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Fresh faces along Tobacco Road

Epperson among five new managers in Carolina League this season
April 8, 2009
Minor League Baseball kicks off the season Wednesday and leading up to Opening Day, will be taking a close look at what the year might bring for each league. Here's a team-by-team analysis of what you might find in the Carolina League.

When Chad Epperson was asked whether he had any final thoughts on moving from the California League to the Carolina League, he only needed one word: "Amen."

It's not that the two-time California League Manager of the Year didn't enjoy his experience the past two seasons in Lancaster, but there is a distinct difference between the two Class A Advanced leagues.

"It's going to be fun for me to have less than three-hour ballgames and get back to 3-2 scores again," said Epperson, who takes over as manager of the Salem Red Sox in 2009. "I'm really looking forward to that."

Epperson managed the Wilmington Blue Rocks back in 2006, so he is familiar with the Carolina League. The Red Sox switched their affiliation from Lancaster to Salem in the offseason and Epperson moved with the franchise. He is one of five new managers coming into the Carolina League this season.

He'll join P.J. Forbes in Lynchburg, Trent Jewett in Potomac, Brian Rupp in Wilmington and Joe McEwing in Winston-Salem, a group of managers who get to adjust to new players and opponents.

"It takes some time, but the bottom line is it's baseball and, as a manager, you want to make sure you're prepared," Epperson said. "A manager never fears losing, he fears putting a team on the field that is unprepared."

Here's a team-by-team look at what you can expect in the Carolina League in 2009:

Frederick Keys
2008 record: 63-76
2009 manager: Richie Hebner
What's on deck: Hebner took over as the Keys' manager on May 26, 2008 and led them to a 35-55 record. He returns for his first full season in 2009. ... J.J. Cannon is back for his third season as field coach. ... Kennie Steenstra takes over as pitching coach this year after spending four seasons with Class A Delmarva. Patrick Wesley (trainer) and Curtis Wildes (strength and conditioning coach) are also new additions to Frederick's staff. ... The Keys are unveiling renovations at "The Grove" in 2009. They added a new scoreboard and videoboard in addition to upgrades in the suites, Keys Cafe, press box, seating bowl and both clubhouses. ... LHP Brian Matusz was the Orioles' first-round pick (No. 4 overall) in 2008, but signed late and did not make his professional debut. The polished pitcher should spend some time with the Keys. ... OF/3B Billy Rowell returns after an uneven 2008 campaign and is expected to make a position change to the outfield. ... After going 12-7 with Delmarva, LHP Zach Britton makes the jump to the Carolina League.

Here's a look at 10 Carolina League prospects who you should keep an eye on in 2009:

  • Pedro Alvarez, 3B -- Lynchburg
    Alvarez seems to be the future face of the Pirates, but before he takes over the hot corner at PNC Park, he'll make a stop in the Carolina League.

  • Michael Burgess, OF -- Potomac
    The outfielder has little trouble knocking the ball out of the park. Now he just needs to cut down on his strikeouts.

  • Lonnie Chisenhall, SS -- Kinston
    Chisenhall has all the tools to become an impact player in the big leagues. He hit .290 in 68 games with Mahoning Valley in the New York-Penn League.

  • Danny Duffy, LHP -- Wilmington
    Duffy is one of the dominant lefties in the Royals system. He went 8-4 in 17 starts with Burlington in the Midwest League in 2008.

  • Freddie Freeman, 1B -- Myrtle Beach
    Only 19, Freeman hit .316 with 18 home runs, 33 doubles and 95 RBIs for Rome in the South Atlantic League last year.

  • Jason Heyward, OF -- Myrtle Beach
    Heyward spent most of '08 with Rome, hitting .323 with 27 doubles and 52 RBIs. He had a seven-game cameo with the Pelicans.

  • Che-Hsuan Lin, OF -- Salem
    The MVP of last year's Futures Game endeared himself to Red Sox fans when he homered at Yankee Stadium in July.

  • Chris Marrero, 1B -- Potomac
    Had a tough 2008 at the plate and due to injury. However, he is still one of the top position players in the Nationals' system.

