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Suns unveil new look across board

April 02, 2013|By BOB PARASILITI | bobp@herald-mail.com

HAGERSTOWN — These aren’t your father’s Hagerstown Suns.

They aren’t even your infant brother’s Suns.

Heck, they aren’t even close to last season’s version of the team.

The 2013 version of the Suns is about as brand new — from the roster down to the uniform — and fresh faced as can be as they prepare to start the franchise’s 34th season with Thursday’s season opener at Delmarva.

“This is a whole new group to this level,” said Suns manager Tripp Keister, who is also new to the South Atlantic League. “This group isn’t the same as last year’s team. It’s not the same makeup.”

Keister, who replaces Brian Daubach after his two-year stint with the Suns, has a team made up almost entirely of the next wave of Washington Nationals prospects.

Gone are practically all the holdovers from the 2012 team that won the Northern Division’s second-half title. Gone are Matt Skole and Nathan Karns, who were voted the organization’s player and pitcher or the year. Gone are the black-and-orange trimmed uniforms, replaced by Nationals red and blue.

In fact, the roster is dotted with just two position players and a handful of pitchers who played portions of last season at Municipal Stadium.

But a new season means new players and a new identity need to be established.

“We’ve been in spring training for what seems like since New Year’s Eve,” said Keister. “The guys are ready — the staff is ready — to get started. We’ve got a lot of excitement in the locker room. The whole group was in Auburn (of the New York-Penn League) last year, with the exception of (catcher Pedro) Severino and (outfielder J.R.) Higley. There is a lot of continuity.”

But it is a big step for this team as it moves from a half-season league to its first full-season adventure. It is a group with interesting contrasts to last season’s home-run happy, strong-pitching team.

“Our offense has a good mix of power and speed,” Keister said. “I’m excited to watch these guys develop.”

Hagerstown has six of Washington’s top 10 selections from the 2012 draft and another Harper. Bryan Harper, Bryce Harper’s older brother, is a member of Hagerstown’s pitching staff.

Tony Renda was Washington’s second-round pick and will be the Suns’ second baseman and leadoff hitter. He will be matched with Stephen Perez at shortstop, the Nats’ eighth-round pick, and will have Higley starting in center field.

“Renda is smooth at second and Perez is a good, strong shortstop who got hurt last season and didn’t get to play enough. With Higley in center, we are very strong up the middle.”

Hagerstown will pick up a lot of its power from the outfield with Estarlin Martinez, Brandon Miller and Wander Ramos sharing duties in the field and at designated hitter. Miller was selected in the fourth round after leading the nation with 23 home runs last year at Samford, while Ramos hit seven in 67 games at Auburn.

Two players who could become important pieces for the Suns are third baseman Matt McQuillan and utilityman Khayyan Norfork. Both find ways to get on base, as Norfork proved when he was promoted to Hagerstown to end last season.

“McQuillan has hit everywhere he’s been,” Keister said. “Norfork injured his ankle last year and we didn’t see him play healthy. He’s an exciting player who can play all over when he is healthy.”

The key to Hagerstown’s success, especially early in the season, will come from pitching.

Left-hander Brett Mooneyham, who will start the Suns’ third game in Delmarva, was the Nationals’ third-round pick, while right-hander Dixon Anderson, who was selected in the ninth round in 2011, will get the opening-day start on Thursday against the Shorebirds.

Harper will be the only left-hander in the bullpen. The Suns will have some experience in relief with Brian Dupra, Pedro Encarnacion, Travis Henke and Brian Rauh all returning after stints with the Suns last season.

“We aren’t worried about roles or matchups early,” Keister said. “We want the pitchers to stretch out and build pitch counts up. Everyone is going to get a chance to get out and work. We want guys to come out and get their work done.”

The Suns will be an interesting work in progress this season.

On one side, it will be a young team with the majority of the members learning to play longer.

“We will be strong with our pitching early and then the position players will come on once they get their feet under them,” Keister said. “The goal is to get them to play every night with consistency.

“That’s a big deal to get into a routine. It’s not 50 games anymore. In baseball, it’s a strength to play every day, where you can build up your numbers and then learn to put them behind you to get ready for the next game.”

That might be the thing that the Suns have down from the start.

“This group might not have the same production as last year’s,” Keister said. “They come to play every day and they want to win everything — games or just our drills. They are gamers who get after it.”

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