MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. - When the gates open, the lights fire up, and the curtain rises on a new season of Myrtle Beach Pelicans baseball Friday at BB&T Coastal Field, the club will mark the beginning of a new era. For the first time in the franchise's history, the men taking the field will be the next stars of the reigning American League champion Texas Rangers, and for just the fourth time, the Pelicans will welcome a new manager into the fold.
Former major leaguer Jason Wood, who played for the Oakland A's, Detroit Tigers, and Florida Marlins in a career that spanned five seasons over eleven years, is a fitting leader for the Pelicans' first edition of a team in the Rangers' farm system. On the heels of a season as the hitting coach for the Rangers' Advanced-A team in Bakersfield, California last year, the 41-year-old is embarking on his first managerial job this season in Myrtle Beach. With a seasoned staff and a cohesive Opening Day roster full of players who have spent time together-and won games together-at the lower levels in the Rangers' system, the native Californian pilots his first club with a sense of stability and calm in the structured chaos that always comes with a new season.
"It helps me like you wouldn't believe," Wood told with MyrtleBeachPelicans.com prior to breaking camp in Arizona. "I've got guys who have played together and were successful at the level they were at last year coming into professional baseball. With this being their first year in spring training [for those drafted in 2010], it really makes it a lot easier because they've played together. Now they're working on the same field together, so they know each other. They're comfortable with each other. They know the fact that all of these guys are going to come to Myrtle Beach and be together again as a team. It's almost, in a sense, relief on their part, and it makes it a whole lot easier for me because they form a relationship, and they make it fun. It's fun to sit back and watch these kids work together and appreciate the game and appreciate how much they respect each other."
Of the 25 players on Myrtle Beach's season-opening roster, 19 saw time at Class A Hickory or Short-Season A Spokane last year, both of which made the playoffs. Eleven players saw time at the Class A Advanced level, and two, pitchers Kasey Kiker and Tyler Tufts, boast Double-A experience. In minor league camp in Arizona, Wood and his staff, like all minor league coaching staffs in spring training, are given a short window of time to get to know their squads for an upcoming campaign.
"It's a short period of time for us as minor league coaches because we only have about three and a half, four weeks to really get our team set," the manager said. "Our hands are tied in a sense because from day one, we've got [around] 20 position players and 25 or 30 pitchers who we have to actually look at and determine whether these guys have a chance or an opportunity to pitch at the level we're going to be that year. We constantly have board meetings and talk about these players. As a coach, it's tough to do that because you don't see them on an everyday basis. They've got to get their innings in. They've got to get their at-bats. We try to give them as much of that as we can."
A SEASONED STAFF
The hectic weeks leading to the naming of farm team rosters rush by in spring training, and a squad is named in the week prior to the opening of the Minor League Baseball season. This year, in addition to a core group of players who have seen success together, Wood will begin his first managerial gig with an experienced staff around him. Hitting coach Julio Garcia boasts 23 years of professional baseball experience including 13 seasons as a minor league manager. Pitching coach Brad Holman has spent nine seasons as a coach in three organizations including the last two in the same capacity with the Rangers' Class A Hickory Crawdads, grooming many of the same pitchers he'll mold in Myrtle Beach.
"The thing that's good about the staff that I have is the knowledge that's there," Wood said. "Brad, he's coached at that Double-A level. He's been there. He's been in this organization. He's had a handful of these pitchers last year that we will have this year which makes it so much easier on me. Me not knowing a lot of the pitchers we'll have because I didn't see a whole lot of them last year, Brad is on a consistent day-to-day basis with them, and he's had them. He knows everything about them.
"Julio is the stepping-stool for me because Julio has managed at many levels in many different organizations. He knows the game. He knows a lot of things. He's the other set of eyes that I don't always have. He's going to be a big help to me not only taking over the hitting part of it but as far as the coaching and managerial part of it. I'm very confident in what I'm going to do, but I've got a great assistant who has done this before. When times become tough or when there's a situation that comes about, I've got a great guy to turn to in that aspect."
