If championship experience is any indication, the Salem Red Sox are poised for another stellar season. With the 2014 campaign scheduled to kickoff on Thursday, April 3 in Myrtle Beach, the Opening Day roster will include 12 ballplayers who will receive championship rings upon their return to the Roanoke Valley. Alongside a bunch of Carolina League veterans, the Salem Sox will welcome a very talented crop of newcomers, illustrating Boston's position as one of the top harbors of elite prospects in professional baseball.
Headlining the returners are starting pitchers Luis Diaz, Brian Johnson, and William Cuevas, each of whom helped pave the 2013 playoff road to a title. Diaz delivered dominance in three Carolina League starts last year, permitting only two earned runs in 21 innings (0.86 ERA), including eight scoreless innings in Salem's postseason opener against the Pelicans. Johnson, the 31st pick in the 2012 draft out of the University of Florida, is the lone first round pick to begin the 2014 season with Salem. Cuevas made 27 starts for the Sox last year, earning the victory of the clinching game of the Mills Cup finals on September 10.
Kyle Kraus, Kyle Stroup, and Madison Younginer are fellow ring recipients who return for the beginning of a new year. All righthanders, Kraus, Stroup, and Younginer filled different roles throughout the 2013 season with Salem, with Younginer finding a remarkable groove as a powerful bullpen weapon late in the year. Over 10 appearances in August and September, Younginer compiled a 0.93 ERA, with 21 strikeouts and six walks.
Joining the six aforementioned arms are six other hurlers ready for their Carolina League debuts. Austin Maddox, a third-round pick in 2012, Corey Littrell, a fifth-rounder in 2013, and Justin Haley, a sixth-rounder in 2012 all bring strong credentials to the next chapter of their careers. Additionally, 6'7" righthander Kyle Martin will stand tallest on the staff at the outset, with Dominican-native Simon Mercedes and Colombian-righthander Dayan Diaz rounding out the strong crew of pitchers.
Calling and catching the pitches will be a trio of backstops, all of whom have spent time in Salem in the past: Carson Blair, Leonel Escobar, and Jayson Hernandez. While Blair served primarily as a backup in 2013, the Red Sox won 63% of their games when Blair started at catcher.
In the infield, David Chester and Matt Gedman, two key pieces from a year ago, are both back to play first base and DH. Reed Gragnani, a University of Virginia product, will man second base, while Jose Vinicio steps in at shortstop and Mario Martinez takes over at third. Dreily Guerrero and Ryan Dent also join the Salem Sox in utility roles, with both players able to handle numerous positions. Dent, a sandwich round selection in 2007, rejoins Salem after playing parts of 2009 and 2010 in the Roanoke Valley. In 2013, Dent split the season between Double-A Portland and Triple-A Pawtucket.
Matty Johnson, a starter in all five playoff games a year ago, returns as a versatile speedster in the outfield. Jonathan Roof, Kevin Heller, and Aneury Tavarez accompany Johnson in Salem's outfield. While Tavarez did not play a single inning for Salem in 2013, he will receive a championship ring since he was a member of the active roster during the postseason.
Carlos Febles, who served as Salem's Hitting Coach in 2009 and 2010, enters his first season as a Carolina League Manager after piloting Low-A Greenville over the last two years. Pitching Coach Kevin Walker returns for his fourth season in the Roanoke Valley, while new Hitting Coach U.L. Washington joins Febles in the jump from Greenville to Salem.
The Sox begin their quest to repeat on Thursday, April 3 in Myrtle Beach, with the home opener at LewisGale Field slated for Tuesday, April 8 against Winston-Salem.
Once again, every Salem Red Sox game will be broadcast on ESPN Radio, AM 1240 WGMN in the Roanoke Valley and online at www.salemsox.com.
Note: There are 26 players listed above, one of which will be made inactive prior to the season opener. In addition, three other players, RHP Matt Price, RHP Heri Quevedo, and INF Bryan Johns begin the season on Salem's disabled list.