CHARLESTON, SC - With Opening Day around the corner, the New York Yankees have announced the men who will take to the diamond for the Charleston RiverDogs when the bunting is unfurled on Thursday, April 7, on the road against the Lexington Legends.
Catcher Gary Sanchez leads a young and talented crop of RiverDogs which features four of the Bronx Bombers' top-30 prospects, according to Baseball America. Twelve former RiverDogs also return to the Holy City as Charleston's favorite professional sports team guns for its first postseason berth since 2005 under new manager Aaron Ledesma.
Sanchez (the Yankees No. 2 prospect, Baseball America) looks to follow in the footsteps of former RiverDogs backstop Jesus Montero as he makes the transition to full-season ball. The 18-year-old Dominican made his presence known in his rookie campaign a year ago, combining to bat .329 with eight home runs and 43 RBI over 47 games with the Staten Island Yankees and the Gulf Coast League Yankees. Sanchez's short, quick stroke figures to make him a force in the middle of the RiverDogs lineup, one that is bolstered by the return of centerfielder Slade Heathcott.
Last season, Heathcott (Yankees No. 9 prospect, Baseball America) showed the Charleston faithful flashes of the potential that made him the Yankees' 2009 first-round pick. The Texarkana, Tex. native hit .258 with two home runs and 30 RBI, slashing 16 doubles and swiping 15 bases to boot. Even more impressive was the keen batting eye that the 20-year old displayed at the plate, as he drew 42 walks in 340 plate appearances to rack up a .359 on-base percentage. In the field, Heathcott utilized his speed and instincts to patrol The Joe's spacious outfield and rank as the "Best Defensive Outfielder" in the Yankees system, according to Baseball America.
Heathcott's fellow 2009 draftee, J.R. Murphy, (Yankees No. 14 prospect, Baseball America) begins his second season in Charleston, giving the RiverDogs a formidable duo behind the dish. Murphy adjusted to the duties of catching full-time and still produced in the batter's box, hitting .255 with seven home runs and 54 RBI, good for fourth-most on the club.
Sanchez and Murphy will handle a pitching staff that can bring the heat. At the top of that list is Tommy Kahnle (Yankees No. 28 prospect, Baseball America), a Division II product out of Lynn University, who overpowered New York-Penn League (NYPL) hitters after being taken in the fifth round of the 2010 draft. Kahnle sported a mid-to-high 90's fastball and recorded three saves in 16 relief appearances, striking out 25 and allowing just three hits and five walks in 16 innings.
Returners Manny Barreda and Wilton Rodriguez help to bolster the bullpen from the right side. Barreda struggled in a cameo appearance with Charleston in 2009 but atoned for it last season, making the most of his late-season promotion from Staten Island to pick up a win and post a spotless ERA in 7.1 innings. Rodriguez, meanwhile, starts his third stint as a RiverDog, having made three starts with the club over the past two years.
Newcomers Danny Burawa and Nathan Forer will also be at Ledesma's beck and call in the bullpen. Burawa appeared in six games with Staten Island and pitched to a 7.71 ERA, but showed his St. John's pedigree and penchant for swing-and-miss stuff by striking out ten in seven innings of work. Forer, a 46th round selection out of Southern Illinois, enjoyed plenty of success in Staten Island, recording 7.1 scoreless innings to begin his professional career. His success in the NYPL earned him a late-season call-up to High-A Tampa.
From the left side, Fred Lewis hopes to build off a strong rookie season in the NYPL and the GCL - where he spent the bulk of his time - going 0-1 with a 2.25 ERA in nine appearances, striking out 15 in 12.0 innings.
Shane Greene leads the RiverDogs starting rotation, along with Mikey O'Brien and a pair of southpaws in Kramer Sneed and Nik Turley. Greene went winless in four starts with the RiverDogs in 2010, but struck out 22 batters in 19.2 innings and totaled a respectable 4.58 ERA in four starts. The Daytona State College alum commanded his sinker and exhibited a diverse repertoire for a young hurler, gaining command of a changeup which should make him tough on SAL hitters this season.
O'Brien made the jump to Staten Island in 2010 after back-to-back seasons in the GCL and compiled his best season to date. The Roanoke, Va. native went 6-2 in 11 starts in the NYPL, effectively pitching to contact while surrendering only 49 hits in 60.2 innings. His 2.08 ERA ranked third-best in the loop an earned him a midseason All-Star selection.
