If A.J. Cole had never left the Nationals in the first place, he probably would've been preparing for his Carolina League debut a year ago this time.
Instead, he'd been shipped to Oakland in the Gio Gonzalez deal, and was debuting above Class A for the first time in the California League.
But what's old is new again, and Cole is back in the Washington system after being dealt in the offseason in the three-team Mike Morse trade. Consequently, he'll get that chance to attack the Carolina League after all.
Cole's route to this circuit was somewhat of an odd one. In his lone season in the Athletics' system, he struggled in his brief exposure to the Cal League, before seemingly regaining his shine as a prospect by dominating the Class A Midwest League for Burlington.
The contrast between those two stops is striking. With Class A Advanced Stockton, the 6-foot-4 right-hander went 0-7 with a 7.82 ERA, striking out 31 and walking 10 in 38 innings. With Burlington, Washington's No. 4 prospect went 6-3 with a 2.07 ERA and struck out 102 in 95 2/3 frames while walking just 19.
"I mean I basically felt what I was doing wrong, and it wasn't anything major," Cole said of his time with Stockton. "It was just real small, some pitch selection, getting rotational. I fixed that when I went down. I was more successful."
And does he expect that form to carry over to Potomac this year?
"I worked on that stuff before I actually even got to Spring Training, and I feel it's coming along well," he said. "[The Nationals' staff] is just trying to get me back to where I was, and stressing the things we worked on my first year here, which like I said, is rotational, just being smooth out of the glove.
"So yeah, I feel confident."
First-rounders aplenty: The eight Major League clubs with Carolina League affiliates made nine of the first 31 picks in the 2012 Draft, and of those nine, nearly half will begin this season in the Carolina League.
Kyle Zimmer (picked fifth overall), Courtney Hawkins (13th), Tyler Naquin (15th) and Deven Marrero (24th) will all begin their first full professional seasons on the same circuit.
All four will likely leave their mark on the league, too, if their debuts last season were any indication. Zimmer, Kansas City's No. 2 prospect, recorded a 2.04 ERA in 39 2/3 innings between the Rookie-level Arizona League Royals and Class A Kane County. He struck out 42 and walked eight.
Hawkins, Chicago's top prospect, went from the Rookie-level Appalachian League to the Class A South Atlantic League and ultimately finished in the Carolina League, getting a five-game introduction with Winston-Salem. Through those three stops, the 19-year-old hit .284/.324/.480 with eight homers and 15 doubles in 59 games. Naquin, also an outfielder, went to the Class A Short-Season New York-Penn League and hit .270/.379/.380 for Mahoning Valley. And Marrero, who also went to the New York-Penn, hit .268/.358/.374 in 64 games for Lowell.
Shades of Biggio: Tony Wolters, once known as an Indians shortstop prospect, will return to Carolina for another season with the Mudcats. The one large difference will be that, instead of the 20-year-old featuring in the infield, he'll now be situated behind the plate for the Mudcats.
Wolters switched positions during the offseason, as a glut of high-end middle infield prospects have piled up in the Indians' system. The 2010 third-rounder will now look to leverage his offensive game at a position where being merely capable usually puts one well ahead of the rest of the pack. In 2012 in Carolina, Wolters hit .260/.320/.404 with eight homers and 30 doubles in 125 games.
Manager carousel: Five Carolina League teams introduced new managers over the offseason. In Carolina, David Wallace takes over his third club in three years of managing at the Minor League level for Cleveland.
Frederick fans will see former Baltimore Orioles third baseman Ryan Minor, who has managed Class A Delmarva the last three seasons, take the helm. In Myrtle Beach, Jason Wood, who appeared in the Majors as recently as 2008, will become the fourth manager in the 13-year history of the Pelicans, taking over for Rocket Wheeler, who'd managed the team for the last five years.
Potomac will bring on former Red Sox, Marlins, White Sox and Mets first baseman Brian Daubach in his third year managing in the Washington system. Like Minor, he'll be making the jump from the Sally League after leading Hagerstown the past two seasons.
Rounding things out will be Ryan Newman in Winston-Salem, where he'll be looking to build on the 2012 Pioneer League crown to which he helped skipper the Great Falls Voyagers.
Braves will stay: A year ago this time, plans for the Braves to introduce a new Carolina League affiliate in Wilmington, N.C., appeared well on their way to fruition. But Atlanta hit a snag in its attempt to get a stadium built in Wilmington, when local voters rejected a referendum to fund the stadium.
So for now, at least, it looks like the Braves and Hillcats will be working together for some time.
Last thing's last: Here's a look at some significant lasts around the Carolina League.
- Last season's Championship Series: Lynchburg over Winston-Salem in four games MiLB.com Coverage »
- Last back-to-back champion: Myrtle Beach, 1999-2000 (co-champions with Wilmington in 1999)
- Last perfect game: Keith Ramsey, Kinston vs. Myrtle Beach, Sept. 6, 2004
- Last no-hitter: Aaron Northcraft, vs. Salem, June 23, 2012 MiLB.com Coverage »
- Last 200-strikeout pitcher: Joel Bennett, Lynchburg, 1993 (221)
- Last cycle: Dan Brewer, Lynchburg, vs. Salem, July 29, 2012 MiLB.com Coverage »
- Last three-homer game: John Shelby, Winston-Salem vs. Wilmington, May 3, 2008 MiLB.com Coverage »
- Last 30-homer hitter: Ian Gac, Winston-Salem, 2011 (33)