SIZING UP THE BIRDS
Myrtle Beach's Opening Day roster will include eight players named in Baseball America's illustrious Top-30 Rangers Prospects list, and organizational insiders have said the Pelicans could be the most talented club in the system through the 2011 campaign. Before heading east from Arizona, Wood said the pieces fell into place in camp for him to get an idea of his squad.
"In four and a half, five days, I've seen the core group of kids that I'm going to have," said Wood, "and I've been able to sort of put a lineup to get together and put things in place and have a feel of what they can do with the bat, what they can do with the glove, what kind of speed they have, and fill out my lineup in a sense and see what Opening Day is going to be like."
Among their anticipated offensive highlights, the Pelicans will throw the Rangers' seventh-rated overall prospect, third baseman Mike Olt, to the hot corner and the middle of the lineup to begin the year along with fellow power prospect Chris McGuiness and outfielder Jared Hoying. Myrtle Beach will likely be paced at the top of the order by shortstop Leury Garcia.
"The game itself will dictate how we're going to get this thing running and how we're going to work. For the most part, if these kids go about their business the right way, play the game hard, do the things they need to do fundamentally and physically, we'll be fine. I'll tell you right now, we're not a team that's going to sit back and try to bop the ball out of the ballpark because that's not what we have. We've got a few guys with some power, but I think we're a gap-to-gap type team. At the front of the lineup, we're going to try to put these guys on and put them in motion and get things going. We're going to have to play the game, and we're going to have to play it the right way."
On the mound, though they struggled to the worst record in the Carolina League last season, the Pelicans showcased arguably the best rotation in Minor League Baseball in 2010, at one time throwing out a starting five of Julio Teheran, Randall Delgado, J.J. Hoover, and Arodys Vizcaino, the four best pitching prospects in the Atlanta Braves system. To begin this season, they'll have the Rangers' version of that arsenal. The Birds' starting five to kick off 2011, left-handers Robbie Erlin (BA #4) and Robbie Ross (#19) and righties Joe Weiland (#22), Barret Loux (#24), and Neil Ramirez (#27), all check in with spots in BA's Top-30.
"The bullpen, I think, will be fine," Wood said. "We've got a few guys who have been around a little bit, so we'll see how that goes. I'm very excited about the starting pitching and very excited about our team defensively. We'll still fill a few holes offensively, but I think 3-4-5, and possibly in that 1-hole with Leury, it looks pretty good."
A NEW ERA
The Pelicans' September announcement of a new affiliation with the Rangers closed the book on a long, prosperous, proud, and storied relationship between the club and the Atlanta Braves, but it also came at the perfect time to join the Texas family. En route to becoming the first Rangers team to represent the American League in the World Series, the 2010 installment of the ballclub in Arlington did so with major contributions from former Pelicans, most notably 2007 Birds shortstop Elvis Andrus who was named a 2010 American League All-Star. The addition of Myrtle Beach to the stable of Texas minor league clubs did not go unnoticed by those up-and-comers in the system.
"Everybody in this camp wants to come to Myrtle Beach and play," Wood said of the mood in spring training surrounding the Pelicans equation. "That's the greatest thing about it. The fact of the matter is we were in Bakersfield [for Class A Advanced] for the last five or six years, and it wasn't the greatest facility in the world or the greatest place to play. The location with being in Myrtle Beach and knowing that ballpark and the Carolina League, it really makes it exciting for not only myself but these kids. They're really looking forward to it. They can't quit talking about it."
A new sun is rising on Pelicans baseball on the Grand Strand. For those 25 selected to bring the Rangers' brand of ball to South Carolina and their skipper, the 2011 season can't come soon enough.
"You're going to get a talented group of kids. They're willing to play the game and play the game the right way: be aggressive. We know that the ballpark plays to a big ballpark. We don't have all the power in the world, but we'll utilize a lot of the speed that we have and rely on our pitching and defense and hope to hit those balls in the gap.
"These kids are looking forward to it. They can't wait. We're looking forward to a great season."
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.