  • Brian Matusz, LHP -- Frederick
    The Orioles' first-round pick in 2008 - No. 4 overall -- is the top lefty in the system, even though he has yet to pitch in a pro game after signing late.

  • Mike Moustakas, 3B -- Wilmington
    The top prospect in the Royals' system should start '09 here, but probably will end elsewhere after hitting 22 homers in the Midwest League last year.

Kinston Indians
2008 record: 72-66
2009 manager: Chris Tremie
What's on deck: Tremie begins his second season with the Indians and his fourth year as a manager in the Cleveland organization. Last season, Kinston finished with the third-best record in the Carolina League. ... Pitching coach Greg Hibbard is also back for a second year, while trainer Chad Wolfe is in his third season with Kinston. He was the Carolina League Trainer of the Year in 2008. ... Rouglas Odor is the latest addition to the coaching staff, joining the team as the hitting coach. ... While the Indians spent the spring at a brand new facility in Goodyear, Ariz., the team that arrives in Kinston will be playing in the second-oldest park in the Carolina League. Grainger Stadium opened 60 years ago in 1949. ... SS Lonnie Chisenhall made his professional debut in 2008, hitting .290 with Class A Short-Season Mahoning Valley in the New York-Penn League. Offensively he should be ready for a jump to the Carolina League, but there is a question about his long-term future at shortstop. ... LHP Kelvin De La Cruz was one of the youngest pitchers in the league last season. He went 3-2 in eight starts after being promoted from Class A Lake County in the South Atlantic League. He is still just 20 years old and should get a second stint with the Indians.

Lynchburg Hillcats
2008 record: 58-80
2009 manager: P.J. Forbes
What's on deck: This is Forbes' first season managing in the Pirates' organization. He spent three seasons with Philadelphia's Double-A affiliate in Reading. ... Wally Whitehurst (pitching coach) and Dave Howard (hitting coach) are both in their first seasons with the Hillcats. ... Bryan Housand (trainer) returns for the fourth season and Derek Franklin (strength coach) begins his second season with Lynchburg. ... Lynchburg extended its affiliation with the Pirates through 2010. The Hillcats have been a Pittsburgh affiliate since 1995. ... The top prospect in the Pirates' organization is 3B Pedro Alvarez. The second overall pick in the 2008 Draft is fast-tracked for Pittsburgh, but he should begin his professional career in Lynchburg. ... RHP Bryan Morris came to the Pirates organization in the three-team blockbuster deal that sent Manny Ramirez to the Los Angeles Dodgers and Jason Bay to Boston. He will start the season with Lynchburg as he works on his control.

Myrtle Beach Pelicans
2008 record: 89-51; Won first-half Southern Division title, won second-half Southern Division title, advanced to the Mills Cup Finals
2009 manager: Rocket Wheeler
What's on deck: Wheeler returns for his fourth season with the Pelicans. He led the team to its best finish in franchise history, claiming the Carolina League Southern Division championship. He was also named the league's Manager of the Year. ... Rick Albert begins his third season as the hitting coach. Under his watch, the Pelicans set 13 offensive records, including batting average (.260), home runs (153), RBIs (705), doubles (298) and walks (518) in 2008. ... One of the Braves' top prospects, OF Jason Heyward, played in only seven games for Myrtle Beach last season. The 14th overall pick in the 2007 Draft will be back for more this year. ... 1B Freddie Freeman was the Braves' Minor League Player of the Year in '08 after a brilliant season with Class A Rome of the South Atlantic League. The 19-year-old will make the jump to Class A Advanced in '09. ... A pair of top-tier pitching prospects in LHP Cole Rohrbough and LHP Jeff Locke should both see time in the Pelicans' rotation.

Potomac Nationals
2008 record: 79-61; won first- and second-half Northern Division titles, Carolina League championship.
2009 manager: Trent Jewett
What's on deck: After spending his entire career in the Pirates organization, Jewett becomes the 21st manager in Potomac's 32-year history. He spent the previous four seasons with Triple-A Indianapolis of the International League. ... The Nationals led the Carolina League in batting average and hits in 2008 under the tutelage of hitting coach Jerry Browne. He returns for his second season with the defending champions. ... Pitching coach Paul Menhart joins the Nationals after two years with Class A Hagerstown. ... 1B Chris Marrero had a tough year between early-season struggles at the plate and an injury that cut short his season. But he's still in the Nationals' plans. ... OF Michael Burgess hit six homers in only 19 games with Potomac last year and should be back for more at Pfitzner Stadium in 2009. ... C There is a chance SS Danny Espinosa could bypass Class A Hagerstown and end up in Potomac.

