Mudcats catching prospects something to watch this season
By PATRICK MASON
Tuesday, April 2, 2019
As Opening Day for the Carolina Mudcats nears with Thursday’s game at Down East, manager Joe Ayrault is about to be peppered with decisions to make.
The Mudcats will open the season without the built-in intrigue of starting the season with the organization’s top prospect on the roster like last season with Keston Hiura, but does present a few highly-rated prospects that happen to play the same position — catcher.
Ayrault, a former catcher in the Braves system and now entering his third season with the Milwaukee Brewers’ advanced-A affiliate from Zebulon, has a crowded group at the catcher position.
Payton Henry won Minor League Baseball’s Gold Glove award as a catcher, and the 21-year-old is coming off a spring that included an invite to the big league spring camp. Mario Feliciano, 20, will compete with Henry for playing time and possibly future promotions, along with a returning player in Nathan Rodriguez whose playing time at Carolina was limited a year ago due to injuries.
“Obviously we're searching and fighting for the same goal and it’s going to be really fun,” Henry said of the internal competition. “Me and Mario are good friends and get along well and we have the same goal, and want to make sure we both make the big leagues. But at the same time it’s exciting and fun because we’re able to push each other to get there.”
Ayrault will be tasked with guiding their development, while also divvying up playing time behind the plate.
“I’m excited, being an ex-catcher, to have these two guys and a third with Nathan Rodriguez,” Ayrault said during Tuesday’s media day. “But Mario Feliciano and Payton Henry are going to be splitting a lot of time behind the plate, and doing a lot of DH’ing, and they’ll get plenty of at-bats and plenty of experience behind the plate.
“I’m excited to work with these guys. These are the type of guys you want on your team that could both be front-line catchers in the big leagues.”
Five County Stadium has earned a bit of a reputation among minor league players, both former Mudcats and Carolina opponents, as being a pitcher’s park. The tall wall in center field 400 feet away is a daunting obstacle to clear.
Tristen Lutz can’t wait for his crack.
“I heard that it’s kind of a graveyard,” he said. “But you never know.”
Carolina has three of baseball’s top 100 or so prospects on its opening day roster led by Lutz, a young outfielder who was taken 34th overall in the 2017 draft. Lutz is the highest-rated prospect in the lower levels of the organization, coming in at No. 4 in the Brewers’ system.
The outfielder is just tapping into his power potential after hitting a career-high 13 home runs with 33 doubles in his first full professional season last year at low-A Wisconsin. And his team-highs in hits (109), RBI (63), home runs and runs scored (63) proved that he’s ready for a promotion to Zebulon.
Lutz will try to cut down on his 139 strikeouts (a 27.6 strikeout rate), while still being able to stay aggressive and drive the ball.
“It’s kind of happened naturally, I stay gap to gap for the most part,” Lutz said of his power surge. “I’m just trying to barrel up the ball and make good contact. “
Lutz did get some playing time in spring training, and recorded a hit and walked three times in 21 plate appearances. He scored each time he was on base. Conversations with several big leaguers, as well as being a part of the team for 17 spring games were some of the more memorable experiences.
“All of them were really easy going, like they don’t look at you like ‘Oh, he’s just a minor leaguer’ which was cool,” Lutz said. “I talked to (Brewers) Tyler Saladino and Nate Orf a lot. They gave me pointers on what to expect as I go on in the minor leagues and advice on what to do when struggling. Just wanted to pick their brains a bit. It was cool.”
Cody Beckman is close to a place he called home for four years.
The 24-year-old former N.C. State left-hander and Florida native finds himself on the Mudcats roster and eyeing a healthy season that ideally pushes new boundaries.
Beckman threw 56 innings over four years at NCS as injuries claimed much of his college career, but was drafted in the 30th round of the 2017 draft.
He pitched 59 ⅔ innings last season across low-A and high-A, the most innings he has thrown in years. For him, the increased innings load allowed him to familiarize himself with situations, get that feeling of a grind back, and settle into a routine of throwing every few days.
“It felt good to be able to throw a lot,” he said. “It’s tough throwing spread out days as a reliever, but it's about repetition more than anything. I got experiences in tough situations, and being able to get out there every couple days is huge.”
As for his march on reclaiming his career by proving to be a dependable arm, he does so close to where he played in college ball. And that makes him a popular human in the clubhouse.
“It’s like being at home, I played four years of college here,” Beckman said. “So I know all the good restaurants. Guys are texting me where to eat, stuff like that.”
Trickle down success
The success of the Milwaukee Brewers’ run to the NLCS last season has had a positive effect on the whole of the organization, Ayrault said.
It could be felt at spring training, and the vibe has carried itself to the Mudcats clubhouse in Zebulon.
“It’s on down from (general manager) David Stearns, (Brewers manager) Craig Counsell, they talk about staying connected and playing as a group and being a good teammate,” Ayrault said. “Feeling the energy, in spring training, you could just feel it as the whole of the organzionation coming together.
“Just putting on the uniform, being part of a world-class organization from the top down, and former Mudcats Freddy Peralta and Corbin Burnes makes it even better, telling these guys that those guys were here two years ago they’re in the major leagues making an impact right now. This could be you. It’s exciting.”