have a lot of young kids and Greensboro can be a little overwhelming.”
For most players on the roster, this will be their first full professional season, a 140-game grind. That can be especially challenging for younger players, and this team has plenty of youth. One player (Ismael Soto) will be 18 all season and six others will be 19 when the season begins.
One of those is Justin Twine, who will be the everyday shortstop and sounded ready to pull a Cal Ripken.
“Working every day is something I love to do,” Twine said, “especially when I’m out here playing baseball, so 140 games is all right with me.”
Twine is one of the 19-year-olds (and one of six Texans on the roster) who will be fun to watch this season. He’s rated the No. 9 prospect in the Marlins’ organization by MLB Pipeline. Four other players in the top 20 are here, including Tyler Kolek, rated No. 1. The others are relief pitcher Colby Suggs, No. 10; outfielder Casey Soltis, No. 17; and pitcher Michael Mader, No. 18.
Mader will start the opening game and is one of three left-handers in the rotation. He will be followed by Jose Adames, who spent time with the Hoppers last season; lefty Scott Squier; Kolek and lefty Ben Holmes. If the rotation holds through the first seven games, Squier is in line to start the home opener.
There are eight other pitchers on the roster and pitching coach Jeremy Powell said all will get numerous opportunities in a variety of roles. Colby Suggs was at Jupiter last season where he recorded three saves in four chances.
“Our five starters are solid,” Randel said. “I like Mader, a guy who pounds the zone with a good four-pitch mix. I love Squier, a gamer, kind of a wire left-hander who controls the game and moves things along. Big Kolek can overpower guys at times; he just needs to stay within the (strike) zone and stay withing himself. I love watching Adames pitch. He powers a good fastball down in the zone and looks like he’s having fun.”
Kolek will be closely watched, of course. The 19-year-old was the second overall pick in the 2014 draft, the player the Marlins brass chose instead of the more polished Carlos Rodon of NC State, who went to the White Sox at No. 3.
“I just go out and compete, power the fastball down and get guys out,” said the 6-foot-5, 260-pounder. “If you throw it down and get strikes you get broken bats, strikes, (swings and) misses and that’s how it goes.”
Kolek’s fastball in high school was reportedly clocked at more the 100 miles per hour, so folks in the stands will be watching the radar gun in the park closely.
“I’ve heard it (the 100-mph reports) several times — actually a couple more than several times,” he said. “I believe it but I don’t like to brag, so I’ll leave it up to you guys. Yeah, you get excited because there’s probably only a handful of guys to ever do it, so to be one of them is awesome.”
Kolek was slotted fourth because that will be a day game at Delmarva. He will have ample chances to adjust to pitching under the lights, with his first night start scheduled for Friday, April 17, in Greensboro.
“The goal with him, in particular, is getting him to learn how to be a pro,” said Powell said. “There are a lot of good things that he offers and there is a huge ceiling. Where he’s at right now in his development, we’ve got to teach him to be a pro, teach him what a routine is about and keep it as basic as we can.”
Powell said there are no plans to overhaul anything about Kolek’s mechanics.
“If he can finish this year healthy and finish this year with good routines in place and finish this year with an idea of what being a pro is about on a maturity level, that’s my goal. What he does numbers-wise will take care of itself.”
Randel said the everyday lineup should be Austen Smith at first, Mason Davis at second, Twine at short, Brian Schales at third and Rodrigo Vigil and Arturo Rodriguez splitting duties at catcher. In the outfield, Soltis, Soto, John Norwood and Zach Sullivan will rotate among the three spots. K.J. Woods will open as the designated hitter and will also play at first.
“Our team has a little bit of everything,” said hitting coach Luis Quinones, in his first season with the Marlins. “A few guys can hit the ball out, like K.J. and Smitty, and Schales has shown a little pop, but the hitters we have are line-drive hitters.”
Woods, another of the 19-year-olds, had a great start with two homers and five RBIs against the Marlins, a game he won’t forget even though the statistics don’t count.
“I’m going to learn to square up fastballs and make adjustments to anything off-speed,” he said. “Go out and execute and hopefully win a lot of ball games with my teammates this year.
“I just love to play the game, man. I just love to be in that (batters) box and I love the camaraderie and the fans and the cheering.”
For Randel, a former player with the Greensboro Bats and a hitting coach with the Hoppers for two years, this is his first shot at managing. He said he’s not placing any expectations on himself, other than seeing players improving every day, but he knows what he wants from his team.
“It’s the little things,” he said. “They watch pro ball on TV and think that’s how it’s played, but down here in the minor leagues you take nothing for granted. You bust it out of the (batters) box every at-bat. They’re going to make mistakes; I’m not going to harp on them. We just want them to play the game the right way.
“I like just how much (this team) enjoys playing the game. They play hard and they love playing. They don’t just want to watch the other guys play, they want to be the guy stepping up and getting the big hit.”