Danville Braves manager Nestor Perez will see the Appalachian League from a different perspective this season, but he's bringing along some trusted players to help him on the journey.
Perez is a former Appy League player and coach, but he's embarking on his first season as manager in the league a year after directing Atlanta's Gulf Coast League affiliate to a division title.
"To me, it's great to move to the same level with these players," Nestor said. "Part of this group was the group that won the division in the GCL. We were together last year and we're on the same page."
Some of the core players making the jump to Danville are likely to be catchers William Contreras and Alan Crowley, second baseman Jeremy Fernandez, shortstop Derian Cruz, third baseman Nick Shumpert and outfielder Isranel Wilson. Cruz split time between the GCL and Danville last year.
Plus, pitchers Dilmer Mejia, Kyle Muller, Ryan Schlosser and Gilbert Suarez add to the familiarity.
Perez was a Danville coach in 2013, then on the coaching staff for the Rome Braves in 2014 and 2015 before taking his first managerial assignment last year. But his association with the Appalachian League extends to 1998, when he was a shortstop for the Princeton Devil Rays. That team won its division before losing in the championship series.
For Perez and other managers in the Appalachian League, the opening weeks of the season will be challenging because of the unusually tight time frame between the MLB First-Year Player Draft and the start of the season. There hasn't been much time to gain familiarity with some players assigned to the clubs.
For instance, Danville's first team workout scheduled for Monday was rained out, so Perez said there will be more than the normal learning curve in gaining a grip on the personnel.
"I was in extended spring and about half the team has been together," he said. "But this year is going to be really different with all the new Draft players coming in [so late]. So I cannot say much about some of the players."
Those teenage years: There's bound to be no shortage of teenagers in the Appalachian League again this year, and a few young prospects could be prominent for the Burlington Royals.
Outfielder Seuly Matias, shortstop Jeison Guzman and catcher Sebastian Rivero are 18-year-olds. In Matias' case, he's bound to turn some heads at 6-foot-3 and 200 pounds.
"He's like the body of a 28-year-old," Burlington manager Omar Ramirez said. "You can tell he's an athlete.… He's still learning how to hit. The tools are there."
Ramirez said Matias is still working on developing a consistent approach at the plate, though he tied for the Arizona Rookie League lead with eight home runs in 2016. His defense is bound to be showcased.
"His arm is powerful," Ramirez said.
With the trio of 18-year-olds, Ramirez said patience will be important.
"You go day by day with these guys," he said. "They want to learn. These guys are young and some will take longer than others."
Field of dreams: The 2016 Appalachian League season ended at TVA Credit Union Ballpark, where the host Johnson City Cardinals won the league championship series.
Now the facility has a synthetic turf infield surface that's been part of a makeover of the ballpark (and replacing a natural-turf infield). The only infield dirt will be on the pitcher's mound.
While the field has been used by other teams in the spring, the Cardinals open their season at home June 22 against the Bristol Pirates.
Prospect you have to see in person: Last year there was a Rutherford worth checking out in the league and this year there's another, though they're not related. Shortstop Zach Rutherford is tagged to play for the Princeton Rays after he was taken in the sixth round of this month's Draft by the Tampa Bay Rays. He was dubbed the Conference USA Defensive Player of the Year, so he can flash some leather. He batted above .310 in all three of his college seasons. Last year, the Pulaski Yankees had outfielder Blake Rutherford on board for the bulk of his first professional season.
Series you need to watch: Last year's finalists, the Johnson City Cardinals and Burlington Royals, meet for all six regular-season games within a nine-day span in late July. They'll match up in Burlington (July 18-20) and then meet again in Johnson City (July 24-26).
Last things last
Last season's championship series: Johnson City defeated Burlington in a two-game sweep
Last season's attendance leader: Pulaski Yankees, 57,995
Last back-to-back champion: Johnson City Cardinals, 2010-11
Last teams with 45 regular-season victories: Danville Braves, 47-21, and Elizabethton Twins, 45-23, in 2009
Last 10-win pitcher: Matthew Crim, Danville, with 10 in 2009
Last 100-strikeout pitcher: Daniel Osterbrook, Elizabethton, with 104 in 2008
Last .400 season: Rene Aqueron, Bluefield, at .405 in 2005
Last 20-home run hitter: Eddie Rosario, Elizabethton, with 21 in 2011 and Miguel Sano, Elizabethton, with 20 in 2011
Last 100-hit season: Jason Pridie, Princeton, 105 in 2002
Last 60-stolen base season: Rafael Furcal, Danville, 60 in 1998