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ZEBULON — Eight years into the Carolina Mudcats’ existence as a Carolina League Single-A Advanced franchise, the won-loss numbers aren’t overwhelming.
Two winning records. No playoff appearances. A 443-527 (.457) Single-A Advanced record as the team enters its ninth Carolina League campaign and the third under the affiliation of the Milwaukee Brewers.
But while winning can make the player development experience more palatable, this is the business of Minor League Baseball. Entertainment and player development are king.
“Our job here in the minor leagues is to develop championship-caliber players,” third-year Mudcats manager Joe Ayrault said during Tuesday’s media day proceedings in the Five County Stadium suites. “If you have to take a night where you want to make an example for development reasons, you’ll take a loss any day of the week to help them in the long run. But any night we’re out on the field, we’re playing to win. If I’m playing my wife in cards, I want to beat her. I don’t like losing at all.”
To that end, life is good at the top of the Brewers organizational ladder.
Milwaukee won the National League Central Division title last year and came within a game of reaching just the second World Series in franchise history, losing Game 7 of the NL Championship Series to the Dodgers.
Even Ayrault’s fingerprints were all over that postseason run. Two Milwaukee pitchers — Corbin Burnes and Freddy Peralta — spent time in Zebulon during the 2017 season, with Burnes posting a 7-0 record in relief with the Brewers to go along with a 2.61 earned run average.
“It makes it even better telling these guys. Hey, these guys were here two years ago and they’re in the major leagues making an impact right now,” Ayrault said. This could be you. So, it’s exciting.”
The 2019 Mudcats open the season on the road Thursday night at Grainger Stadium as they take on the Down East Wood Ducks. Bowden Francis, a 6-foot-5 right-hander who split time between the Mudcats and the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers, the Brewers’ Single-A affiliate last season, will be the opening-night starter.
In parsing together the strength of the 2019 Mudcats, much of it will be concentrated at catcher between Mario Feliciano and Payton Henry. Both will see significant time on defense, with additional offensive chances coming in the designated hitter slot when not calling pitches. Incidentally, Ayrault spent his professional career as a catcher.
Henry, a sixth-round pick of the Brewers back in 2016 and the No. 11 overall prospect in the Milwaukee system per Baseball America, threw out 44 percent of runners trying to steal last season with the Timber Rattlers and fielded his position at a .996 clip. That was enough to garner a Minor League Gold Glove at the position.
Feliciano, taken in the second round of the 2016 draft, hit .205 in 42 games with the Mudcats a season ago and is considered the No. 22 Brewers prospect by Baseball America.
“Obviously, we’re both searching and fighting for the same goals,” Henry said of he and Feliciano. “I think it’s easier when we’re both friends, as we are. We love playing with each other. We’ve played with each other, for the most part throughout each year at some point. We have the same goal. We want to make sure that we both get to the big leagues. Yes, it’s a competition, but at the same time, we’re both on board with each other and we both want to get there.”
The sole first-round pick on the roster to begin the season is that of outfielder Tristen Lutz, taken with the No. 34 overall selection by the Brewers in 2017. Taken out of high school, the 20-year-old Lutz spent the balance of last season with the Timber Rattlers, having hit 13 homers and 33 doubles, while driving in 63 RBIs. Lutz, considered a consensus top-10 Brewers prospect, participated in spring training and got one hit in 18 plate appearances.
But while expectations are attached to Lutz and his bat, there’s no self-appointed timetable on making it to “The Show.”
“I just worry about what I can control,” Lutz said. “And that’s what I put out on the field every day. I let the higher-ups and all those guys make those decisions and everything. I just go at it every day and let them decide when I’m ready to get moved up, moved down or whatever.”
The pitching staff includes left-handed returnee Cody Beckman, drafted in the 30th round in 2017 out of N.C. State. Beckman, an option out of the bullpen presents as the only southpaw on the opening roster. Francis, named after legendary Florida State football coach Bobby Bowden, will settle into the starting rotation alongside Dylan File, Nelson Hernandez and Christian Taugner.
“My parents were joking around when I was in the stomach and ended up going with it,” Francis said. “We’re born and raised in Tallahassee, so they liked the name.”
Francis, who tallied 128 innings last season, struck out 106 last year in 23 starts between the Mudcats and Timber Rattlers. The goal is to reach 150 innings pitched in 2019. Right-hander Matt Smith is in the bullpen after missing the last two seasons with Tommy John surgery.
Thirteen of the 28 players played all or part of last season with the Mudcats. The active roster must be adjusted to 25 prior to Thursday’s opening contest against the Wood Ducks.