Salem Red Sox
2008 record: 56-84
2009 manager: Chad Epperson
What's on deck: Epperson brings an impressive resume to Salem. He was named the California League Manager of the Year each of the previous two seasons and his Lancaster JetHawks played in the league's championship series last year, losing to Stockton. ... Boston moved its Class A Advanced affiliate from the Cal League to the Carolina League for the 2009 season. With the change of scenery comes a new name, logo and uniforms for the franchise. It is the sixth time the Red Sox have had a team in the Carolina League. Salem was affiliated with Houston in 2008. The Astros moved into Lancaster. ... LHP Nick Hagadone did not give up an earned run in 2008. However, his season was limited to 10 innings over three starts with Greenville before he suffered an elbow injury that led to Tommy John surgery. He could see time in Salem as he tries to recover the form that made him the Red Sox's top selection in the 2007 Draft. ... SS/3B Oscar Tejeda is a versatile prospect, but in 2008 he was forced to battle a staph infection as well as opposing pitchers. After some seasoning in Greenville, he should wind up in Salem at some point. ... OF Che-Hsuan Lin was the organization's Defensive Player of the Year in 2008 and the MVP of last summer's Futures Game at Yankee Stadium. He brings his game to the Carolina League in '09.

Wilmington Blue Rocks
2008 record: 69-71
2009 manager: Brian Rupp
What's on deck: After leading the Burlington Bees to their first Midwest League championship since 1999 last year, Rupp takes control of the Blue Rocks. The Bees went from worst (30-39 first half) to first (43-26 second half) with a 6-0 trip through the postseason. ... Last season, the Blue Rocks led Minor League Baseball in stolen bases (258) and Rupp indicated that they would continue their commitment to aggressive play. ... The Blue Rocks boast one of the more unique promotions of the season in 2009, giving away Joe Biden bobbleheads at Frawley Stadium on July 30. The vice president is from Delaware. ... During his senior year in high school in '08, Eric Hosmer hit .470 with 11 home runs and 27 RBIs. He's already moving quickly through the system and should be here sooner than later. ... Same with 3B Mike Moustakas, who probably will just make a pit stop in the league. ... The Blue Rocks' rotation should get a pair of blossoming hurlers from Burlington this season. LHP Danny Duffy went 8-4 with 2.20 ERA in 17 starts with the Bees in 2008, while RHP Danny Gutierrez was 4-4 with a 2.70 ERA in 19 appearances, including 18 starts. ... Also expected to make the jump from Burlington is 2B Johnny Giavotella, who had a .355 on-base percentage and .299 batting average in 68 games.

Winston-Salem Dash
2008 record: 71-68
2009 manager: Joe McEwing
What's on deck: It didn't take long for McEwing to become a manager. After one season as the hitting coach for Triple-A Charlotte, he takes control of the Dash. ... Former Major League single-season saves leader Bobby Thigpen takes over as the Dash's pitching coach. He spent the past two seasons as the manager of the Bristol Sox in the Appalachian League. ... Robert Sasser (hitting coach), Josh Fallin (trainer) and Adam Tischler (strength and conditioning coach) return from last year's staff. ... In addition to a new manager and pitching coach, the Dash are unveiling a new ballpark that fits with the franchise's new name, logo and uniforms. However, the stadium might not be ready for Opening Day, forcing the team to begin the season in its old digs at Ernie Shore Field. ... White Sox fans might consider starting pitcher John Danks to be the more well-known member of his family, however his younger brother, OF Jordan Danks, almost joined the organization first. Chicago selected him in the 2005 Draft, but instead chose to go to college. The White Sox picked Danks again in the seventh round in '08. After 10 games with Kannapolis in the South Atlantic League last year, he should open this season with Winston-Salem.

Mason Kelley is a contributor to