By Ken Jackson
Year Two in the Hot Lily Pad is upon us.
The Florida Fire Frogs make their 2018 season debut Saturday at 4 p.m. at Osceola County Stadium. Tickets start at $7.
Full season minor league baseball returned to Osceola County last year after a 17-year hiatus.
The team, the Single-A Florida State League affiliate of the Atlanta Braves, opened the season Thursday and Friday in Daytona Beach at Jackie Robinson Stadium against the Daytona Tortugas, a Cincinnati Reds affiliate.
The Fire Frogs are also home Sunday at 11 a.m. before heading out on a week-long road trip, and will return home on April 17.
The high Class A talent pool from the Atlanta Braves coming to play here only had to make a short drive down Osceola Parkway from the Braves’ spring base at ESPN’s Wide World of Sports.
“Yeah, we saw guys getting sent to Mississippi (Double-A) or Gwinnett (Triple-A in Georgia) and talking about an eight-hour drive, and we were here in 20 minutes,” said pitcher Tucker Davidson, who was slated to get the start Friday in Daytona.
The starting pitching rotation, led by pitching coach Mike Maroth, a local who went to Orlando’s Boone High School and played at UCF before a big-league career mostly with the Detroit Tigers, comes en masse from the Rome Braves, Atlanta’s low-A team.
Jeremy Walker, Davidson, Bryse Wilson (today’s projected starter), Joey Wentz and Ian Anderson make up that group, with most beginning their second full season in pro baseball after coming out of the 2016 Draft.
Davidson said he and his teammates just want to build on what they learned last year, the longest season they’d ever played based on the number of games, as they take tips from the coaching staff led by Manaer Luis Salazar.
“Obviously you want to win every day,” Davidson said. “It’s a grind, but in the end we’re just trying to get better every day.
“Mike has been great to work with so far. He’s been through the grind before, and we’re learning a lot from him.”
Anderson, who will turn 20 in a couple weeks, was 4-5 with a 3.14 ERA last year, and said it was tough to struggle through July and August last year in Rome.
“But you have to learn how to struggle, they want us to figure it out for ourselves. The players obviously get better as you go up, so you have to be more prepared,” he said.
Marcus Mooney, an infielder also coming in from Rome, said he already knows Salazar will be a great influence on his career.
“He’s seemed great in the short time we’ve gotten to know him,” he said. “He’s hard-nosed, and knows what it’s like to play pro ball and make it your life’s work.”
Braxton Davidson, Atlanta’s first-round draft pick in 2014, returns to play for the Fire Frogs. The team’s everyday left fielder in 2017 will return to his natural position, first base, this year after hitting .213 in 111 games last year.
“Last year I was stressing on getting to the next level instead of taking it day-by-day. I’m a whole lot more confident that I was last Opening Day, I had a great spring. And I like Luis. He has three rules: play hard, be on time and know the signs. I feel ready to just take this year one game at a time and let the rest take care of itself.”
The Fire Frogs’ Opening Day roster features seven of the Braves’ Top 30 prospects, including Anderson (No. 5), outfielder Cristian Pache (9), Wentz (10), Wilson (13), Davidson (23) and catcher Brett Cumberland (24) and outfielder Anfernee Seymour (25) who return to Florida.
Florida’s roster includes 13 players that were on the Fire Frogs roster at any point in 2017. They include relievers Mauricio Cabrera, Sean McLaughlin, Chad Sobotka and Devan Watts, and lefty Drew Harrington on the mound.
Returning at the dish will be Cumberland, infielders Davidson, Ray-Patrick Didder, Omar Obregon and Alejandro Salazar, and outfielders Justin Ellison and Seymour.
Five foreign countries are represented, including the Dominican Republic (Cabrera and Matos), Australia (left-handed pitcher Jon Kennedy), Aruba (Didder), Nicaragua (Obregon) and Venezuela (Salazar).
Ken Carson, president the Florida State League, will be in attendance today to support the Fire Frogs’ new in-house leadership group, led by Director of Operations Erik Anderson, the former facility manager at Osceola County Stadium.
“I’m impressed with all the new staff and what’s in place, this is a strong affiliate with a strong organization,” he said last week. “They have a strong working agreement with the Braves who, next to the Cubs, can call themselves America’s Team. The team is near the top of the player development standings of all the clubs, so fans will get to see the stars of tomorrow coming to a game here.”
Time will tell if there’s a Ronald Acuna on this current roster. Acuna was Florida’s Opening Day center fielder and played in all three advanced minor-league levels, hitting .325 with 21 home runs, 88 runs and 82 RBIs and played in the Futures Game as part of All-Star weekend. He spent this spring training with the major-league club and despite hitting .432 during spring training was assigned to the Triple-A Gwinnett Stripers and is now Major League Baseball’s No. 1 rated prospect heading into the 2018 season.