Sneed became the first Barton College draftee since 1995 when the Yankees nabbed him in the 32nd round, and the 6'3", 195-pound lefty more than validated the selection with his summer's work. Splitting time between the GCL and NYPL, Sneed pitched to a 3.86 ERA in 12 outings (seven starts), logging 39.2 innings and fanning 51 opponents.
Turley has made steady improvements in three professional seasons since his 50th round selection in 2008. The California product enjoyed a sub-1.00 ERA in 10 innings with the GCL Yankees before his promotion to Staten Island for 12 starts to end the year, punctuated by his first career complete game in the season's final week.
Versatility is important for any pitching staff, and the RiverDogs have it in Mike Gipson, Richard Martinez and Zach Nuding. All three could start or lend a hand in the middle and late innings.
Gipson made enough of an impression over 12 starts in Staten Island to earn a cameo appearance in Charleston mere months after being drafted in the 31st round. The Florida Atlantic graduate set down 50 in 38.2 innings in the NYPL before authoring two more starts and a relief outing with the RiverDogs.
Despite missing the entire 2009 season after undergoing an appendectomy, Martinez bounced back to produce a sterling 2010 with Staten Island, going 4-1 with a miniscule 1.69 ERA in 16 games (two starts). He was rewarded with a call-up to The Joe, spinning five innings of two-run ball in one September start.
Nuding strives to kick-start his pro career after a strong spring camp that allows him to start the year in the SAL after making just one start with the GCL Yankees last season.
Offensively, Ramon Flores, Eduardo Sosa and Kelvin De Leon join Heathcott in a young outfield mix with no player above the age of 20.
Flores, a smooth southpaw stick, has excelled with plate discipline and gap power since signing with the Yankees as an international free agent in July 2008. The Venezuela native channeled an All-Star season at the GCL level into late-season stints with the RiverDogs and the High-A Tamp Yankees. In Charleston, Flores managed a .250 average with three doubles and two RBI in 48 at-bats.
Sosa and De Leon can man the corners and provide some pop in the middle of the lineup. The left-handed-hitting Sosa slugged .315 with four home runs and 37 RBI as an 18-year old with the Dominican Summer League Yankees in 2008 and bounced back from an off year in the GCL to hit .256 with two home runs, 13 doubles and 15 RBI for Staten Island in 2010. Sosa can also be a demon on the base paths, having stolen 56 bases over three years. De Leon spent last season in Staten Island with Sosa and has some of the best raw power in the system, having smacked 22 home runs in 695 career at-bats.
On the infield, Anderson Feliz, Rob Segedin, Kyle Roller and Jose Mojica are prominent newcomers to the RiverDogs.
Feliz, a switch-hitting second baseman who has also seen time at shortstop, is the youngest player on the roster. Last season, he hit .273 with four home runs, 27 RBI and 11 stolen bases and was a GCL All-Star before ending the year with a 25 at-bat stint in Tampa. Mojica provides a solid glove up the middle and continues to progress with the stick, having hit .241 with 10 doubles in Staten Island last year.
Segedin and Roller will handle the corners, with Segedin at the hot corner and Roller at first. At Tulane, Segedin had his way with college pitching, batting .434 with 14 home runs to lead to a third-round selection. A line-drive hitter, Segedin hit a combined .243 with GCL and Staten Island. Roller also enjoyed a stellar college career at East Carolina before exhibiting his patience and power by registering a .770 OPS, five home runs and 31 RBI in 67 games with Staten Island.
Returning from a season ago are middle infielders Kelvin Castro and Jose Toussen. Castro's 437 at-bats and 15 stolen bases were second most on the team in 2010. Toussen, on the other hand, appeared in two games with Charleston after hitting at a .277 clip in the GCL.
Rounding out the roster and joining Sanchez and Murphy in the crouch behind the plate is New Mexico State product Jeff Farnham. Although he spent last season in Staten Island, Farnham is a familiar name to fans after driving in 10 runs and hitting .323 with the RiverDogs in 2009. Farnham's throwing arm is his strongest asset as it allows him to throw out 33 percent of potential base stealers over the last two years.
The RiverDogs begin the home portion of the 2011 season on Friday, April 15 with the first of four-game set versus the Rome Braves. Tickets for all 70 home games may be purchased at the Riley Park Box Office, on-line at www.riverdogs.com or by calling (843) 577-DOGS (3647).