The team, which contains nine of the Yankees' top 20 prospects according to MLB.com, is headlined by the organization's last two top draft picks, Cito Culver and Dante Bichette Jr., as well as Mason Williams, the top player in the New York-Penn League last season. Opening Day will also see the return of seven former RiverDogs, including highly-touted catcher Gary Sanchez, as first year manager Carlos Mendoza looks to guide his young squad to the club's first postseason appearance since 2005.
Sanchez (the Yankees No. 3 prospect, MLB.com) will look to continue the success that he had in 2011 when he led the RiverDogs with 17 home runs and drove in 52 runs. His powerful stroke will once again make the Dominican native a force in the Charleston lineup and will certainly be bolstered by newcomers like Williams.
Last season, Williams (Yankees No. 4 prospect, MLB.com) took the NY-Penn League by storm, as he hit .349, led the team with 42 runs scored, stole 28 bases and garnered nearly every honor that the league had to offer, including being named the Topps NY-Penn League player of the year. Baseball America also named Williams the "Fastest Baserunner," "Best Athlete" and the "Best Defensive Outfielder" in the organization.
Culver (Yankees No. 9 prospect, MLB.com) was the Yankees' first round draft pick in 2010 and spent last season with the Staten Island Yankees. A switch-hitter, Culver hit .250 over the course of the season, scored 40 runs, stole 10 bases without being caught and continued to show off the defensive ability at shortstop that has wowed observers. So impressive is Culver on defense that Baseball America named him as having the best infield arm and as being the organization's best defensive infielder. Joining Culver on the left side of the infield is the Yankees first draft selection in 2011 is Bichette Jr, a third baseman. After less than one full season in the organization, Bichette is ranked as the Yankees' No. 8 prospect (MLB.com). he hit .342 with 23 extra base hits in 52 games in rookie ball. The son of former big leaguer Dante Bichette Sr., Junior will combine with Culver to give Charleston a left side that will be impressive.
Playing opposite Culver and Bichette on the infield will be two other solid prospects. At second base will be Angelo Gumbs, ranked as the Yankees No. 17 prospect (MLB.com). Gumbs was the Yankees No. 2 draft pick in 2010 and the Torrance, Calif. native comes to Charleston with the reputation of being a very confident, talented and hard-working player. Gumbs batted .264 last season with Staten Island and showed a solid glove at second base while displaying excellent bat speed.
At first base, the RiverDogs appear set to platoon as they have two talented players, including Tyler Austin( Yankees No. 15 prospect, MLB.com), a 13th round draft pick in 2010 and a Georgia native who could be one of the South Atlantic League's top sluggers in 2012. Between the Gulf Coast League and SI last season, Austin batted .354 with a .579 slugging percentage, 18 doubles, six home runs, 36 RBIs and 18 thefts without being caught. The most impressive game of his season was a 6-for-6 performance against Lowell where he hit a homer, three doubles and two singles. Austin, who can also play third base and the outfield, will most likely be sharing first base duties with Reymond Nunez, who hit .272 last season with 32 RBIs for SI and will make the daily first base decision difficult for Carlos Mendoza this season.
Also sharing time at the infield spots will be returning player Anderson Feliz, a switch-hitter who led the team with 27 doubles and stole 16 bases. Utility man and 25th round pick Casey Stevenson joins the squad after putting up a .272 batting average and a .374 OBP last season in SI.
Flanking Williams in the outfield will be lefty Ben Gamel and righty Kelvin de Leon. Gamel's stock in the organization rose after a stellar 2011 that saw him hit .289 with a .373 OBP. Gamel also finished second on the team in doubles with 19 and his seven steals showed him to be an all-around player. De Leon returns to Charleston after spending all of 2011 with the RiverDogs when he led the team in RBIs with 60 and his 14 homers were good for second on the squad.
Sharing catching duties with Sanchez will be returning RiverDog Francisco Arcia and Nick McCoy, who spent the last two seasons with SI. Arcia brings a reputation as a stellar backstop and a clubhouse leader. He also has a solid bat, which he showcased in 2010 and 2011, when he hit a combined .328 over stints in Charleston the last two seasons. McCoy is a native of San Diego who is a solid receiver behind the plate and has a good arm.
The pitching staff will include a mixture of former RiverDogs and newcomers including 19-year old Jose Campos, who was acquired in an off-season trade with the Seattle Mariners. Campos (Yankees No. 5 prospect, MLB.com) struck out 85 in 81.1 innings while walking just 13 last year and posted a 2.32 ERA. Joining him in the rotation is Reidsville, North Carolina product Bryan Mitchell. Mitchell (Yankees No. 20 prospect, MLB.com) spent 2011 baffling hitters, striking out 59 in 61.2 innings in SI.
Also in the rotation will be Will Oliver, who led all starters in Staten Island with 5 wins last season and former RiverDog Wilton Rodriguez. Pitchers Scottie Allen and Pedro Guerra will also be available to either start or come out of the bullpen.
The RiverDogs' 'pen will be crowded with perspective arms, led by Caleb Cotham, Ben Paullus and Philip Wetherell, all three of whom finished last season in Staten Island. Cotham pitched to a 1.71 ERA and struck out 29 in 21 innings, Wetherell went 4-2 with a 2.40 ERA and 41 Ks in 30 IP, and Paullus struck out 41 in 30.1 innings of work.
Also providing support out of the bullpen will be Mariel Checo, who posted a 2.00 ERA in the Gulf Coast League last season, Fred Lewis, who tied for team lead in wins in SI last season, former Marlins prospect Dan Mahoney, and another veteran of Staten Island, Zachary Varce.
The RiverDogs begin the 2012 season on Thursday, April 5-a Budweiser Thirsty Thursday- with a seven-game homestand that features the Rome Braves and the Augusta GreenJackets. Tickets for may be purchased at the Riley Park Box Office, (843) 577-DOGS (3647) or on-line at www.riverdogs.com.