In the Frederick Keys' quest to repeat as Carolina League champions, they have one ace up their sleeves that no other league member can boast.
A returning manager.
Seven of the eight clubs in the Class A Advanced Carolina League will have new men leading the way in the dugout. Only Keys skipper Bien Figueroa is back to try to win it all again after piloting Frederick to its first title in 15 years.
"That does sound a little unusual," said new Salem manager Jim Pankovits, who returns to the dugout after spending a few years as an Astros roving instructor. "I don't think it's a bad thing or a good thing. It's a product that those organizations represented in the league are not just standing pat."
In the end, it could be a disadvantage for Figueroa that he's the lone holdover from 2005. Four of the other managers are coming up from the South Atlantic League, the path many of the players who will fill their rosters are taking.
Pankovits knows all of the Astros personnel after serving as a roving instructor. Rafael Santana, who will be making his managerial debut in Winston-Salem, was the White Sox roving infield instructor, so he too should be familiar with some of the Warthogs. Only Lynchburg's Gary Green is brand new to his organization, having most recently managed with Lakeland in the Florida State League from 2002 to 2004.
Figueroa should be familiar with one or two names who should at least start the year in Frederick, the team with the best overall record in 2005 at 79-61. The Keys defeated Kinston in the championship thanks to some outstanding pitching. The best of those postseason pitchers -- Garrett Olson (1-0, 0 ER in 10 IP with 1 BB and 10 K) -- should head the rotation, at least for a while. Offensively, fellow 2005 draftee and playoff hero Nolan Reimold (.357 in the Keys' run) will anchor the lineup.
One of the more intriguing offenses may be in Wilmington, where Chad Epperson will be able to pencil 2005 draftees Jacoby Ellsbury and Jed Lowrie into the lineup every day, at least for the first part of the season.
Pankovits should have a good rotation that will help the Salem Avalanche challenge. Jimmy Barthmaier and Brian Bogusevic will head up a staff that should also include Felipe Paulino and Juan Gutierrez. It's not often you can go at least four deep in the Carolina League.
Salem won't have cornered the market on arms as the Carolina League historically has produced some top-flight mound talent. While it doesn't quite reach the Florida State League in terms of pitcher-friendliness, it definitely is more in that realm than the other Class-A Advanced league, the California League.
The circuit posted an overall ERA of 4.28 in 2005, while Carolina League hitters mustered a .262 overall average. So come ready to see some good old-fashioned pitchers' duels in 2006.