Bill Hass on Baseball:Hoppers to make first marks on clean slate

Hoppers to make first marks on clean slate
from Bill Hass with Bill on Baseball at

It’s not often that you get to start something with a completely blank slate.

But that’s the nature of baseball at the start of a new season. Right now everything is at zero?—?all batting averages, all pitching statistics, all balls-and-strikes counts, all won-loss records. Last year’s stats are recorded for posterity and they guarantee nothing about the 2018 season.

All that changes with the first pitch delivered at 7 o’clock tonight by lanky right-hander Brady Puckett of the Hoppers to the leadoff hitter of the Hickory Crawdads. And the first step of a five-month journey unfolds at First National Bank Field.

There’s no use in predicting what will happen, especially at this level (low Class A) of the minor leagues. Players are young and most are facing their first season of 140 games. Their skills can range from raw to somewhat refined. That’s why this is a developmental league, where the repetitive nature of a long, grinding season begins to reveal true potential.

Last season was one to remember. Very little was expected from a roster consisting mainly of players who had a miserable time at short-season Batavia in 2016. Yet the Hoppers’ coaching staff, led by manager Todd Pratt, guided them to the South Atlantic League playoffs, clinching a spot in dramatic fashion on the last day of the regular season.

Pratt, who was a catcher for the Greensboro Hornets in 1986, had been away from professional baseball since he retired in 2006 after 14 years in the majors. The results were gratifying.

“I found out how much I still love the game,” he said, “especially the development of the players and seeing them respond to what the staff was teaching them.”

Last season was full of unknowns for Pratt when it started, but this year he’s comfortable with the feel of things around the ballpark.

“It’s like home now,” he said. “Last year I was a visitor.”

So what kind of roster does Pratt have on his hands this year? Here’s a brief summary, with no predictions of success or failure.

CATCHERS: Michael Hernandez and B.J. Lopez will split the duties to start the season. Hernandez was signed as a free agent last summer and got in 33 games at the lower levels. Lopez was drafted out of the Arizona Diamondbacks’ system. He’s 23 and has 179 games of minor league experience.

INFIELDERS: Eric Gutierrez, who provided a lot of clutch hits for the Hoppers last year, returns and will handle first base. Pratt is excited about “super utility” man Micah Brown, who will play third and first. “He had an incredible spring, really flourished and opened a lot of eyes,” Pratt said. J.C. Millan made some contributions late last season. SS Garvis Lara was hurt early last year and missed the rest of the season. 2B Samuel Castro and SS Marcos Rivera move up from Batavia. At some point, highly-regarded SS Jose Devers (wrist injury) will join the club from extended spring training.

OUTFIELDERS: There is experience with Aaron Knapp (.218 last year but 34 stolen bases) and Zach Sullivan, back for his third stint in Greensboro. Jhonny Santos played with the Hoppers in August. The intriguing player is Isael Soto, injured last season after playing here in 2016 when he was 19. He’ll play left field while Knapp, Sullivan and Santos will rotate in center and right.

PITCHERS: Mark DiFelice, back as the pitching coach, said this staff “will battle and put the ball on the ground,” which should cut down on the league-leading 133 homers surrendered in 2017. The Hoppers countered that by giving up just 326 walks, third-lowest. With a new Marlins regime in place, the pitching emphasis is less on establishing the fastball inside but instead attacking the strike zone at different points and using secondary pitches for strikes.

The 6-foot-8 Puckett, tonight’s starter, was drafted in the 15th round last summer out of Lipscomb University. He went 4–1 with a 2.85 ERA in the Gulf Coast League. DiFelice said Puckett “is aggressive and at 6–8, the ball gets on you fast.”

Rounding out the rotation are Tyler Kolek, Ryan Lillie, Taylor Braley and Edward Cabrera. Kolek, of course, was a first-round draft pick four years ago who pitched here in 2015 and went 4–10. He’s coming back from Tommy John surgery in 2016, so his progress will be carefully monitored. Cabrera is the youngest player on the roster (he doesn’t turn 20 until April 13) and it’s likely his innings will be closely watched.

In the bullpen, with roles to be defined, are Tyler Frohwirth, Reilly Hovis, Colton Hock, Bryce Howe, Brandon Miller, R.J. Peace, Remey Reed and Manny Rodriguez. Hovis is a UNC-Chapel Hill alumnus who posted a 3.38 ERA in 22 games here last year. Miller is looking to get back on track after a rough stint with the Hoppers (0–3. 8.86 ERA in five starts) after being obtained from Seattle. Rodriguez is the only left-hander on the roster.